Published March 23, 2010
Perhaps you never heard the term “theremin,” but you may have heard the instrument by that name. The theremin accompanied robots and flying saucers in science fiction films of the 1950s, most notably in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” But well before the electronic instrument gained renown of sorts lending atmosphere to UFO invasions, it had found a champion in a musical prodigy from Russia.
Clara Rockmore was born Clara Reisenberg in Russia, the youngest of three musical sisters. She was a child prodigy “with absolute pitch and an uncanny sense of music,” writes Robert Moog in the liner notes to a CD Rockmore recorded in 1987. She was admitted at age 5 to the Imperial Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg and at age 9 toured Europe with her sister Nadia Reisenberg.
The same year Rockmore arrived in the United States, after successful tours of Europe, another Russian arrived with a new musical instrument that depended for its sound on electronics when tubes were in their infancy. Lev Sergeivitch Termen, a young Russian physicist, came to the U.S. in 1927 and anglicized his name to Leon Theremin. He developed the aetherphon, or thereminvox, while a student at the University of Petrograd. He gave concert demonstrations in Europe, and the first composer to write for the theremin was A.F. Paschtschenko, who wrote “A Symphonic Mystery,” premiered in May 1924 by the Leningrad Philharmonic. Theremin embarked on a European tour in 1927 and arrived in New York City in December 1927, news of the aetherphon having preceded him.
The theremin is housed in a wooden cabinet about 18 inches wide and a foot deep; with legs it stands about 31/2 feet high. The front is slanted to form a music stand, a vertical pitch antenna rod is located in the upper right hand corner of the cabinet, and a tubular loop for controlling volume emerges from the cabinet’s left-hand side. Tuning knobs and control switches are located on the lower part of the front of the cabinet. The range is two octaves from below middle C to 21/2 octaves above middle C. Theremin licensed RCA (Radio Corporation of America) in September 1929 to manufacture the thereminvox. The instrument was solidly built but hard to play and after 200 or so were built was discontinued.
To play the theremin, the performer stands in front of the instrument, a little left of center. She varies the distance between the right hand and pitch antenna to control pitch, and to control volume she varies the distance between her left hand and the middle of the volume antenna. She must exert firm control over her body and head motions, and the ability to stand motionless is essential. She plays with no tactile reference, unlike a string musician who places fingers on fingerboard or a wind player who pushes keys.
Rockmore had the talents to play the theremin and gave her first solo concert at New York’s Town Hall on Oct. 30, 1934, accompanied by sister Nadia, a well known concert pianist who recorded extensively, on an instrument made to her specification by Theremin. She toured widely over the next 20 years, including three coast-to-coast tours. She spent several years collaborating with Theremin, during which time he developed the instrument into a sensitive, wide-ranging instrument. She embarked on a performance career that included more than 100 concerts, including appearances with major symphony orchestras.
I discovered the theremin thanks to a former Review worker, who gave me the CD “The Art of the Theremin,” recorded on Delos International by Rockmore and Reisenberg, with liner notes by Robert Moog, the engineer for the recording, from which I drew information for this article. I hesitated for years to listen to the CD, but one evening when my brother-in-law and nephew were visiting I played it, knowing my brother-in-law, who appreciates the oddities of life, would like the music. I was surprised at how well I liked the CD. The music is a mix of 19th-century and 20th-century classical pieces, all slow, some somber, and the instrument sounds like a human voice making music without words, Rockmore playing with deep emotion and sensitivity. Some writers compare it to the violin, but, being a violin player, I don’t hear it. But I like it, because in the hands of a master it touches the soul in the tradition of conventional instruments.