Ondes Martenot Quartet – Messiaen – Oraison – Recorded by ORTF, Paris – 1954 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Something unusual this weekend. The Ondes Martenot Quartet, featuring the inventor Maurice Martenot in a piece written by Olivier Messiaen especially for the Ondes Martenot; Oraison – recorded in the studios of ORTF for broadcast sometime around 1954.
The ondes Martenot (French for “Martenot waves”) is one of the earliest electronic instruments, patented in the same year as another early electronic instrument, the theremin. It was invented in 1928 by French cellist Maurice Martenot. Martenot had been a radio operator during World War I, and developed the ondes Martenot in an attempt to replicate the accidental overlaps of tones between military radio oscillators. He hoped to bring musical expressivity associated with the cello to his new instrument. He first demonstrated the ondes Martenot on April 20, 1928, performing Dimitrios Levidis’s Poème symphonique at the Paris Opera.
Units were manufactured individually to order. Over the following years, Martenot produced several new models, introducing the ability to produce vibrato by moving the keys, a feature adapted in the 1970s by some Yamaha GX-1 synthesisers. According to The Guardian, the ondes Martenot visually resembles a cross between an organ and a theremin.
The ondes Martenot is unique among electronic musical instruments in its methods of control. It can be played with a metal ring worn on the right index finger. Sliding the ring along a wire produces “theremin-like” tones, generated by oscillations in vacuum tubes, or transistors in the seventh model.
The third model of the instrument, unveiled in 1929, had a non-functioning simulacrum of a keyboard below the wire to indicate pitch. This model also had a “black fingerguard” on a wire which could be used instead of the ring. It was held between the right thumb and index finger, which was played standing at a distance from the instrument. When played in this way, the drawer is removed from the instrument and placed on a bench next to the player. Maurice Martenot’s pedagogical manual for the ondes Martenot, written in 1931, offers instruction on both methods of playing.
Later versions added a real functioning keyboard; the keys produce vibrato when moved from side to side. This was introduced in the 1930s with the 84-key fourth version of the instrument. Subsequent versions had 72 keys. Combined with a switch that transposes the pitch by one octave, these instruments have a range from C1 to C8.
This broadcast features, in addition to the inventor Maurice Martenot, Jeanne Loriod, and Nelly Caron.