About The Theremin

Despite its relative antiquity, the musical instrument known as the theremin continues to delight spectators just as it did in the 1920s. There are two distinct attributes that make the theremin fascinating; it is one of the earliest instruments to use electronic devices to produce musical sounds, and it is played without the musician touching the instrument.

While working at the Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia (also known as Petrograd after the outbreak of World War I, and then as Leningrad in 1924), Lev Sergeivitch Termen (1896-1993) invented his instrument in conjunction with research in the dielectric properties of gases. In his studies, Theremin noticed that a wave, produced in a radio-frequency oscillatory circuit, could be made to vary in frequency according to the capacitance between the body and the circuit. By combining the varying-frequency wave with a fixed-frequency wave in a process known as "heterodyning," he produced an audible tone that could be varied with hand positions. Theremin, a trained cellist, realized the musical potential for this discovery, and proceeded to commercially develop a version of the apparatus that today bears the self-anglicized version of his name, "theremin."

In their usual form, theremins have two physical extensions called antennas. One of them, the pitch antenna, is used to control the frequency of the instrument's tone, and the other, the volume antenna, is used to control the loudness of the tone.

With dictator Vladimir Lenin's approval, Theremin toured the Soviet Union, France, and Germany to popularize his invention, and then resided in the United States from 1927 to 1938, where he further developed his technology among the company of notables such as orchestral Composer Leopold Stokowski. Officially, Theremin's work on his musical instruments in the United States was a subterfuge; his clandestine mission was to extract trade secrets of western technology under the auspices of the Soviet trade organization known as "Amtorg."

Theremin obtained a U.S. patent for his instrument (number 1,661,058) in February, 1928. The first United States production of the theremin was licensed to the Radiola Division of the Radio-Victor Corporation of America (RCA), which manufactured a vacuum-tube theremin known as the AR-1264. Several of these vintage instruments still exist today, and are eagerly-sought collectors' items.

While in the United States, Theremin also became acquainted with Clara Rockmore (nee Reisenberg, 1910-1998), a Lithuanian-born concert violinist who adopted Theremin's invention, becoming what many consider the century's greatest virtuosa of the theremin. Clara Rockmore concertized with her sister, world-renowned pianist Nadia Reisenberg (1905-1983), and, on occasion, theatrical performer Paul Robeson (1898-1976).

Although Theremin's initial endeavors toward the commercialization of his invention showed great promise, the deployment of the RCA model was not a commercial success, partly due to the economic depression that ensued in the United States in late 1929, and partly because the instrument proved to be extremely difficult to master. Falling deeply in debt, Theremin went back to the Soviet Union in 1938, where he was initially imprisoned in Stalin's dreaded gulags, and then forced to dedicate many years researching electronic technologies under the direction of the Soviet Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennich Del (NKVD), later known as the Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti (KGB). Having lost the prestige and freedom he once enjoyed during the Lenin era, he was confined to labor camp laboratories, under tight security. During this long period, much of Theremin's work was in the development of electronic eavesdropping. Almost completely forgotten in the scientific and music communities, Theremin returned to the United States in 1991 under the auspices of a film director who documented his life and inventions.

Over the years, theremins have been applied to many different genres of music, ranging from early works such as Joseph Schillinger's "Melody" (1929) and Percy Grainger's "Free Music Number One" (1936), to more recent compositions such as Jorge Antunes "Mixolydia" (1995). The theremin has also been used by popular entertainers such as "Led Zeppelin," "The Bonzo Dog Band," "Kraftwerk," "Lothar and the Hand People" and "Portishead." "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "The Lost Weekend," "Mars Attacks," and "Ed Wood" are among motion pictures that include the theremin in their soundtracks. Implementations of Lev Theremin's original designs are presently produced commercially in several forms, ever capable of adding a unique vitality to modern musical composition.

Arthur Harrison
30 April 2000

Updated 9 May 2003

©2000, 2003 by Arthur Harrison

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