The Legacy of Oskar Sala

Working with Paul Hindemith and Alfred Hitchcock: the life and impact of a great musical genius

Oskar Sala am MixturtrautoniumDeutsches Museum

The Road to the Synthesizer

One of the most important figures and pioneers of electronic music of the 20th century was Oskar Sala (1910–2002). As a musician, composer, and natural scientist, he fully devoted himself to the playing and development of the Trautonium in its many different forms—an instrument invented by Friedrich Trautwein at the end of the 1920s which could be used to produce all kinds of sounds and noises. The Trautonium is still considered the precursor to the synthesizer to this day.

Sala was born on July 18, 1910 in Greiz, Thuringia and came from a very musical family. His mother Annemarie (1887–1959) worked as a singer, and his father Paul (1874–1932) was an ophthalmologist who fostered his musical talent. Sala was creating his own compositions even in his youth, such as sonatas and songs for violin and piano when he was 14. In 1962, he presented his own works for the first time at a concert in his hometown.

Oskar Sala am Trautonium (1930)Deutsches Museum

After his Abitur exams Sala (pictured here sitting at the instrument) traveled to Berlin in 1929 to study composition in a master class led by Paul Hindemith (1895–1963, pictured below in a bow tie). Hindemith was greatly interested in the construction of instruments, especially those suitable for the new radio medium. At the radio testing center established at the university since May 1928 he came into contact with engineer Friedrich Trautwein (1888–1956, standing on the left), who had recently developed one of the earliest electronic musical instruments: the Trautonium.

Orchester der ZukunftDeutsches Museum

During a public presentation of the Trautonium on June 30, 1930 as part of the New Berlin Music (Neue Musik Berlin) festival, Sala played the piece Small Pieces for Three Trautoniums. The Little Electromusician's Darling (Die kleinen Stücke für drei Trautonien. Des kleinen Elektromusikers Lieblinge) together with Hindemith and Rudolph Schmidt (1909–2007). Two years later many more new electric musical instruments were presented during the special Electric Music (Elektrische Musik) exhibition. The Trautonium, the Theremin, the Hellertion, the Neo-Bechstein grand piano, the Elektrochord, the electric violin and the electric cello harmoniously gathered together as the orchestra of the future and presented various techniques for tone generation, timbres, and playing.

Das Trautonium der Rundfunkversuchsstelle (1930)Deutsches Museum

The Trautonium can sound like a violin, an oboe, or a siren and can produce vocal sounds. There was no keyboard—just a metal rail with a string wrapped with resistance wire stretched over it. When the string was pressed onto the metal rail, a circuit was closed and an overtone-rich sound was produced by tubes inside the instrument. Different sounds could then be distilled out of this sound via filters controlled by rotary switches.

This specimen—the radio testing center Trautonium—from 1930 is the oldest Trautonium and the only one still kept there, which, in addition to being operated by the metal rail and the controls for setting the filters…

…was also operated by this pedal which controlled the volume. The instrument did not have any fixed pitches and produced multiple different timbres that could be directly transmitted through the radio

Trautonium (1930)Deutsches Museum

Sala later specialized in the further development of the Trautonium. He studied physics at the University of Berlin to further expand his knowledge of mathematics and natural sciences.

After the company Telefunken proposed mass production of the Trautonium as a domestic musical instrument, Sala developed the Volkstrautonium which was presented to the public at the Berliner Funkausstellung radio exhibition in 1933. Telefunken built 200 units under the tagline Trautoniums for Domestic Music. Due to its comparatively high price at the time, it was never a big seller and was discontinued.

There was even a special school that taught people how to correctly use the Trautonium…

In addition to the elegance of the sound, playing dynamics as well as trills, ornaments, and timbres could be produced and adjusted.

Das Rundfunkttrautonium (1934)Deutsches Museum

From 1934 to 1935, Sala was subsequently commissioned by the Reich Broadcasting Association to build the Rundfunktrautonium (Radio Trautonium)—the first Trautonium installed without any assistance from its inventor Friedrich Trautwein. As a step up from its predecessor, it had two manuals, and two pedals which each had independent effects on the manuals. As before, moving the pedals forward and back controlled the volume, while moving them side to side also allowed the user to retune the manuals while playing. Sala developed his own radio broadcast titled Music on the Trautonium (Musik auf dem Trautonium) using the instrument which was based in the Funkhaus Berlin radio station on Masurenallee.

Das Konzerttrautonium (1937)Deutsches Museum

For later public performances, Sala developed another instrument which was again portable: the Konzerttrautonium (Concert Trautonium). Like the radio Trautonium, it had two manuals and two pedals. However, it was somewhat more compact and also had—according to Sala—slightly more daring subharmonic additions.

Oskar Sala im FunkhausDeutsches Museum

The instrument was first heard in April 1939 on the radio during a performance of Concert for Trautonium and Orchestra (Konzert für Trautonium und Orchester), composed by Harald Genzmer, by the German Orchestra conducted by Karl List.

Oskar Sala und Harald Genzmer in Wien (1942)Deutsches Museum

This was followed by numerous joint appearances by Sala and Harald Genzmer on the grand piano across Europe, even during the war—like here in April 1942 in the Mozartsaal in Vienna.

Wiener Ilustrierte 1942 (1942)Deutsches Museum

…which the Wiener Illustrierte magazine also reported on…

The magazine covered Sala's and Genzmer's concert…

…but also the playing method of the Trautonium.

Das Mixturtrautonium von Oskar SalaDeutsches Museum

Following the Second World War, Sala developed the Mixturtrautonium (Mixture Trautonium). Like the concert Trautonium, it included two manuals and pedals. However, the sound and playing technique possibilities had been significantly expanded upon. The mixture Trautonium was presented to the public at the end of 1952 with the first outing of the concert for mixture Trautonium and large orchestra by Harald Genzmer at the Southwest German Radio station in Baden-Baden.

Das Tonstudio von Oskar Sala (1958)Deutsches Museum

Sala hardly appeared in public in concerts from 1958. Instead, he mostly worked in his Berlin recording studio, which the Deutsches Museum almost fully took over after his death. Sala added electronic percussion for percussion setups to the mixture Trautonium, and later modified it with additional components, such as noise generators and an electric metronome. Optimization of tape technology also opened up completely new possibilities, such as simulating a fully electronic orchestra.

Alfred Hitchcock und Oskar SalaDeutsches Museum

Sala composed musical pieces for many film and television works on the mixture Trautonium. His best known movie, however, was The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock. The opportunity presented itself when a former classmate of Sala who worked at Universal Studios in Hollywood heard that Hitchcock wanted synthetically produced bird sounds for his next movie. This is how Hitchcock came into contact with Sala. Hitchcock, who deliberately wanted to avoid creating traditional movie music, even flew to Sala's recording studio in Berlin where he was impressed by the sounds made by the Trautonium, which ultimately produced all the movie's sound effects.

Video zum Trautonium (1961)Deutsches Museum

Oskar Sala WeihnachtskarteDeutsches Museum

Sala, who had privately traveled much of the world with his wife Käthe, vacationed in Italy and Greece, Egypt, and the US before his grand return to the public sphere after 1988 when he created new works and sounds for film. He appeared as a guest at festivals and talk shows throughout Europe, appeared in lecture concerts and theaters, met numerous artists, and gave countless interviews. He was honored in radio broadcasts and movies and received several awards.

Oskar Sala in Bonn (1995)Deutsches Museum

In 1995, Sala made his mixture Trautonium available to the Deutsches Museum on permanent loan, pictured here together with the Bavarian State Minister for Science and Culture Hans Zehetmair at the ceremonial handover of his mixture Trautonium to the Deutsches Museum in Bonn.

In 2000, he donated his estate to the Deutsches Museum. He remained the only Trautonium player throughout his life. Sala died on February 26, 2002 in Berlin.

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