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Eminent persons - Léon Theremin

Léon Theremin

Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Léon Theremin) is a Russian-Soviet-American physicist, engineer and inventor. He was born on 27 August (O.S. 15 August) 1896 – 3 November 1993 in St. Petersburg, the Russian Empire. A subject of His Majesty the Emperor of All Russia, a citizen of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, is primarily known as the creator of a unique original electric musical instrument with a completely unusual sound, called “theremin” (or thereminvox). But there was much more to it...

The noble family of Lev Sergeyevich goes back centuries and originates in medieval France, where his ancestors won their right to the Huguenot confession sweating blood. The French transcription implies the name of Termen to be written as Theremin. Lev's mother, Evgenia Antonovna, and his father, the well-known lawyer Sergei Emilievich Termen, gave their son excellent education.

In 1914 Lev graduated from the First Petersburg Men's Gymnasium with a silver medal. His first independent electrical experiments Termen carried out during the years of his gymnasium youth.

In 1916 he graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory (cello class), while studying at the Physics and Mathematics Faculty of St. Petersburg University. At the University, Lev Termen had a chance to listen to lectures on the physics of Abram Fedorovich Ioffe. However, doing his second year at the university, in 1916, he was drafted into the army and sent to the accelerated training at the Nikolayev Engineering School. Then he attended the Officers' Electro-technical Courses. Being a junior officer of the reserve electro-technical battalion, Lev Sergeyevich worked at the most powerful at that time Tsarskoselskaya radio station near St. Petersburg.

And there came the Soviet hegemony, Petersburg became Petrograd, and Lev Termen after the October Revolution of 1917 continued his work at the same radio station, but later was sent to serve at the Moscow military radio laboratory.

In 1919 Lev Termen became the head of the laboratory of the Petrograd Physico-technical Institute. He, as a specialist in radio engineering, invited Ioffe to work in his institute. The new employee was tasked with measuring the dielectric constants of gases at various pressures and temperatures. The first version of the Termen measuring system was a generator of electric oscillations on a cathode lamp. The test gas in the cavity between the metal plates was an element of the oscillatory circuit, i. e. a capacitor, influencing the frequency of electric oscillations. In the process of working on increasing the sensitivity of the installation, they came up with the idea of combining two generators, one of which gave oscillations of a certain unchanged frequency. Signals from both generators were fed to the cathode relay, at the output of which a signal with a difference frequency was generated. The relative change in the test gas parameter difference frequency was much greater. At the same time, if the difference frequency was within the sound range, then the signal could be heard.

1920 was an important year for the inventor. He had a new unique electric musical instrument called " thereminvox " on his mind which would make Leon very famous. In 1921, Lev Termen met with Lenin at the 8th All-Russian Electro-technical Congress. The invention of Termen impressed Lenin immensely, and the meeting of the proletariat leader with Termen in the Kremlin in March 1922 was marked in the history. During the meeting, Lev Sergeyevich showed Lenin his invention, explaining the principle of his work, and Vladimir Ilyich, whole-heartedly tried to reproduce Glinka's "Lark" playing theremin. At the same time, Termen arranged a presentation of a security alarm device prototype based on the same principle which earned him the favor of the leader. The principles of the security system reacting to the approach of a person to the protected object were taken from a theremin conceptThe Kremlin and the Hermitage got equipped with this system, and later – some foreign museums.

Being a very versatile and intelligent person, Termen invented many different automatic systems, such as automatic doors, automatic lighting and so on, as well as security alarm systems. In 1923 he collaborated with the State Institute of Music Science in Moscow, and from 1923 to 1929 he worked in the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute.

In 1925-1926 he invented one of the first television systems, more precisely, an electromechanical TV. The demonstration of a TV set of its own design to the father of all-people-comrade Stalin happened in 1927. The same year Termen was invited to an international music exhibition in Frankfurt am Main. The report of Termen and the demonstration of his inventions were a great success and brought him worldwide fame. The success of his concert at the music exhibition showered Termen with invitations. Dresden, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Berlin saw him off with ovations and flowers. Enthusiastic reviews of the listeners brought Termen to unprecedented heights, and his new sound was called "Music of the Air", "Music of the Air Waves", "Music of the Spheres"... Musicians noted that the idea of a virtuoso wasn’t constrained by inert material, but it affected space. Incomprehensibility, where the sound comes from, the imagination was amazing. Someone calls the theremin a "celestial tool", someone – a "spherophone". The striking timbre, reminiscent of strings and wind instruments, and even of some special human voice, as if brought to you from distant times and spaces!

In 1928 Termen, while remaining a citizen of the USSR, moved to the US, which was something close to a miracle back then. Upon arrival in the states, he patented both the theremin and his security alarm system, which proved the pragmatic mind of Lev Sergeyevich. Not many born in the Soviet could do this. How many unpatented scientific discoveries were wasted! Because of such a disorder and submission to the system, foreigners got their innovations patented while the USSR was busy with the ideology. But Termen managed to sell a license for the serial production of a simplified version of the theremin to RCA (Radio Corporation of America), so that his product would be sold all over the world, which couldn’t be expected from any product made in USSR.

In the states, Lev Termen organized the companies "Teletouch" and "Theremin Studio" and rented in New York a six-story building for a music and dance studio for 99 years (if it had been for 100 years, this place would have been his forever!). This made it possible to organize trade representations of the USSR in the United States, where Soviet scouts could work undercover.

From 1931 to 1938, Termen was the director of "Teletouch Inc". Then he developed alarm systems for the famous American prisons Sing Sing and Alcatraz. Soon, Lev Termen became a very popular man in New York. His studio was visited by George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein and others. Among his acquaintances there were financial magnates John Rockefeller and the future US president Dwight Eisenhower ... Lev Termen's instruments were used for the soundtracks of many Hollywood movies. The music of Termen was performed by the best musicians of the USA (N. Slonimsky, L. Stokovsky). Dmitri Shostakovich knew him well. During these years, Lev Sergeyevich divorced his first wife, Catherine Constantine, and married Lavinia Williams, the dancer of the First American Negro ballet.

But, as it usually happened to the Soviet people abroad, there were some espionage passions incited. Anyway, an alternative version of the events related to the adventures of Termen in 1935 can be told:

There is information that this year he was abducted by the OGPU (The Joint State Political Directorate, according to other sources he cooperated with the Directorate) and was taken to the USSR with all his equipment. In Moscow, Lev worked in a closed design office, where he developed equipment for an unmanned aircraft. According to the memoirs of Termen, published in 1989 in the newspaper "Top Secret", supervised by Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria he created a listening device “Buran” and installed microphones into Stalin's apartment. Termen was charged with not only listening to recorded tapes, but also clearing them of interference and extraneous noise. The equipment designed by Termen, allowed to record conversations occurring on any floor of the building. A window glass was used as a membrane, the light beam tracked the sound vibrations of the glass and converted them into electrical signals. The device could function at a distance of one kilometer. With the help of the Termen’s invention Beria spied on Stalin receiving his conversations.

The idea of eavesdropping was certainly borrowed from Stalin himself. As head of the NKVD, Beria could not help but know that the leader listens to telephone conversations even on a "turntable" (an automatic telephone exchange with a limited number of rooms designed to ensure the confidentiality of conversations between the government and party leadership). Such telephones were installed in the offices of members of the Central Committee, the People's Commissars and their deputies; Members of the Politburo and their apartments. B.G. Bazhanov wrote that in Stalin's struggle for power, this secret was among the most important ones: it gave Stalin the opportunity to listen to the conversations of all Trotsky’s, Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s talks, always be aware of what they were up to, what they thought, and this was a weapon of colossal importance. Stalin could see everything, but they were all blind."(Bazhanov B.G. Memories of the former secretary of Stalin, M., 1990. P. 56-57).

According to the official version in 1938, Termen was asked to go to Moscow. He secretly left the US, passing the rights to the owner of the Teletouch company, Bob Zinman, of attorney to manage his property as well as patent and financial matters. Termen wanted to take Lavinia's wife to the USSR, but he was refused and promised that she would come to him later. When they came for him, Lavinia happened to be at home, and she had the impression that her husband was forcibly taken away. From then until the end of the 1960s, Termen was considered dead in America, and for many years the encyclopaedic reference books put "1896-1938" dates next to his name.

In Leningrad, Termen unsuccessfully tried to get a job, then moved to Moscow, but he also did not find work, and in March 1939 the chekists arrested him. And then there were several versions of the charges against him:

According to one of them, he was accused of involvement in a fascist organization, according to another - in the preparation of the murder of Kirov. He was forced to deny that a group of astronomers from the Pulkovo Observatory was preparing to place a land mine in Foucault's pendulum, and Termen was to send a radio signal from the US and blow up a bomb as soon as Kirov approached the pendulum. The NKVD of the USSR sentenced Termen in the camps up to eight years - he was sent to the Kolyma camp. Although, such accusations led to being shot in the Soviet Union.

The first time Termen served time in Magadan, working as a foreman of the construction team. Numerous rationalization proposals of Termen drew the attention of the camp administration to him, and in 1940 he was transferred to Tupolev Design Bureau of TsKB-29 (the so-called "Tupolev Sharaga [gang]" on Yauza), where he’d worked for about eight years. Here Sergei Pavlovich Korolev was his assistant, who later became famous all over the world as a space technology constructor. One of the activities of Termen and Korolev was the development of unmanned aerial vehicles, the prototypes of modern radio-controlled cruise missiles.

On February 9, 1945, a wooden panel made of valuable wood types (sandalwood, boxwood, sequoia, ponytail palm, Parrotia persica (Persian ironwood), red and ebony, black alder) with the image of the Great Seal of the USA was presented to the US Ambassador, Averell Harriman, who was invited to the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Artek pioneer camp. There was a listening device "Zlatoust" – the endo vibrator made by Termen - installed inside of it, which allowed for almost eight years to listen to conversations in the ambassador's office. The design of the bug turned out to be so successful that when the gift was inspected the US intelligence services didn’t notice anything. After the revelation, the "bug" was presented to the United Nations as the evidence of the intelligence activity of the USSR, but the principle of its operation had remained unsolved for many years.

In 1946 Termen was going to be awarded the Stalin Prize of the 2nd Degree for his next espionage development - the listening system "Buran" tracking through the reflected infrared ray of the glass in the windows of the room being auditioned, but Stalin, looked through the list of the awardees and corrected the second degree turning it into the first one. That’s how the former convict Termen became the winner of the Stalin Prize of the 1st degree in 1947. In 1947, he was exonerated and Lev continued to work in secret design bureaus at the USSR NKVD, where he was engaged, in particular, in the development of listening systems.

In 1948, he and his third wife, Maria Gushchina (Lavinia Williams was living in the USA knowing nothing about him), had their children born: Natalia and Elena Termen.

From 1964 to 1967, Termen worked at the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory's laboratory, devoting all his efforts to developing new musical instruments, as well as restoring everything that he had invented in the 1930s. According to some information, during this period, Termen worked on a voluntary basis, i.e. free of charge. Since 1966 he’d been a research fellow of the Department of Acoustics of the Physics Department of the Lomonosov Moscow State University.

In 1967, the music critic Harold Schonberg, recognized in the man whom he met Lev Termen. Everybody in the United States believed that he was killed in the Gulag, and the news was immediately published in the newspaper "The New York Times". The publication in the bourgeois press aroused the indignation of the Soviet leadership. Termen's studio was closed, and all his instruments were cut with an ax and thrown out. He was dismissed (according to other sources he was retired) from the conservatory. Not without difficulty, he got a job in the laboratory at the Physics Department of Moscow State University. In the main building of the Moscow State University, Lev Sergeyevich offered workshops for those willing to listen to his works, to study the theremin, but his seminars were attended by only a few people. Formally, Termen was listed as a mechanic at the Physics Department of Moscow State University, but in fact he continued independent scientific research. Termen continued active scientific activity almost until his death.

In 1989 he traveled with his daughter Natalia Termen to a festival in the city of Bourges (France). In 1989 in Moscow the meeting of two originators of electronic music took place: Lev Sergeyevich Termen and English musician Brian Eno.

In 1991 he, together with his daughter Natalia Termen and granddaughter Olga Termen, visited the US at the invitation of Stanford University and there they met Clara Rockmore. He visited his former studio, met his students and received a prize for his inventions.

In March 1991 at the age of 95 he joined the CPSU. When asked why he was entering the collapsing party, Termen replied: "I promised Lenin." For joining the CPSU, Lev Sergeyevich came to the Party Committee of Moscow State University at his 90th birthday, where he was told that in order to enter the party it was necessary to study at the Department of Marxism-Leninism for one year, which he did passing all the exams.

In 1992 the laboratory on Lomonosov Avenue, allocated by the Moscow authorities at the request of V.S. Grizodubova, was destroyed. All his instruments were smashed and some of the archives were stolen. The police, of course, didn’t solve the crime...

In 1992 the "Termen-Center" was created in Moscow, which aims at supporting musicians and sound artists working in the sphere of experimental electroacoustic music. The leaders of the center did not react at the request of Lev Termen to remove his name from the title, because he had nothing to do with it.

In 1994 a documentary biographical historical movie "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey" was shot. His slogan: "The Music He Created Was Strange. His Life Was Even Stranger".

Until his death, Lev Termen was full of energy and was even joking about being immortal. He suggested some word play on Termen and terminal. Lev Sergeyevich died in Moscow on November 3, 1993 at the age of 97 years. As the newspapers later wrote: at ninety-seven years Lev Termen passed away joining those who made the epoch, but there was no one behind the coffin, except his daughters with their families and several men carrying a coffin...". He was buried at the Kuntsevo Cemetery.

The family of Lev Sergeevich:

Ekaterina Konstantinova – wife, the first marriage (there were no children); Lavinia Williams – wife, the second marriage (there were no children); Maria Gushchina – wife, the third marriage; Natalia Termen is a daughter; Elena Termen is a daughter; Maria Termen is a granddaughter; Olga Termen is a granddaughter; Pyotr Termen is a great-grandson. Currently, Natalia Termen continues her work on developing the maximum musical possibilities and performing culture of the theremin.

Interesting facts:

  • Einstein and Charlie Chaplin tried to play the theremin.
  • For the first time, the daughter of Lev Termen, Natalia Termen, used a palm-width adjustment of the theremin. Now this method is used by many theremin players all over the world. Like this an octave is located between the "closed" and "open" position of the hand.
    American band Lothar and the Hand People was one of the first who used the theremin as the leading instrument, which released in 1968-1969 two albums in the style of space psychedelia. And "Lothar" was the proper name of the theremin, and the musicians positioned themselves as the world's first band, the frontman of which is not a musician, but a musical instrument.
  • In 2001 the theremin concert was held as part of the interstellar radio "children's message" to other civilizations under the METI program.
  • In October 2010 the first Russian-language portal about the theremin was opened: "Theremin Times".
  • At the end of August 2011 the first music festival of modern theremin culture was held in Moscow. "THEREMINOLOGY" is the first festival of theremin in Russia.
  • The intro for the British television series "Doctor Who" is performed with the help of the theremin.
  • Since October 2011 the project "Theremination" is on in Moscow. Every two weeks there are free master classes and lectures on the theremin and Lev Termen.
  • In the novel by Thomas Harris "Hannibal" the main character is mastering his playing the theremin.
  • In the television series "The Big Bang Theory" Sheldon Cooper plays theremin, including a fragment of the song "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen".
  • In the series "Midsomer Murders” during the titles, a melody is played, which is performed with the help of the theremin.
  • Matremin (matryomin), a musical instrument (one-antenna theremin shaped as a Russian matryoshka), created by a Japanese theremin player, Masami Takeuchi in 2003.
  • In the film "Angels of Revolution" the characters play theremin.
  • In the series "American Horror Story" Myrtle Snow loved to play theremin.
  • The daughter of Lev Termen, Natalia and great-grandson Peter are theremin players and founders of the Theremin School in Russia. The only school of theremin in the post-Soviet and European countries: Russian Theremin School is located in Moscow and St. Petersburg under the supervision of Peter Termen.
  • In Japan, there is a school of theremin under the guidance of Masami Takeuchi.
  • In 2006, the Perm Theater staged the play "Termen" based on the play of Czech playwright Petr Zelenka. The play touches upon the most interesting and dramatic period of Termen's life - work in the USA.
  • The active propagandist of the instrument and theremin performer is the great-grandson of Lev Termen - Pyotr Termen. The pioneer of electronic music Jean-Michel Jarre is also the fan of Termen. Jarre plays theremin during live performances, uses the instrument in the compositions of studio albums. Fragments of the interview of Lev Termen were used in the composition "Switch on Leon" made by Jarre and The Orb for the album Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise.
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