THE THEREMIN

AND

THE ONDES MARTENOT

 

The theremin has a "sister instrument" whose construction was based on the same electronic, "heterodyne" principles as those used by Leon Theremin. Conceived and designed by the French cellist and inventor, Maurice Martenot 1898 - 1980 (shown in the photo above around 1929), he built his first instrument at roughly the same time as Leon Theremin was working on his own prototypes. He called his invention the "ondes Martenot" (pronounced like the English "owned Martin O." - which means the "Martenot waves" in French). There was no contact whatever between Maurice Martenot and Leon Theremin until they were introduced in New York City in 1930. Their inventions were totally independent of one another and, by 1930, both men had already introduced their respective instruments to the world.

 

I am indebted to Maurice Martenot's biographer, Jean Laurendeau, for many of the photos on this page. Mr. Laurendeau's excellent book MAURICE MARTENOT, LUTHIER DE L'ELECTRONIQUE (published by Dervy Livres) has unfortunately not been translated into English but it remains, nonetheless, an important and beautifully written work on the life and times of a true pioneer in electronic music. Mr. Laurendeau is not only a remarkable writer but he also happens to be an equally gifted ondes Martenot virtuoso. He has allowed me to include a short mp3 of his playing. It can be accessed at the end of this section.

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This is the poster that announced the introduction of the theremin to the Paris public in 1927. You will notice that the instrument is referred to as "les ondes éthérées" or "ether waves". At this time, Leon Theremin had not yet gone to America and no commercialization of the instrument (which would eventually be called the "theremin") had been undertaken. A few months following the presentation of the theremin at the Paris Opera, Maurice Martenot introduced his ondes Martenot on the very same stage.

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Here is Maurice Martenot, accompanied by his sister Ginette, on the stage of the Paris Opera, May 3, 1928 - only five months after the introduction of the theremin. At that time, he played the instrument "à distance" which means that he actually attached himself to it by means of a "ring" and a wire (which can clearly be seen in the above photo) and then stood back about 5 feet from the device. The wire or "ruban" is kept taught by a pulley mechanism that reels it in, and lets it out, as the ondiste moves his hand back and forth. Volume and tone are controlled by the left hand which rests on a small box of switches. The ondes Martenot, although its function is based on the same heterodyne principle as the theremin, is touched by the ondiste. The thereminist, on the other hand, never touches the theremin.

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Maurice Martenot was a cellist first, and an inventor second. Here he is pictured with some of the soldiers in his unit during World War One (around 1918). He can be seen at the right with his cello. At the time, young Martenot was a radio operator in the French military and was quite celebrated for playing tunes electronically on his radio equipment. Although it seems rather silly today, at the time nothing like it had ever been heard and it caused quite a stir. Because the sound he made on his radio resembled the human-like whining of a Chihuahua (a type of miniature Mexican dog), Maurice Martenot was nicknamed "le chien mexicain" (French for "the Mexican dog") by his fellow soldiers. To Martenot's own amusement, this name followed him for years after the war.

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Leon Theremin (above right) was an inventor first and a musician (cellist) second. He also served in the army during World War One as a uniformed member of the Red Army's Military Radiotechnical Division (photo 1918). It was the involvement of both Theremin and Martenot with radio technology that led each of these men to their amazing musical inventions.

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