CLARA ROCKMORE

 

 

There are all sorts of sources where you can find out everything you ever wanted to know about the great virtuoso thereminist of the 20th century, CLARA ROCKMORE. What I really wanted to do here, is show you some photos that you have perhaps not seen before. Clara Rockmore was born “Clara Reisenberg” in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1911. It was evident from a very early age that she was extremely talented and had a natural gift for performing. The photo above shows little Clara (standing in front, just left of center stage) performing in a fairy tale play at the CHILDREN'S THEATER in Berlin, Germany, sometime around 1919. Clara herself said once in an interview that when she was a child, she looked “like a doll”.

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I am not absolutely certain that the girl in the above photo is Clara Reisenberg, nor do I know exactly what the Russian writing says. This photo, however, definitely came from Mrs. Rockmore and is still in the archive, now the property of The University of Maryland.

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The Reisenberg family emigrated to the United States in 1921 and settled in New York City. This is Clara's class picture taken in New York sometime around 1923. By this time, Clara was an accomplished young violinist but as it turned out, she eventually had to abandon the instrument because of chronic problems with her bowing arm, and she took up the theremin. Later in her life she said that Leon Theremin saved her "musical sanity" by introducing her to the theremin. Clara is in the second row from the front, seated on the far left.

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This is the front page from a concert program for a recital at New York City's TOWN HALL in 1938. It is easy to understand why Leon Theremin, the inventor of the instrument that bears his name, was deeply in love with Clara. Apart from being brilliantly talented as a musician and thereminist, she was strikingly beautiful. According to Clara, Leon Theremin proposed to her several times but she refused his offers of marriage. This was perhaps fortunate. We now know that his private life at that time was a complicated affair. The extraordinary details of his connections to the Russian KGB are most interestingly revealed in Albert Glinsky's excellent biography THEREMIN, ETHER MUSIC AND ESPIONAGE (published by the University of Illinois Press).

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The article above is from THE CAMDEN HERALD in Camden, Maine, Thursday, Sept. 3, 1936. Clara frequently astounded critics with her theremin artistry because, by the late 1930's, many people had heard the theremin (played by thereminists other than Clara Rockmore) and had come to rather negative conclusions about what was possible on the instrument. There were a number of actively concertizing thereminists at that time whose enthusiasm for the instrument greatly exceeded their ability to play it. It is ironic that many of these touring thereminists did more to hinder than to encourage public acceptance of the instrument they loved. Several critics admitted openly that, after attending recitals by Clara Rockmore, they had changed their minds about the potential of the theremin.

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Clara Rockmore was a pioneer in electronic music. She died in the spring of 1998 leaving a small but important legacy of her recordings which include THE ART OF THE THEREMIN (produced by Robert Moog in 1977) a stunning, live, 1945 performance of the CONCERTO FOR THEREMIN AND ORCHESTRA written specially for Clara by the American composer Anis Fuleihan (with the orchestra under the direction of the great Leopold Stokowski). Both these recordings have been reissued on CD. Two other recordings have been released since her death: MUSIC IN AN ON THE AIR and CLARA ROCKMORE'S LOST THEREMIN ALBUM.

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CLARA ROCKMORE'S CUSTOM THEREMIN

 

 

In the mid 1930's, Leon Theremin built three custom instruments that we know of: two for his patroness Lucie Bigelow Rosen, and another similar one for Clara Rockmore. These instruments were more elaborate than the RCA theremins and had, among other things, ten different timbre settings. Thereminist Howard Mossman, who has been a tireless supporter and promoter of the theremin for longer than most of us have been alive, has generously opened his personal archive and allowed me to use these rare photos of the inside of Clara Rockmore's instrument. Experts who have examined the circuitry of this theremin agree that it has all the elegance and simplicity of design that one would expect from a genius like Leon Theremin.

 

 

Both Clara's instrument and the one built for Lucie Rosen were equipped with a small light that would glow whenever the thereminist played an A. In this way, the theremin could give a band or orchestra an accurate note from which to tune. You will notice there is a door in the front of this instrument (with what appears to be a string attached to the small knob that opens it). This is for access to the front compartment where the tubes and other vital components are housed. The rear compartment was reserved primarily for the coils.

 

THE REAR COMPARTMENT

 

 

It is my understanding, based on comments made regarding Clara's theremin by the late Robert Moog, that the wheel that can be seen on the outside of the cabinet just below the volume antenna was the timbre control. Clara Rockmore had one particular setting that she preferred and did not use the others.

 

 

 

Unlike the RCA theremins, these custom instruments had a separate front access compartment for the radion tubes. There is a wooden panel separating the front and rear compartments and many of the coils, condensers and other parts have been meticulously fixed with small brass screws to this panel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE FRONT COMPARTMENT

 

 

These last three photos are details of the front compartment where the tubes were housed. There is a power transformer bolted to the floor of the left hand side (volume antenna side) of this compartment, and the tube sockets are in the vertical panel (or back wall) which separates the front and rear of the instrument. In the lower right corner of the photo above you can see the UY 224 radion tube with its distinctive cap clip.

 

 

The photo above is a detail of the right hand side of the front compartment (the pitch antenna side) showing two clearly visible modern D batteries. It is probable that these batteries, along with other obviously recent parts and wires, were added by Robert Moog during the course of his restoration and maintenance of this instrument in the early 1970's.

 

 

 

PAUL ROBESON

&

CLARA ROCKMORE

CONCERT PROGRAM SATURDAY EVENING

VANCOUVER, CANADA,

NOVEMBER 8, 1941

 

Clara counted among her dearest and closest friends, the great African American bass baritone, Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976). Clara called Paul (who spoke fluent Russian) “Pavlik” (“little Paul”) and he called Clara, “Clarochka”. Between 1940 and 1943, Clara and Paul performed dozens of concerts together, including one in Vancouver, Canada, in 1941. The concert program in the photos below, as far as anyone knows, is the only one in existence personally autographed by both the artists. Mr. Robeson signed the cover, and Clara Rockmore signed one of the inside pages.