What is actually... the ondes Martenot?

Interesting facts about a bizarre instrument

Jeanne Loriod playing the ondes Martenot, 1967
(Photo: Photo Ingi Paris / akg-images)

Invented in the 1920s, the ondes Martenot, with its unique, sometimes ethereal, sometimes shrill sounds, can be heard in many works of film and pop music. And the instrument is also indispensable in the Turangalîla-Symphonie, which the Berliner Philharmoniker will perform on 25, 26 and 27 May 2023 under the baton of Simone Young.

How is the ondes Martenot played?

The ondes Martenot (French for “Martenot waves”) belongs to the first generation of electronic musical instruments. The seven-octave instrument is monophonic, so it can only produce melodies, not harmonies. The pitch is controlled by the right hand via a ring or a keyboard, the left hand controls the volume and timbre. In purely electro-acoustic terms, the ondes Martenot works on the principle of the so-called beat frequency oscillator, a device used to generate low-frequency sinusoidal oscillations.

Who invented the instrument?

Maurice Martenot was prompted to build the ondes Martenot by Lew Termen, the inventor of the theremin, which is a precursor of the synthesiser. The real inspiration, however, was the glissando sounds of radio waves, which Martenot had to listen to every day as a radio operator in the First World War. The instrument celebrated its premiere in Paris in 1928, when Martenot played in a symphonic poem by Dimitrios Levidis.


The inventor of the instrument: Maurice Martenot
(Photo: Le nouvel appareil pour la transmission de la musique par T.S.F. de Maurice Martenot : [photographie de presse] / Agence Meurisse von Agence de presse Meurisse, via Europeana)
Ondes Martenot
(Photo: Ondes Martenot von Martenot - 1937 - Europe - CC BY-NC-SA, via Europeana)

What does the ondes Martenot sound like?

The sound of the ondes Martenot is febrile, iridescent, surreal and eerie, so its use in the film industry, for example in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), is not surprising. But composers of classical music were the first to use this instrument and have had the most lasting influence on it. It enjoyed great popularity, especially among French composers, as 14 solo concertos alone impressively prove. Olivier Messiaen was probably introduced to the instrument by the virtuoso Jeanne Loriod, the sister of his wife Yvonne. He used it in the Turangalîla-Symphonie as well as in the Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine (1944) and the opera Saint François d'Assise (1983). The most artistically valuable and effective contributions to the repertoire for this instrument are by André Jolivet. But without Messiaen, we would associate the instrument today only with film and pop music.


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