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Ondes Martenot on Composers Datebook

Today's Composers Datebook featured an instrument that is not particularly well-known, but important to any discussion of the music of Olivier Messiaen, whose music UMWO is currently working on.

The Ondes Martenot

Today in 1928, a French musician and inventor named Maurice Martenot gave the first public demonstration of a strange, new electronic instrument he had created. It was a gadget that had pull-wires, pointers and a keyboard diagram which produced eerie-sounding tones reminiscent of the human voice, but without the human limitations of voice range or lung power.

In addition to being a clever inventor, Martenot was also a savvy promoter of his new electronic instrument, which he took on a world tour, with his sister serving as its first virtuoso performer. The instrument came to be called the "Ondes Martenot" -- which translates into English as "Martenot Waves."

A number of 20th century composers were quite enthusiastic. Arthur Honegger even thought the Ondes Martenot might replace the contra-bassoon in symphony orchestras, writing: "The Ondes Martenot has power and a speed of utterance which is not to be compared with those gloomy stove-pipes looming up in orchestras."

Well, contra-bassoonists needn't worry: their analog, breath-powered stove-pipes still provide the low blows in most modern orchestras, but the Ondes Martenot does figure prominently in several major 20th century scores, including the monumental Turangalila Symphony of the French composer, Oliver Messiaen.

In 1947 Martenot established classes in the Ondes Martenot at the Paris Conservatory, and, following Martenot's death in 1981, the French even formed an official society with the grand title of "L'Association pour la Diffusion et le Développement des Ondes Martenot."

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