The Theremin Part 1: From the Beginning to 1970
My Book/eBook: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.
I realized looking back at my podcast episodes that I've never taken a focused look at the history and recordings of the Theremin. I’m devoting this episode and the next to making up for that. And while I’ve written extensively in my book about the Theremin—its inventor Leon Theremin, famous players such as Clara Rockmore, Lucie Rosen, and Samuel F. Hoffman and its technological evolution over the last century, except for a few appearances within other contexts of electronic music, I have never produced a program that was devoted to this important, gesture-controlled instrument that in so many ways marked the beginning of electronic music. With these two episodes I will provide listeners with some aural context for how the instrument expanded its influence in all kinds of music, from classical to movie soundtracks to good old rock music as well as experimental artists.
This podcast is not intended as a thorough history of the Theremin itself. There are many excellent resources that provide that, including my own book on the history of electronic music, the Bob Moog Foundation website, Albert Glinsky’s wonderful book about Leon Theremin, and the entire Theremin World website that is devoted to everything Theremin. I urgently suggest that you consult those resources for more detail on the actual history of the instrument and the people behind it.
What I intend to do, however, is feature a selectively historic retrospective of original Theremin recordings from my archive and trace the instruments that were used to make them. In Part 1, I will cover the era of the Leon Theremin instrument from 1930 to the mid-1960s and the beginning of the Moog Theremin era from around 1960 to 1970. Part 2 will feature recordings of the Theremin from 1970 to the present, mostly using instruments designed by Bob Moog.
The Theremin is difficult to play with precision and consistency and requires much practice. One has to literally learn to pluck a series of notes out of thin air with great accuracy. There was little room for error. The most revered Thereminist of all time is pioneer Clara Rockmore who knew the inventor and made the rounds of classical music recitals playing conventional music on this unconventional instrument. Her selections frequently included adaptations of string parts from works by Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns (SAN sauns), Stravinsky, Ravel, and Tchaikovsky. She once likened playing the Theremin to playing an entire string concerto on only one string. Rockmore is lovingly remembered as the greatest master of the instrument, and fortunately some audio recordings survive of her work. We will hear some recordings of Rockmore that were produced by Bob and Shirleigh Moog in 1977. Even though I am going to arrange the playlist in chronological order, from 1930 to 1970, I will include two of these 1977 Rockmore recordings during my 1930s sequence because these works really represent work using Leon Theremin’s original instrument. Otherwise, all of the recordings are played in chronological order.
Back in the day, while Clara Rockmore was responsible for greatly advancing the artistry of Theremin performance, we can thank one of her contemporaries for expanding the original repertoire of the instrument into new musical territory. Lucie Bigelow Rosen (1890–1968), wife of prominent lawyer, banker, and art patron Walter Rosen, befriended Theremin around 1930. Theremin hand-built two instruments for her, and she took lessons from him. Under his tutelage, she joined Clara Rockmore as one of the most skilled Thereminists ever to play the original instrument. She performed many concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I have a special place in my heart for the work of Rosen and for many years I provided educational programs about her work at her estate in Katonah, New York.
Rosen was interested in exploring the new musical possibilities of the Theremin. She commissioned several prominent composers, including Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959) and Isidor Achron (1892–1948), to write original works for her. These pieces explored the outer ranges of the Theremin’s pitches, dynamics, and timbres. Martinů’s work, the Fantasia for Theremin, Oboe, Piano and Strings (1944)—which Rosen premiered in 1945—used the composer’s characteristically long melodic lines and blended and contrasted the tonalities of the Theremin with the strings and oboe. The 15-minute piece is beyond the skills of the average thereminist, which is a tribute to Lucie Rosen’s virtuosity on the instrument. She premiered this work at Town Hall in New York in November 1945, along with a shorter work, Improvisation (1945) for piano and Theremin, by Achron. Rosen never made any professional recordings of her performances, leaving any documentary evidence of her skills at the Theremin strictly to the imagination, until recently. In 2002, while researching at the Rosen’s Caramoor estate, museum facility manager Bill Bullock mentioned to me that there were several old disc recordings in one of the storage areas. I was asked to ta take a look at them and to my surprise, and delight, this was a stack of privately-made recordings of Rosen playing the Theremin. There were 21 recordings on 78-rpm discs that Lucie Rosen had privately made in New York during the 1940s. Most were shellac recordings and a few used a ready-made blank disc having a thin nitro-cellulose lacquer coating that was applied to an aluminum substrate. With Caramoor’s permission, I undertook the digital restoration of the recordings with the assistance of a recording engineer friend of mine. We carefully prepared and played each disc just once so as not to damage them, transferring the sound to a digital medium. The discs represent the only known recordings of Lucie Rosen playing the Theremin and appear to consist primarily of practice sessions and rehearsals. At least two of the discs contain orchestral music only, recorded presumably so that Rosen could practice her Theremin part in preparation for a concert. The Rosen recordings were all non-commercial and probably rehearsals. With material ranging from her rendition of the popular song Danny Boy to adapted short classics by Grieg, Bizet, and Tchaikovsky, the full extent of her skill is apparent. I’ve included two of these rehearsal tracks in this podcast. The most impressive is “Concerto in F” by Mortimer Browning, and displays Rosen’s most virtuosic Theremin techniques: a rapid series of notes played up and down the scale; sharp attacks; glissandi; and wide ranges in amplitude. This very same track was posted to YouTube by Thereminist Thorwald Jørgensen around 2010 with some added audio from an interview that Rosen did around that time. The other track is a popular song “The Old Refrain” by Fritz Kreisler. Both are from about 1940. Later on, in keeping with the chronological ordering of this episode, you will also hear Rosen only known commercial recording of the Theremin: a swing number called Gigolette (1948) by Elliot Lawrence and his Orchestra. Rosen is unaccredited, but publicity materials from the time feature photos of Lucie Rosen and Elliot Lawrence discussing and collaborating on the recording.
Lucie Bigelow Rosen did much to advance the art of Theremin playing. She was among the first people to commission works solely for the instrument and through her frequent concertizing continued to keep the art of the Theremin alive into the 1940s. Among the treasures in Rosen’s archive of Theremin scores is a unique transcription of Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies for three thereminists. She was also no slouch when it came to technical aspects of the instrument and kept meticulous notes about its care and maintenance. Rosen was part musician, part technician, and part patron, one of the first enthusiastic supporters of the art of electronic music. Summing up her sentiments about the Theremin for some concert notes, Rosen once wrote, “I do not think there is any other instrument so responsive as this to the artist when he has learned to control it, and that must be its eternal fascination.”
I’ll be playing 32 tracks in this episode. Not only will we hear several of the very earliest Theremin recordings recorded in 1930 by Zinaida Hanenfeldt and Lennington Shewell, but I’ve also captured the sound from a French Pathe newsreel from 1930 featuring Leon Theremin himself. In addition to Clara Rockmore and Lucie Rosen, we will hear several tracks by Samuel J. Hoffman, some from his more familiar work in the 1940s for films and pop music, but some little-known works by him including the sound for an audio sermon about capital punishment, I Paid the Penalty, in 1960. We will also hear what is perhaps his last recording, one he did for none other than Captain Beefheart on their first album in 1967, which was just before Hoffman died. We’ll pick up around that time with the Theremin being used in other rock bands including Lothar and the Hand People and a live recording from 1969. They were one of the first to use a Moog Troubador Theremin on record and in concert, which they nicknamed “Lothar,” along with a Moog Modular Synthesizer. So, that’s an unusual treat for fans of Moog and both his Theremin and synthesizer instruments. And there are many more interesting and seldom-heard recordings of other artists such as Yusef Lateef, one of the first jazz artists to play the Theremin, celebrated jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby who included a Theremin on her album Afro-Harping, the legendary Fifty Foot Hose, the Brazilian pop group Mutantes, and even an alternative rendition of the Barnabas theme from the daytime soap opera Dark Shadows.
The Theremin Part 1: From the Beginning to 1970
1. Leon Theremin, “Deep Night” (1930 Les Actualités françaises). Soundtrack from a short, early sound film of Leon Theremin playing an RCA production model Theremin.
2. Zinaida Hanenfeldt, Nathaniel Shilkret, Victor Salon Orchestra, “Love (Your Spell is Everywhere)” (1930 Victor). RCA theremin, Zinaida Hanenfeldt; Victor Salon Orchestra conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret. The earliest records made with the Theremin were recorded in 1930 to highlight the release of the RCA Theremin. This was one of the first. This recording session dates from January 17, 1930 and was made in New York at the 28 West 44th St. studio. Billed as a recording of “Orchestra, with theremin soloist,” this was most likely made as a demonstration of the newly introduced RCA Theremin. Seven months later, Lennington Shewell (see next listing) took up making several demonstration records produced by his father, RCA VP G. Dunbar Shewell in the Camden, NJ recording studios.
3. Lennington H. Shewell, “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” (1930 Victor). Recorced on July 21, 1930, in Camden, NJ Studio 1. Theremin solo, Lennington H. Shewell; piano accompaniment, Edward C. Harsch. Noted as "R.C.A. theremin: Instructions and exercises for playing" and "G. Dunbar Shewell, present."
4. Lennington H. Shewell, “In a Monastery Garden” from “Love Sends A Gift Of Roses” / “In A Monastery Garden” (1935 Victor). Shewell was an American pianist songwriter and Thereminist. He recorded several discs for RCA . Shewell was employed by RCA to travel around the USA demonstrating the Theremin as part of its marketing campaign. His father was George Dunbar Shewell, who was a vice-president of RCA for a time.
5. Clara Rockmore, “The Swan” from Theremin (1977 Delos). Piano, Nadia Reisenberg; Produced by Robert Moog, Shirleigh Moog; Theremin, Clara Rockmore. Rockmore, of course, was the key master of the Theremin back in the 1930s and 40s, having originally learned from Leon Theremin himself. These recordings were later produced by the Moogs in the 1970s and feature some dazzling, virtuoso performances by Rockmore as she interprets many of her favorite classical works. “The Swan” was composed in by Camille Saint-Saëns (1983-1921) that was usually a showcase for a cellist and, with Rockmore’s brilliant interpretation, became a much-loved work by Thereminists. Even Samuel Hoffman made a recording of it.
6. Clara Rockmore, “Berceuse” from Theremin (1977 Delos). Piano, Nadia Reisenberg; Produced by Robert Moog, Shirleigh Moog; Theremin, Clara Rockmore. Here Rockmore interprets a piece by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
7. Lucie Bigelow Rosen, “Concerto in F” b Mortimer Browning (1940, privately recorded practice session). Ms. Rosen recorded this rehearsal in preparation for a live performance. Of great interest is that you can hear her speaking at the beginning and end of the session, and her playing is quite sophisticated.
8. Lucie Bigelow Rosen, “The Old Refrain” by Fritz Kreisler (circa 1940 privately recorded session). Another privately recorded session by Ms. Rosen.
9. Miklós Rózsa, Suite from The Lost Weekend (excerpt) from The Lost Weekend (The Classic Film Score) (1945 privately issued). Conducted, composed by Miklós Rózsa; Theremin, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. “This is a limited-edition recording, produced for the promotional purposes of the composer and is not licensed for public sale. The music was transferred to tape from the original acetate masters.” This was not a score released on a conventional soundtrack. This recording comes from a privately issued disc commissioned by the composer and I date it to around 1970. I wanted to include it because it a notably obscure soundtrack recording Theremin playing by Hoffman from the same era as the more famous and widely distributed Spellbound soundtrack.
10.Harry Revel and Leslie Baxter with Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Lunar Rhapsody” from Music Out Of The Moon: Music Unusual Featuring The Theremin (1947 Capitol). Hoffman, a foot doctor by profession, was one of the best-known Theremin players of his time. Not as persnickety as Rockmore about playing “spooky sounds,” he basically filled a gap in Theremin playing in popular music that Clara Rockmore refused to fill. He played one of the RCA production model Theremins from 1930. His most famous contributions included collaborations with Les Baxter, Miklos Rozsa, Harry Revel, and Bernard Herrmann, and his momentous movie music for Spellbound (1945) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). He was initially a classically trained violinist, and at age 14 he began playing the violin professionally in New York City. By 1936, he had taken up the Theremin and begun featuring it in publicity for his engagements. He quickly gained notoriety using the electronic instrument and he became one of the world's most famous Theremin players.
11.Harry Revel and Leslie Baxter with Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Radar Blues” from Music Out Of The Moon: Music Unusual Featuring The Theremin (1947 Capitol).
12.Harry Revel, Leslie Baxter & Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Fame” from Perfume Set to Music (1948 RCA Victor). Composed by Harry Revel; Orchestra Chorus conducted by Leslie Baxter; Theremin, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. "As interpreted by the British-born composer, Harry Revel, in a musical suite describing six exotic Corday fragrances."
13.Harry Revel, Leslie Baxter & Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Obsession” from Perfume Set to Music (1948 RCA Victor). Composed by Harry Revel; Orchestra Chorus conducted by Leslie Baxter; Theremin, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. "As interpreted by the British-born composer, Harry Revel, in a musical suite describing six exotic Corday fragrances."
14.Elliot Lawrence and His Orchestra, featuring Lucie Bigelow Rosen, “Gigolette” (1949 Columbia). An attempt to bring the Theremin into popular music, this recording by Elliot Lawrence and his Orchestra made at the Columbia 30th Street Studio in Midtown Manhattan features Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Ms. Rosen and her husband Walter were instrumental in providing offices for Leon Theremin to work in New York during the 1930s. The inventor personally made two instruments for her. She was a practiced enthusiast and did much concertizing with the Theremin from about 1935 to 1940.
15.Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Remembering Your Lips” from Music for Peace of Mind (1950 Capitol). Orchestra conducted by Billy May; composed by Harry Revel; Theremin, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. “Music for PEACE OF MIND featuring the THEREMIN with orchestra.”
16.Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “This Room Is My Castle of Quiet” from Music for Peace of Mind (1950 Capitol). Orchestra conducted by Billy May; composed by Harry Revel; Theremin, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. “Music for PEACE OF MIND featuring the THEREMIN with orchestra.”
17.Bernard Herrmann, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Gort,” “The Visor,” “The Telescope” from The Day the Earth Stood Still (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1951 20th Century Fox). Soundtrack recorded at the Twentieth Century Fox Scoring Stage August 1951, reissued in 1993. Composed by Bernard Herrmann; Conducted by Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Lionel Newman; Theremin by Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman. Hoffmnan played one of the RCA production model Theremins from 1930 but by this time around 1950 had modified it to include an external speaker connection for improved recording of the instrument during studio sessions.
18.Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Moonlight Sonata” (Theremin Solo with Piano Accompaniment) (1951 Capitol).
19.Eddie Layton, “Laura”, from Organ Moods in Hi-Fi (1955 Mercury). This song is noted as including the “Ethereal sound of the theremin.” Layton was a popular Hammond organ player, later on in his career he played the organ at old Yankee Stadium for nearly 40 years, earning him membership in the New York Sports Hall of Fame. This is his first album, one many, and is notable for using some early organ electronics. “It must be stated that all of the sounds in this album were created by Eddie Layton solely on the Hammond Organ including the rhythm sounds of the bass and guitar, by means of special imported electronic recording devices and microphones.” With the exception of the Theremin, I would add. An unknown Theremin model, most likely vacuum-tube driven, possibly an original RCA model.
20.Monty Kelly And His Orchestra with Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Blue Mirage” from “Blue Mirage”/ “That Sweetheart of Mine” (1955 Essex). Single release from this Orchestra led by Monty Kelly and featuring Hoffman on Theremin.
21.Unknown Artist, “The Fiend Who Walked the West” lobby recording (1958). Theremin or musical saw? This is from an LP recording I have that was used in movie lobbies to entice people to come and see the horror film, The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958). Could this be a Theremin, or a musical saw? I think the latter. I have no information on who played the instrument, but it makes for some curious listening from days gone by while acknowledging one of the key sources of confusion for those who collect Theremin recordings.
22.Sonny Moon And His Orchestra, “Countdown” from “Rememb'ring”/ “Countdown” (1958 Warner Brothers). A 45-RPM single from this short-lived group od the late 1950s. Includes an uncredited Theremin performance.
23.Milton Grayson and Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman Theremin and Orchestra, “I Paid the Penalty” (1960 Royalty Recording Co.). A 45-RPM single about capital punishment. On one side of the record a San Francisco Attorney speaks about capital punishment. On the other side is this vocal by Grayson that dramatizes the subject. This appears to be some sort of public service announcement, but the disc itself bears no clues. This is the only release on this label. The vocal by Grayson is part sermon, part monolog, part song, with the threatening aura of the Theremin provided by Dr. Hoffman. It is undated, so I’m guessing around 1960 when Grayson was most active.
24.Lew Davies And His Orchestra, “Riders in the Sky” from Strange Interlude (1961 Command). From the early sixties comes this wonderful amalgamation of exotica and space-age instruments. The Theremin is played by none other than Walter Sear, later the manager of the Sear Sound Studio in New York and an influential programmer (and sometimes player) of the Moog Modular Synthesizer. Several members of this band also became associated with the Moog Modular, including Bobby Byrne, Sy Mann, and producer Enoch Light. Bass, Bob Haggart, Jack Lesberg; Cimbalom, Michael Szittai; Drums, George Devens, Phil Kraus; Executive Producer, Enoch Light; French Horn, Paul Faulise, Tony Miranda; Guitar, Tony Mottola; Reeds, Al Klink, Ezelle Watson, Phil Bodner, Stanley Webb; Ondioline, Sy Mann; Theremin, Paul Lippman, Walter Sear; Trombone, Bobby Byrne, Dick Hixon, Urbie Green.
25.Yusef Lateef, “Sound Wave,” from A Flat, G Flat And C (1966 Impulse!). An innovative first from Mr. Lateef who foresaw the possibilities of the Theremin for new jazz. Lateef was known for his multi-instrumental talent on Tenor Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, Flute, Oboe and a variety of wooden flutes. Using the Theremin on this one track—I’ve never heard anything else he recorded with the Theremin—shows how a skilled jazz improviser can use the Theremin for self-expression. I would guess that this Theremin was made by Moog. Theremin, Yusef Lateef; Bass, Reggie Workman; Drums, Roy Brooks; Piano, Hugh Lawson; Produced by Bob Thiele.
26.Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, “Electricity” from Safe as Milk (1967 Buddah). The Theremin in this case was played by none other than Samuel J. Hoffman using his souped-up RCA Theremin model Theremin. It was perhaps the last appearance on record by Hoffman, who died later in 1967. Apparently, the record company hated the track so much that it led to their being dropped from the label, at which point Frank Zappa came to the rescue.
27.Fifty Foot Hose, “War is Over” (1967) from Ingredients (1997 compilation Del Val). Psychedelic rock group from San Francisco, formed in 1967, disbanded in 1970 and re-formed in 1995. Drums, Gary Duos; Guitar, David Blossom; Theremin, Electronics, Audio Generator, Siren, Cork Marcheschi. Recorded in 1966 in San Francisco.
28.Dorothy Ashby, “Soul Vibrations” from Afro-Harping (1968 Cadet Concept). Unknown Theremin player, although the producers at Cadet/Chess were known to add the instrument to a session, such as those by Rotary Connection. Recorded at Ter Mar Studios, Chicago, February 1968. The song was written by producer Richard Evans, then the go-to producer and de facto label head for Chess Records’ jazz imprint Cadet. Perhaps he also played the Theremin, which was probably a Moog Troubadour.
29.The First Theremin Era, “The Barnabas Theme from Dark Shadows" / “Sunset In Siberia” (1969 Epic). "Dark Shadows" was super-popular daytime drama about a vampire on ABC-TV. This record was not an official release of the television show, but an interpretation of the theme that is seldom heard. I thought it’s exotic funky treatment was especially worth hearing. The soundtrack for the TV show also included Theremin, possibly played by composer Robert Cobert, but in its more traditional spooky role. This record was produced and arranged by Charlie Calello, a well-known producer who had worked with the Four Seasons (singing group) and later would produce such super stars as Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Laura Nyro, and Barbra Streisand.
30.Mutantes, “Banho De Lua (Tintarella Di Luna)” from Mutantes (1969 Polydor). Brazilian folk-rock-psychedelic group that featured the Theremin blended with many other instruments, both acoustic and electronic. Arranged by, Mutantes; Drums, Sir Ronaldo I. Du Rancharia; Theremin, electronic Instruments, Claudio Régulus. This innovative pop trio from Brazil also collaborated with other artists such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and were threatened by the military government of Brazil. What Theremin did they use? Several Moog models would have been available, but they also may have built their own. One photo I’ve seen suggested that they built their own.
31.Lothar and the Hand People, “It Comes on Anyhow” from Machines: Amherst 1969 (2020 Modern Harmonic). Live recording from 1969 featuring the Moog Modular Synthesizer played by Paul Conly and the Moog Theremin played by vocalist John Emelin. On this track, the synthesizer and Theremin sounds are intermingled, making it a fun challenge to distinguish between the two of them. Bass, Rusty Ford; Drums, Tom Flye; Guitar, Kim King; Keyboards, Moog Modular Synthesizer, Paul Conly; Vocals, Moog Troubadour Theremin (“Lothar”), John Emelin.
32.Lothar and the Hand People, “Today Is Only Yesterday’s Tomorrow” from Machines: Amherst 1969 (2020 Modern Harmonic). This track was recorded live in 1969. John Emelin starts by introducing the Moog Theremin, called “Lothar.” Bass, Rusty Ford; Drums, Tom Flye; Guitar, Kim King; Keyboards, Moog Modular Synthesizer, Paul Conly; Vocals, Moog Troubadour Theremin (“Lothar”), John Emelin.
Opening background tracks:
Bernard Herrmann, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “Prelude, Outer Space” (excerpt), from The Day the Earth Stood Still (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1951 20th Century Fox). Soundtrack recorded at the Twentieth Century Fox Scoring Stage August 1951, reissued in 1993. Composed by Bernard Herrmann; Conducted by Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Lionel Newman; Theremin by Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman.
Zinaida Hanenfeldt, Nathaniel Shilkret, Victor Salon Orchestra, “(I'm a dreamer) Aren't we all?” (1930 Victor). “Orchestra, with theremin soloist.” Theremin, Zinaida Hanenfeldt. Recorded January 17, 1930 in New York at the 28 West 44th St. studio.
Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, “The Swan”( Saint-Saens) from “Moonlight Sonata” / “The Swan” (1951 Capitol). Arranged and performed on the Theremin by “Dr. Hoffman.”
Orchestra and Chorus Under the Direction Of Leslie Baxter, Dr. Samuel Hoffman, “Struttin’ with Clayton” from “Jet” / “Struttin' With Clayton” (1950 RCA Victor). Theremin, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman.
Miklós Rózsa, “Dementia” from The Lost Weekend (The Classic Film Score) (1945 privately issued). Conducted, composed by Miklós Rózsa; Theremin, Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman.
Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.
Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.
See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation: