One morning in March 1921, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, later better known as Leon Theremin, and Bolshevik Commissar for Radio Akim Maximovich Nikolayev waited nervously in a meeting room at the back of the Kremlin. For two hours they sat, the curious Theremin gadgets humming softly, the men exchanging brief bursts of nervous conversation as the minutes ticked by agonizingly slowly.
Then footsteps in the hallway outside, a figure looming briefly in the frosted glass of the door, the handle turning, and Lenin bustling about the room. The Soviet leader apologized for keeping them waiting, waving their hands as party officials lined up behind him. Lenin sat down, crossed his legs and looked at the two men impatiently.
“So,” he said, “what kind of magic have you prepared for us?”
Theremin, throat dry, walked to his device: a wooden box from which a loop of wire protruded from one side while a thin brass rod stuck straight up. The 24-year-old raised his arms, paused for a moment, and started.
Seven years later, almost to the day, a packed Carnegie Hall in New York City erupted in expectant applause as Theremin took the stage, bowed, walked to his camera, raised his arms, paused a instant and began.
Neither the Soviet leader nor the great and good in downtown Manhattan had ever heard of such a thing.
The theremin, like many important scientific advances, happened by accident. Five months before his meeting with Lenin, Leon Theremin was just another physicist at the Technical Institute of Physics in Petrograd. Although clearly gifted, his colleagues saw him as a dreamer lacking the rigid scientific mind needed to progress.
While designing equipment to measure the density of gases one autumn afternoon in 1920, Theremin noticed how connecting audio circuits to an oscillator in a particular way triggered an audible tone whenever it placed his hand nearby.
Where others might have dismissed this as a trivial tangent to real research, Theremin was curious enough to investigate what sounded like a cross between the voice of a soprano and a violin, noting that it could change his pitch by moving his hand and creating tunes.
“I realized there was a gap between the music itself and its mechanical production, and I wanted to unite them both,” the trained cellist recalled in 1989. “What interested me was c was to advance the music, to create more musical resources, I was not satisfied with the existing mechanical instruments.
His superior agreed, and after producing a specially designed machine he called “etherphone,” news of the remarkable device reached the top of the Kremlin.
Lenin, eager to advance the electrification of the Soviet Union, was sufficiently impressed with the etherphone and the inventor to send Theremin on a publicity tour of the USSR touting the benefits of electricity. A few years later, Theremin was granted permission to demonstrate the device in Western Europe.
A tour of Germany caused a sensation, tickets for a performance at the Paris Opera were in such demand that they sold out standing room for the first time in the boxes, and in December 1927 the Theremin filled London’s Albert Hall . By the time it reached Carnegie Hall in the spring of 1928, fame for the world’s first electronic musical instrument, parent of the modern synthesizer, had spread worldwide.
Audiences were stunned by the otherworldly sound produced by Theremin, as if evoking melodies in the air. There were gasps as his hands moved gracefully over and around the instrument, touching nothing but making beautiful music with nothing more than a graceful movement. As the world still adjusts to the miracle of radio, where voices and music miles away could be heard at home, watching a man coax Saint-Saëns The Swan seemingly out of nowhere seemed practically supernatural.
Renamed theremin after its creator, the device became one of the sounds of the 20th century, heard everywhere from The day the earth stood still at good vibes at scooby-doo.
Theremin himself stayed in the United States for a decade to conduct pioneering research – he also designed an early drum machine called a rhythmicon and a complete theremin called a terpsitone that responded to dance moves – and engaged in the industrial espionage for the Soviets.
By 1929, RCA had paid $100,000 for the rights to commercially produce theremins, allowing its inventor to develop a close relationship with the company and cementing a reputation that provided access to a range of American technology, from machines to aviation wash.
In 1938, Theremin married a black ballerina 20 years his junior, named Lavinia Williams – a brave step in 1930s USA. Indeed, the couple soon found white friends who abandoned them and Theremin’s backers began applying for loans, adding to his already precarious financial situation (the RCA deal had gone straight to Soviet coffers).
After extending his “temporary” visa for up to a decade, not to mention never mastering English, a return to the USSR seemed increasingly attractive until on September 15, 1938, he boarded the Stary Bolshevik in New Jersey – without his wife, whose visa application was denied a day before departure – and sailed home. He never saw Lavinia again.
The return of Theremin came at the height of Stalin’s purges. Naively, he believed that his service back home in the United States protected him from persecution until March 1939, when he was arrested on trumped-up espionage charges. Sent to the gulags, Theremin was put to work in a camp laboratory where he designed a range of listening devices that revitalized Soviet espionage, including a bug hidden inside a sculpted replica of the Great Seal of the United States presented to the American Ambassador. in Moscow, which for seven years relayed American secrets to Russian eavesdroppers.
Rehabilitated after Stalin’s death in 1956, Theremin worked at the Moscow Conservatory of Music where, in 1967, a year after the Beach Boys good vibes used the theremin to create a worldwide hit, he was recognized by a New York Times journalist on an official visit, the first confirmation outside the USSR since 1938 that Theremin was still alive.
The profile and interview that followed, describing the sound of the theremin as “a cello lost in a thick fog crying because it didn’t know how to get home”, led to the inventor’s dismissal from the conservatory and the destruction of his equipment when he revealed more about his research than authorities would have liked.
“Electricity is not good for music”, he was told as his instruments were broken, just as, across the Atlantic, Robert Moog relied on the pioneering work of Theremin to produce the commercial synthesizers that would revolutionize popular music around the world.
Unsubdued by a life of setbacks, the nonagenarian Theremin traveled to the United States one last time in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunited with his old friend and theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, with whom he toured regularly in the 1930s.
“Isn’t it nice that we can see each other in our old age?” said Rockmore.
“What old age? smiled Theremin.