Hands Off - It's a Theremin! (1948) - from the Archives

Hands Off - It's a Theremin!

This Musical Instrument Is Played by Merely Waving the Hands Over It.
Mary Day Winn 1948

To see Frederick P. Stieff play a piece of music on the theremin is to be reminded of a boy doing tricks on a bicycle. For, like a boy who rides with "no hands". Mr. Stieff plays this instrument without touching it - by merely waving his hands over it.

The theremin is an electronic device, a kind of by-blow of the radio. Like a lot of other strange things, it is a Russian invention.

Readers able to remember the early days of radio recall that when their hand approached the tuning dial, the machine would emit a cacophony of shrieks, groans and squeaks which sounded like a barbershop quartet in the zoo. The noises were caused by an unprotected condenser.

Prof. Leon Theremin, a Russian, became interested in this phenomenon from the musical point of view. He reasoned that if the noises could be narrowed to one note at a time; if a way could be worked out for controlling the pitch with one hand and the volume with the other, and if the technique were not too hared to master, the world would have a new musical instrument.

Well, the professor could and did, and the result was the theremin, named for him.

Later models were made to look something like cellos and pianos, but the original model resembles a music cabinet; the mechanism is like a radio's.

A metal antenna 15 1/2 inches high rises from the right-hand side of the cabinet; another antenna, in the form of a large loop, projects from the left.

The player, who stands up, carries the tune by moving his right hand close to or far from the upright rod; the closer the hand, the higher the note. His left hand phrases and controls volume by moving over the loop antenna.

Anyone who has tried to pat his head and rub his stomach at eh same time will appreciate the difficulty of carrying on these two uncoordinated movements simultaneously. The effect is that of an orchestra leader, daintily conducting an nonexistent orchestra.

Mr. Stieff and his wife are two of only four people in Baltimore who play the instrument.

Mr. Stieff first became interested in the theremin in the late twenties, when he read press notices describing the sensation it was causing in Europe. When Professor Theremin brought his invention to this country, in 1928 {actually, late 1927}, and a company acquired manufacturing rights, he bought one, and secured the agency for selling them in Baltimore.

In America also, the novelty created quite a splash. About 1,000 theremins were sold {the actual number was 500 according to historian Albert Glinsky}, and the purchasers included such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and John Charles Thomas.

The instrument was played with the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Symphony. Stokowski used it to augment his Philadelphia Orchestra. At Carnegie Hall a whole stage full of theremins were played.

In January, 1929, Mr. Stieff brought Theremin himself and two women musicians to Baltimore, where they gave two concerts. There was considerable fanfare, one concert being opened with a speech by Governor Ritchie, the other by Mayor Jackson.

Then came October, 1929. The stock market plunged, and so did the market for theremins. The manufacturing company abandoned the project.

But not Mr. Stieff. Along with a handful of other performers throughout the country, he has kept up his playing, appearing many times on the radio, and giving informal concerts at his home. His wife accompanies him on the organ or the piano.

Although hearing Mr. Stieff play is a delightful and unusual experience, he is very modest about his accomplishment.

"I long ago decided," he says, "that I couldn't be a business man and a musician at the same time; so I have learned no other instrument. But theremin playing can be lots of fun if you don't take yourself too seriously. We often give concerts for our friends, for which I provide the comic relief. As I have no musical reputation to lose, I don't mind."

This is a description of his playing with which no one who has heard it will agree. The theremin, well played, is anything but comic. staccato notes and light, gay music do not sound well on it, but slow music is extraordinarily sweet and rich, and sounds a good deal like that of the cello.

The theremin is the only musical instrument on which you can get a continuous note without bowing- as a violin- or stopping to get you breath. It has a range of 3 1/2 octaves, from F below middle C to F above high C.

"All you really need to play it," says Mr. Stieff, "is a sense of pitch, but that is absolutely necessary. If you haven't got a sense of pitch, for the sake of your neighbors you'd better not go in for the theremin."

Several big names in the musical world who have been guests at Mr. Stieff's home have tried playing the instrument.

"Rosa Ponselle and Alec Templeton caught on to it quickly," he says, "but some of the others couldn't get to first base.

"In spite of this, it is really easy to play. Anyone with a musical 'ear' can puck up enough in ten days of practicing, an hour and a half a day, to give a fair performance. In two weeks more of practice, he can really play."

Mr. Stieff has had some serio-comic experiences with the theremin in the course of his many radio appearances. Once he was on a program with two pianists. One of them, having finished his performance, got up to tiptoe out of the studio.

"I saw disaster in the making," says Mr. Stieff. "If the musician passed too near the theremin's antenna, the instrument would give out and ungodly shriek right in the middle of my most soulful passage. I couldn't tell him to keep away, as my words would go out on the air.

"So I just glared at the pianist. Fortunately, at the moment he passed me, I was able to lower my left hand in phrasing, and that muted the shriek."

On another occasion, an hour before he was due to go on the air, he plugged the instrument in to what he had been informed was an AC current. Instead, it was DC, ant the theremin promptly "exploded".

"There I was, with no continuity written for anything else, and no time to write one." Some frantic rushing around produced a new theremin in time, and he and his orchestra went on the air- although without a rehearsal.

Hearing a theremin promises to be an ever rarer experience, since at present they are no longer being manufactured.

"But of course," says Mr. Stieff, "you can always get yourself committed to Alcatraz. I understand that they have a warning system there, based on the principle of the theremin- it sounds off if a prisoner approaches a forbidden area."

The preceding text is transcribed verbatim from an ancient, crumbling newspaper clipping that I purchased several years ago at Bruce Mager's "WAVES" antique radio shop in NYC. It's a whole page from a "Sunday supplement", but the newspaper name and date are absent. Therefore, I searched the story subject's birth and death dates in the on-line Social Security index and learned that he lived from 1891 to 1964. After extrapolating from the stated age of another man found on the reverse side of the theremin page, I concluded that the following article appeared in a Baltimore newspaper in 1948.

Prominently featured are composite photographs illustrating Mr. Frederick Stieff playing his RCA theremin. Mrs. Stieff sits with her dog on the bench at a piano in the background. A separate smaller photograph offers a rear-door view of the RCA theremin chassis.

Reid Welch (from the LevNet Archives)

Tagged: Frederick P. Stieff

Categories:     Newspaper & Magazine