The ‘Ondes-Martenot’ Maurice Martenot, France, 1928

Ondes Martenot
Ondes Martenot

Maurice Martenot a Cellist and radio Telegraphist, met the Russian electronic engineer Leon Termen in 1923, this meeting lead him to design an instrument based on Termens ideas, the first model, the “Ondes-Martenot” was patented on the 2nd of April 1928 under the name “Perfectionnements aux instruments de musique électriques” (improvements to electronic music instruments). His aim was to produce a versatile electronic instrument that was immediately familiar to orchestral musicians. The first versions bore little resemblance to the later production models: consisting of two table mounted units controlled by a performer who manipulated a string attached to a finger ring (using the bodies capacitance to control the sound characteristics in a manner very similar to the Theremin) this device was later incorporated as a fingerboard strip above the keyboard.

Female Ondes Orchestra
Female Ondes Orchestra

Later versions used a standard keyboard.The Ondes-Martenot became the first succesfull electronic instrument and the only one of its generation that is still used by orchestras today, Martenot himself became, 20 years after its invention, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire teaching lessons in the Ondes-Martenot. The Ondes-Martenot’s success was the Theremins loss, although both used the vacuum tube oscillator as a sound source and were both monophonic, where the Theremin had a sliding scale and no fixed preset notes the Ondes-Martenot had a keyboard and a strip control for glissando and vibrato, organ like stops for preset timbres and an appearance that was familiar to any keyboard player.

Pre-set sounds on the later Ondes Martenot were:

  • Onde (O): A simple sine wave timbre. Similar in sound to the flute or ocarina.
  • Creux (C):  A peak-limited triangle wave. Similar in sound to a clarinet in high registers.
  • Gambe (G):  A timbre somewhat resembling a square wave. Intended to be similar in sound to string instruments, as the French title would suggest.
  • Petit Gambe (g): A similar but less harmonically-rich timbre than Gambe. The player can control the number of harmonics present in the signal by using a slider situated in the control drawer.
  • Nasillard (N): A timbre resembling a pulse wave. Similar in sound to a bassoon in low registers.
  • Octaviant (8): A timbre with a reinforced first harmonic whose intensity in the signal can be controlled by using a slider. This setting is analogous to the 4 foot stop in organ terminology.
  • Souffle (S): A timbre often described as white noise, but in fact pink noise of indefinite pitch.

The sound from the instrument could be output to a number of speakers or ‘Diffuseurs’ who’s physical properties further coloured the sound, the were:

  • ‘Principal’ A traditional, large loudspeaker.
  • ‘Résonance’ A loudspeaker which uses springs to produce a mechanical reverb effect.
  • ‘Métallique’ A small gong is used as the loudspeaker diaphragm to produce a ‘halo’ effect rich in harmonics.
  • ‘Palme’ An iconic lyre-shaped loudspeaker, using strings to produce sympathetic resonances.
loudspeakers
loudspeakers or Diffuseurs of the Ondes Martrnot: the Métallique, the palm and the Principal

The instrument also had a bank of expression keys that allowed the player to change the timbre and character of the sounds. A later (1938) version of the instrument featured microtonal tuning as specified by the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore and the musician Alain Danielou. The Ondes-Martenot was quickly accepted and became one of the few electronic instruments to be admitted to the orchestra (at least in France) and had a wide repertoire by prominent composers such as Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messian (The “Turangalîla Symphonie” and “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine” amongst others ), Darius Milhaud , Arthur Honegger, Maurice Jarre, Jolivet and Koechlin.





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4 thoughts on “The ‘Ondes-Martenot’ Maurice Martenot, France, 1928”

  1. Congratulations for your fantastic collection, and thank you for maintaining and enrichening it after so many years.
    May I ask where did you find the information about Martenot meeting Theremin in 1923 ? Do you know where they met ? This would change a lot of things about Martenot’s story…

    1. Hi – OK. the quote is from the Grove Encyclopedia of Musical instruments in Hugh Davies’ introduction to the history of electronic music “It appears that in 1923 he (Termen) met Martenot and Djunkowski (who later gave performances in Berlin on an instrument of the theremin type).”

      hope that’s useful

      Simon

  2. Thanks a lot.
    H. Davies is a serious source. Still, I wonder where they could have met. According to A. Glinsky, 1923 was the first “agit-prop tour” year for Lev Termen, but I could’nt find any trace of touring in France, not event outside Russia. And it is very unlikely that Maurice Martenot could ever make a trip to Leningrad at that time…
    On the other hand, Theremins’s instrument obviously inspired Martenot’s very first Model (may 1928) : the gestures are identical, althought Martenot used wire and key controls instead of “air” playing. When, in the 1970’s, he was asked by jean Laurendeau if he attended the – triumphal – Paris demonstration that Theremin gave at the opera a few months before, and which seems to have triggered the urge to achieve a first version of his Ondes, Martenot said he “did’nt remember”. As a matter of fact, Martenot did his best – and succeeded – to “forget” the theremin and claim for unique and better features.

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