In 1917, the Russian cellist and physicist Lev Termen invented an electric musical instrument, which he called ‘aetherophone’. This instrument would later be known worldwide as the ‘Theremin’ or ‘Theremin vox’ (voice of Theremin).During a tour of Russia with his novel invention, Termen caught the attention of Joseph Stalin, who ordered him to perform a demonstration and later on teach Stalin himself to play the Theremin. Eventually, Termen was asked to extend his tour to Europe, where he was a big success.
In 1927 Termen set off for the United States, where he went on performing demonstrations. Furthermore he performed one of the first original works for Theremin and orchestra, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic: ‘First Airphonic Suite’ by Joseph Schillinger. After Termen had patented his invention, RCA started producing the ‘RCA Theremin’. A promotional campaign was launched, claiming that playing the Theremin was as easy as whistling. This however proved to be a bold assumption: playing the Theremin requires as much practise as any other musical instrument.
Nevertheless talented musicians like Lucy Bigelow-Rosen and Clara Rockmore proved that a Theremin could be played at a professional level. Being very wealthy Rosen was able to provide Termen with a home and sufficient funding for the development of his inventions. She also ordered several composers to write original pieces for Theremin. It was Clara Rockmore who managed to rise to fame as the true Theremin virtuoso, due to her musical talent and experience as a concert violinist. Several videos of Rockmore performing are available on YouTube. > >
To this day, the one aspect the Theremin has been known for is the use in science fiction movies in the fifties and sixties. Hollywood’s movie industry restricted the use of the instrument to eerie, spooky sound effects and stressing the psychotic aspect of movie characters. Despite the efforts of musicians like Rockmore and Rosen, the Theremin has only been accepted as a ‘serious’ musical instrument by a very limited audience. Even in the extensive amount of movie soundtracks, the Theremin has only been used as a regular instrument in movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spellbound.
After the sixties, the Theremin lapsed into oblivion, only occasionally being used in films and pop music. The documentary Theremin, an Electric Space Odyssey (1994) caused a new surge of publicity for the instrument. Contemporary composers like Lera Auerbach have started using the Theremin in their works. The movie industry has also caught up with the old habit of using Theremin in soundtracks (Danny Elfman, Howard Shore).
Nowadays there is a number of professional Theremin players, like Pamelia Kurstin (US), Caroline Eyck (Germany) and Lydia Kavina (Russia). Kavina is also a composer: she has composed several original pieces for Theremin, including a concerto for Theremin and orchestra titled ‘Seasons of the Year’.
Since its invention several composers have written for the Theremin, using different ensembles. The first piece, ‘A Symphonic Mystery’ by Paschtschenko, was performed in 1924 by the symphony orchestra of Leningrad, featuring Lev Termen himself as a soloist. Other composers who have contributed to the Theremin repertoire ar Shostakovich, Popov, Martinů, Grainger, Copland, Ives, Varèse and Hovhaness.
Solo concertino’s for Theremin and orchestra have been composed by Fuleihan, Browning, Berezowsky, Takács and Schillinger.