Which Came First? Ondes or Theremin?

Posted: 2/20/2013 12:31:35 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

The Bob Moog Foundation's, MARC DOTY, has posted a video to YouTube in which he states that French inventor Maurice Martenot met Leon Theremin, was inspired by him, and because of that he went on to invent the ondes martenot.





This is wrong.


The theremin and the ondes were invented entirely independently of one another, and Lev Termen and Maurice Martenot did not meet until a brief encounter in 1927 when Lev was in Paris introducing his instrument to the French public. By that time, the first generation ondes had already been built and it was introduced just a few months later on the same stage where the theremin had been demonstrated.


The interesting question is: which instrument was invented first? The ondes or the theremin?


There is good reason to believe that the ondes was conceived before the theremin because Maurice Martenot was publicly demonstrating the heterodyne phenomenon to his fellow soldiers in the French army prior to the end of World War One (1914 - 1918). Martenot was a radio operator, and he would amuse the troops in his spare time by playing tunes "gesturally" using his radio equipment, and would broadcast the melodies from the loudspeaker on the truck (le petit camion gris) that carried his mobile wireless equipment. 


Martenot's biographer, Jean Laurendeau (MAURICE MARTENOT: LUTHIER DE L'ELECTRONIQUE) says the sound was compared by some who heard it to a wailing chihuahua, so the "instrument" was dubbed "the Mexican dog" (le chien méxicain). We are told that Martenot played simple, familiar melodies like AU CLAIR DE LA LUNE. 


Lev Termen, according to his biographer Albert Glinsky, did not begin experimenting with the possibilities afforded by Lee De Forest's audion tubes until sometime around 1920 when Lev went to work for Abram Ioffe at the Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg. This means that the concept of making music using the heterodyne principle was first explored by Martenot as much as two years before Lev Termen had the same idea. It also seems that the discovery of the heterodyne phenomenon itself was serendipitous on the part of both Martenot and Termen, and neither would have discovered it at all had it not been for De Forest's invention of 1906. 


Martenot and Termen met again in America in the 1930's, and great hopes were entertained for their collaboration and the future of music, but nothing ever came of their encounters.


The fact is, Martenot did not believe that the theremin was viable as a musical instrument because it was too limited in regard to what it could do, and much too difficult to control with accuracy and precision. The first generation ondes was very theremin-like, but Martenot abandoned the concept and went on to devise an instrument similar to the so-called "tannerin" of the late Paul Tanner. Following that, he added a floating keyboard to the instrument and a toggle that allowed the player to switch easily from "ribbon control" to "keyboard control". 


Unfortunately, the instrument was doomed by the great expense of manufacturing. When Martenot died in 1980, he left the business to his sons who promptly went bankrupt!


Efforts have been made to revive the ondes but it has been an uphill battle because of the availability of a wide variety of highly versatile modern synthesizers and ribbon control devices. 

Posted: 2/20/2013 1:07:46 PM

From: In between the Pitch and Volume hand ~ New England

Joined: 12/17/2010

Seems like an awesome instrument, but it doesn't matter how many times I listen to the Ondes Martenot, I just do not enjoy its sound. 

Posted: 2/20/2013 3:20:24 PM

From: Northern NJ, USA

Joined: 2/17/2012

Wow, fascinating history coalport!

"... the sound was compared by some who heard it to a wailing chihuahua, so the "instrument" was dubbed "the Mexican dog"


"Seems like an awesome instrument, but it doesn't matter how many times I listen to the Ondes Martenot, I just do not enjoy its sound."  - Amethyste

When they tart it up using the external metallic speaker and pseuo spring reverb it can sound pretty engaging IMO.

The Electronic Sackbut is very similar to the Ondes, both have keys and a sliding mechanism and are monophonic.  The Sackbut can generate strings, trombone, clarinet, etc. timbres, and the controller seems expressive enough to facilitate almost nailing the instruments it's mimicking.  There are keys, a sliding mechanism, and a vibrato mechanism, and I believe all are always active.


Listen to track samples 18 thru 26.  Hugh LeCaine has the nerdiest voice, and when he's cracking a joke (track 23) it comes across extra deadpan.

Posted: 2/20/2013 9:55:24 PM

From: portland

Joined: 11/30/2011

But didnt Lev meet with Lenin and demonstrated a playable instrument in 1921? So went from idea, while working on other work, to finished playable instrument in a year? During a civil war?    Guess thats not unreasonable, but I assumed it took longer.  

Posted: 2/21/2013 5:58:28 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

We don't really know exactly how long it took Lev Sergeievitch to go from concept to a working prototype. 

I believe he probably started thinking about the whole question sometime right after or around the end of the First World War - 1918. Maurice Martenot, on the other hand, was publicly demonstrating the heterodyne phenomenon before the end of the war when the troops were still in the field. 

Those demonstrations were not serious. They were a good natured musical joke, but they planted a seed in Martenot's imagination. 

The impression I got from Marc Doty's YT video was that he believed Martenot saw Lev Termen at the Paris Opera in the fall of 1927, talked with him, was appropriately inspired, and promptly went home and threw together his first generation ondes (le jeu à distance). That is not the way it happened.

Martenot had nothing like Termen's electronic genius. He was a professional cello player with engineering aspirations. Lev Termen, on the other hand, was an engineer with cello-playing aspirations.

There is no doubt that Lev Termen's sudden arrival in Paris forced Martenot to speed up his schedule and present his instrument as soon as possible (something a number of French musicians had been urging him to do for months) but he did not feel that his instrument was ready. Just to complicate things, Martenot's wife Renée kept having babies and that slowed things down as well!

Ah....the French!   LOL


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