The photo above is the "third model" ondes Martenot, in which the ondiste is still attached to the instrument by means of a ring and wire but is now seated at a dummy keyboard so that he can accurately orient himself. The false keyboard is similar to the painted fretboard that can be seen on steel guitars. It has no practical purpose except to act as a visual aid to finding the correct note. Ultimately, Maurice Martenot replaced the dummy keyboard with a real, operating keyboard, and that is what we find on the modern ondes Martenot. The toggle switch controlled by the left hand, allows the ondiste to switch between "keyboard mode" and "ring mode" giving the instrument all the advantages of a keyboard and pitch bend device that can operate over many octaves. Like the theremin, however, the ondes Martenot can only play one note at a time - it is monophonic, like the flute or the clarinet.
Just as Maurice Martenot experimented with playing his ondes "at a distance" (in the manner of a theremin), Leon Theremin experimented with keyboards. The photo above is an example of one of the theremin keyboard instruments he built around 1930.
Unfortunately, the recent generations of highly versatile, polyphonic keyboard synthesizers and digital samplers have resulted in a diminished interest in the ondes Martenot today. In the years following Maurice Martenot's death in 1980, manufacture of the ondes (which had always been a family business) ceased altogether. Perhaps with renewed interest in these wonderful devices, which are most unlike synthesizers, manufacture will start up once again.
This is one of my favorite vintage photos of early presentations of the ondes Martenot, taken at the World's Fair in Paris, 1937 (at which Maurice Martenot was awarded "Le Grand Prix de l'Exposition Mondiale"). The ensemble consists of eight ondes Martenots, a percussionist and a pianist, and is conducted by Ginette Martenot, sister of Maurice, looking like the Greek goddess Pallas Athena herself!
This is the famous ensemble of Ten Victor Theremins seen here during a rehearsal for their 1930 Carnegie Hall demonstration and recital. From left to right, the thereminists are: Eugene Hegy, Anna Freeman, Louis Barlevy, Ildiko Elberth, George (Julius) Goldberg, Leon Theremin, Lucie Bigelow Rosen, Wallingford Riegger, Zenaide Hannenfeldt and Henry Solomonoff. Apparently, the demonstration was a huge success in spite of the fact that, in the words of Henry Solomonoff, "The whole thing fell apart." Mr. Solomonoff recounts in the documentary film THEREMIN, AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY, that one of the numbers presented was a synchronized performance in which the different theremins in the ensemble were to play different notes and voices in perfect concert with one another. Apparently the rehearsal went very well but the actual performance was a catastrophe! You must understand that unlike other instrumentalists, the thereminist has no visual or physical reference of any kind with which to identify the note being played. Only your ears will tell you what you are doing. It is my guess that in the general mishmash of sound on the stage, the players got the various voices of the ten theremins mixed up and could no longer tell what they were doing. Leon Theremin, however, did not seem at all perturbed by what was happening and bravely carried on. Notice that Mr. Solomonoff (extreme right) is playing a rare left-handed theremin.
LISTEN TO THE ONDES MARTENOT
Here is a short mp3 sample of ondes virtuoso, Jean Laurendeau, playing the Concerto for Ondes Martenot and Orchestra by Jacques Hétu. This fine work has never been commercially recorded and released but it deserves to be. I chose this short passage because it demonstrates several of the unique and interesting sounds the ondes Martenot can make, as well as its amazing precision and versatility. I apologize for the quality of the recording, but it is several generations removed from the original which was taken from a radio broadcast in Europe.