Theremin, Leon (1896-1993), Russian electrical engineer and instrument-maker, famous for inventing the electronic instrument named after him. Born Lev Sergeivitch Termen on August 24, 1896, in St Petersburg, Theremin studied physics at the University of Petrograd, and the cello at the St Petersburg Conservatory. In 1919 he was appointed Director of the Laboratory of Electrical Oscillations in the Leningrad Technical Institute. His research there combined his interests in physics and music. In 1922 he first demonstrated the instrument, which he called the etherophone, to Lenin and the Politburo; Lenin ordered 600 to be made immediately. From the start Theremin intended his instrument to be taken up by serious musicians, and in 1924 the first symphonic work to use it, Andrei Pashchenko’s Symphonic Mystery, was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic, with Theremin as soloist. In 1927 he embarked on a European tour: in Paris the Opéra was sold out with standing room only in the boxes. He went on to the United States in 1928, where he created a sensation in New York. Theremin quickly patented his machine, calling it for the first time after himself, and set up a company to manufacture and market it, intending to settle in the country.
The instrument is unique in that the player does not touch it. It consists of a box with radio tubes producing oscillations whose pitch, ranging over six octaves, is determined by the distance of the player’s right hand from an upright antenna. The player’s left hand controls the volume in a similar way through a horizontal looped antenna. The resulting sound is a sweet-toned wail, but a variety of tone colours can be produced through the adjustment of a number of switches. Theremin also developed a keyboard instrument (with Henry Cowell) called the Rhythmicon, for the performance of complex rhythms; an electric cello; and the Terpsitone, a version of the theremin for dancers which is activated by the movement of the dancers’ bodies across the stage. A number of composers wrote for the theremin, including Edgard Varèse (Equatorial, 1934), and Joseph Schillinger (First Airphonic Suite, 1929). In 1945 Anis Fuleihan wrote a theremin concerto for Clara Rockmore, a concert violinist who took up the theremin and devoted her life to it, becoming its first virtuoso. Better known than these works, however, are the many film scores of the 1940s and 1950s that used the theremin to eerie effect, such as those for Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend (1945, by Miklos Rosza), Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945, also by Rosza), and Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, by Bernard Herrmann). In the early 1960s Robert Moog developed a modernized version of the instrument using transistors, and it was this instrument which in 1966 made a famous appearance in the chorus of the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations”.
Theremin invented many other devices during the 1930s, including a burglar alarm activated by breaking a beam and a crude colour television apparatus. It was probably these skills that led in 1938 to his being kidnapped from his apartment in New York by Soviet agents and smuggled back to the Soviet Union, where he was arrested and sent to the labour camps of the Kolyma region of Siberia. Eventually he was relocated to a scientific research labour camp, where he worked on surveillance projects such as telephone-tapping equipment, an electronic tracking system for ships, and a radio microphone bug widely used by the KGB in the following years. For this work he was awarded the Stalin Prize, First Class. He continued to work at the camp as a civilian from 1947 to 1964, when he was appointed to the Acoustic Research Department of the Moscow Conservatory, and in 1967 to the Physics Department of Moscow University, where he returned to making musical instruments. From 1987 he began to be rediscovered in the West, travelling to electronic music festivals featuring the theremin in Sweden, France, and the United States. He died in Moscow on November 3, 1993.