No Touching, Only Playing: The Theremin

The fascinating history of a unique instrument, and the eventful life of its inventor Lew Termen: from Carnegie Hall to the KGB and the Cold War

Das Theremin von Robert Moog (1954)Deutsches Museum

Do Not Touch!

The theremin is perhaps the most fascinating invention in music history. Developed by Russian inventor Lew Termen—or Leon Theremin, as he also liked to call himself—it is the only instrument that can be played without touching. It is not just the history of the instrument itself that is exciting, but also its inventor: a man who didn't just revolutionize music but also provided the basis for a thrilling secret agent story as he traveled between the Soviet Union and the US. Lew Termen, inventor of musical instruments—and listening devices.

Lev Sergejewitsch Termen was born on August 27, 1896 in St. Petersburg. He studied cello at the conservatory in his hometown, and later also physics at St. Petersburg University. A link between two sciences that would decisively shape his later life.

Das Theremin (1920)Deutsches Museum

In 1919, Termen took over as director of the Physical-Technical Institute in Petrograd. That same year he started development on his groundbreaking invention, initially called the Aetherophon (etherophone) because the instrument wasn't played by touching it as usual but was fully contactless.

The player moved their hand through the antenna's electromagnetic field at a distance of up to 20 inches, generating different pitches. The volume was controlled by a pedal at first. It was later adjusted by raising the hand over a second antenna.

LIFE Photo Collection

Termen first demonstrated the instrument in 1921 at the 8th All-Russian Electrotechnical Congress. The etherophone caused such a stir that even Chief of State Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—better known as Lenin—requested a private demonstration at the Kremlin. The founder of the Soviet Union was so impressed that he allowed the visionary instrument builder to travel across the new state for the first time as an ambassador for GOELRO, his ambitious electrification plan.

By Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

Lenin was also fascinated, however, because he knew that the functionality of the etherophone could also be used for other purposes, such as alarm systems—but, more to the point, potentially also listening devices. Termen was then put in contact with the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the precursor to the later KGB secret service, in 1927.

Alcatraz Prison Break (1958-10) by N R FarbmanLIFE Photo Collection

1927 was also the year when he traveled across Germany and Europe with his instrument and moved shortly after to New York. He founded the company Teletouch which, alongside instruments, also developed security systems, including metal detectors for high-security prisons such as Alcatraz.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Mostly because of his extraordinary instrument, Lew Termen—who now called himself Leon Theremin—soon became part of the American avant-garde. He rubbed elbows with George Gershwin, the Rockefellers, Albert Einstein, and even Charlie Chaplin.

Zur großen Interpretin des Theremins stieg in jener Zeit Clara Rockmore (1911 – 1998) auf, einer in Vilnius geborenen Litauerin, die als Wunderkind mit ihrem bürgerlichen Namen Clara Reisenberg mit fünf Jahren im St. Petersburger Konservatorium aufgenommen wurde, wo auch Lew Termen Cello studiert hatte. Durch eine chronische Entzündung in ihrem Bogen-Arm musste sie als Teenager das Geigenspiel aufgeben. Im Theremin fand Rockmore, die 1921 mit ihren Eltern in die USA ausgewandert war, einen adäquaten Ersatz. In der New Yorker Town Hall gab sie im Oktober 1934 ihr erstes Solo-Konzert.

Theremincello (1932)Deutsches Museum

Theremin, himself an outstanding cellist, developed yet another fascinating instrument in 1930: the theremin cello. It could be played entirely without strings and a bow. The fretboard instead consisted of a black plastic strip which was used to adjust the pitch. Musicians changed the volume using a lever on the body.

Theremincello Concert (1930)Deutsches Museum

The Theremin Electric Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on April 1, 1932 was a huge sensation, featuring…

Clara Rockmore.

Portrait Of Stalin (1935-01-01) by KeystoneGetty Images

However, Theremin would also continue to meet members of the Soviet secret service to spill the details of his meetings with big names in the US establishment.

Theremin, whose marriage to African-American dancer Lavinia Williams sparked major controversy in 1930s America, suddenly vanished from New York in 1938. Whether Stalin forced him to come back to his Soviet home, or whether he returned of his own accord due to homesickness or because he was trying to escape collectors after falling deep into debt, is still a matter of debate.

Shortly after returning to the USSR, Termen was imprisoned for 10 years due to anti-Soviet propaganda. The man responsible for designing alarm systems for jail facilities was now the one under lock and key. After spending a short time in the Magadan workhouse in far-East Russia, he made connections with a privileged group of imprisoned scientists and engineers in the Gulag Archipelago in their famous development laboratories. Here he would later become the forefather of a legendary bugging device called The Thing.

On August 4, US ambassador in Moscow W. Averell Harriman was presented with a large handmade wooden plaque with the official seal of the United States of America by a delegation of the Russian Young Pathfinders. It stated that it was a symbol of friendship. It was a hospitality gift in every visible aspect. Yet hidden inside was a listening device, a little bug with a new feature: it worked without a power supply or active transmitter and instead had a passive resonator. This meant, by adjusting to the right frequency externally outside the building, the bug could be activated if needed and transmit conversations to a receiving device via radio waves.

The device remained hidden with the American ambassadors in the embassy office at the Moscow Spaso House for seven years…

By Mark KauffmanLIFE Photo Collection

…and was first discovered in 1952 when a colleague from the British office in Moscow accidentally heard a nearby conversation between American colleagues on an unknown frequency. The ambassador's room was turned inside out. The silver board barely measuring 2/3 of an inch with its 9 inch antenna was eventually discovered behind the impressive seal. Countless conversations between the current ambassadors and US President Henry Truman could have been listened to by then. And the person who built and developed the bug? Leon Theremin—or Lew Termen, as he now called himself again.

Video The ThingDeutsches Museum

The discovery of the listening device and any details about it were long hidden from the public. It first came out after the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane over Russian airspace in 1960 and called upon the UN Security Council, where the US ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge exposed the incident with the Soviet bug in the Moscow US embassy as evidence that both superpowers had been spying on each other all this time.

Video The Thing US EmbassyDeutsches Museum

The incident was still remembered decades later as testimony to the increasingly tense relationship between the two world powers.

Video Theremin Science Fiction MoviesDeutsches Museum

At the time, however, Theremin was celebrating another huge success in the US. Theremin provided the eerie and uncanny ethereal sounds for today's cult-favorite sci-fi B movies released during this time, like in this example, It Came From Outer Space

Video Theremin Jerry LewisDeutsches Museum

…but it was also used for comedic purposes in 1957's The Delicate Delinquent with Jerry Lewis.

Video Clara RockmoreDeutsches Museum

Termen himself became the director of the Department for Acoustic Research at the Moscow Conservatory in 1964 and later worked for the Physical Department of the University of Moscow. Shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and more than half a century after his departure from New York, he traveled again in 1989. He first went to France in 1991, then to New York one last time, where he met up with Clara Rockmore again who had continued to play the theremin into her later years.

Das Theremin von Moog (1954)Deutsches Museum

Termen died on November 3, 1993 at 97 years old in Moscow following an exciting and eventful life. His legacy to the world was an amazing instrument. It even inspired Robert Moog, a pioneer in the development of the synthesizer, to build his own.

Video Peter Theremin spielt MisirlouDeutsches Museum

With its contactless playing method, the theremin continues to amaze and astound today, like during one of Termen's concerts.

His great-grandson Peter Theremin, one of the world's greatest musicians on this instrument, pictured here during a performance with the Voronezh Symphony Orchestra of the now famous piece Misirlou from Quentin Tarantino's masterwork Pulp Fiction

Video Sheldon playing ThereminDeutsches Museum

…was on The Big Bang Theory

Video Simpsons ThereminDeutsches Museum

…and The Simpsons.

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