Later developments of Freidrich Trautwein’s original Trautonium were continued by the Trautonium virtuoso and composer Oskar Sala. In 1936, Sala christened his first instrument the ‘Rundfunktrautonium’ (‘Radio-Trautonium’) and also developed a concert version, the “Konzerttrautonium”. After the end of the Second World War the instrument was re-named the ‘Mixturtrautonium’ but all were essentially developments of the original subtractive synthesis principles of the Trautonium.
The essential design principles of the Trautonium were retained by Sala; sound production on the basis of sub-harmonic ‘mixture’, and the method of playing with two string manuals. The latter are made of wire-covered catgut strings which act as variable resistors. according to the position at which they are pressed againts the contact rail beneath them, they control the frequencies of the electronic sound generators. when the finger glides over the string a continuous glissando results over the entire tonal region which has just been tuned up. Micro-tonal intervals could be produced on the Mixturtrautonium. To ensure accurate contact with the notes leather covered sprung and moveable metal tongues are added to each string. Unlike with a vibrating string, the gradation of the electrical-resistant string manual is linear and not exponential so that all octave have the same finger range.
The 1948 post-war Mixturtrautonium was a polyphonic version of the original Trautonium, generating sound from two AEG Thoraton tubes with a 3 ½ octave range (which could be extended with an octave switch). The instrument could also be controlled with a foot pedal that not only allowed variation in volume but also with a lateral foot movement, select three different sets of sub-harmonics. The Sub-harmonic ‘mixture’ technique basically used un-natural low frequency harmonics to modulate a sawtooth signal creating complex harmonic ‘mixtures’ which could be further coloured with noise generators, mixers, an envelope controller and a frequency shifter.
During the pre-war period, the ”Rundfunktrautonium’ was used extensively for film and radio broadcasts and after Paul Hindemith’s endorsement, became the instrument of choice for ‘serious’ electronic music composition (Hindemith’s switching of allegiances from Jörg Mager’s Sphärophon family of instruments to the Trautonium signalled the end of Mager’s career in instrument design). A portable version, the ‘Konzerttrautonium’ was designed in 1936 specifically for the composer Harald Genzmer’s ” Conzert für Trautonium und Orchestrer” and saw more than fifty performances before the outbreak of the war.
Berlin had in the early Thirties become the world capital of electronic music, with inventors and designers such as Jörg Mager , Oskar Vierling , Fritz Sennheiser , Bruno Helberger, Harald Bode, Friedrich Trautwein and Oskar Sala (with much of the work centred around the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute). These instruments often explored radical new approaches to tonality and expression and were enthusiastically adopted by the avant-garde of the period. This period of musical ferment coincided with the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party (NDSAP), who initially tried to absorb this strain of modernism for their own propaganda ends – indeed, the name ‘Volkstrautonium’ echoes the name ‘Volkswagen’ as a peoples instrument for a modern, new Germany. On the 18th August 1933, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Propaganda Minister) presided over the IFA ‘Internationale Funkausstellung’ (International Radio Exhibition) in Berlin. The music for the exhibition was provided by the ‘Future Orchestra’ (Das Orchester der Zukunft) composed of the most advanced electronic instruments of the time: The Volkstrautonium played by Oskar Sala, Bruno Helberger’s Hellertion, Oskar Vierling’s Elektrochord , the Neo-Bechstein of Walther Nernst, a collection of electric violins and cellos and Leon Termen’s Theremin.
The rise of the Hitler’s National Socialist party presented electronic and avant-garde musicians with a difficult choice; either the hope that by collaborating they would survive and be left alone and be able to continue working or, simply, leave the country. Trautwein, who had joined the NDSAP in the late thirties used his connections:
Luckily Trautwein knew a general who was on our side and arranged that we could play the instrument to the minister of propaganda Joseph Goebels, Hitler’s right hand man. I Played something by Paganini and of course he liked it. After that, they left us in peace.
This collaboration resulted in a commission from the Reich’s Radio organisation for several new instruments to be built for a weekly fifteen minute programme “Musik Auf Dem Trautonium” (playing German classical music accompanied by a pianist) and later commissions to use the instrument at large scale NDSAP rallies, outdoor concerts, speeches and, (alongside other electronic instruments such as Vierling’s GrosstonOrgel) the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. However, this patronage was short-lived as the Nazi’s asserted their traditional conservatism; Atonal, Experimental and avant-garde music alongside Jazz and other non-German culture was branded ‘entarte’ or ‘degenerate’. Trautwein and Sala’s workshop was denied funding and closed, the Trautonoium was relegated to performing Reich-approved music. Sala spent the war years touring throughout Germany and Axis occupied countries until he was conscripted in 1944 and sent to the Eastern Front
After the end of the war Sala founded a studio for film music soundtrack production in Berlin,where, amongst many other projects, he recorded music for Hitchcock’s “the birds” .
Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. Thomas B. Holmes, Thom Holmes
Framing the Fifties: Cinema in a Divided Germany. edited by John Davidson, Sabine Hake
Music and German National Identity. edited by Celia Applegate, Pamela Potter
Peter Badge (2000). Oskar Sala:Pionier der elektronischen Musik. Satzwerk, 100pp. ISBN 3-930333-34-1