The Ondes Martenot: A History of one of the First Electronic Musical Instruments

The invention of the ondes Martenot played a key part in a crucial turning point in the history of music – for the first time ever music could be created by electronic means. Its name is a combination of the French word for ‘waves’ and the name of its French inventor, Maurice Martenot. Despite being a relatively obscure instrument, it has made a vital contribution to music of many different genres of the past hundred years.

The ondes Martenot was invented in 1928, the same year as another early electronic instrument – the theremin – and the stories behind the two instruments coincide in interesting ways. Firstly, both Mr Martenot and Mr Theremin worked with military radios during the First World War and were intrigued by the sounds created when the radio oscillators’ tones overlapped by mistake. Secondly, both inventors were cellists, and the former specifically aimed to create an instrument that could replicate the sound of the radio tones but had the expressive power of the cello that he was so fond of. Leon Theremin’s creation, on the other hand, came about more accidentally when adapting a device to produce a sound that would change pitch depending on gas density. Unpredictably, he found that the proximity and movements of his body also affected the pitch, and he soon began attempting to play tunes that he knew as a cellist by moving his body towards and away from the device. The sound of the theremin is perhaps more widely familiar – it is the classic eerie, sliding electronic sound associated with sci-fi and horror movies.

While the sound produced by the ondes Martenot, generated by oscillations in vacuum tubes, is very similar to the theremin, what sets it apart is the hugely increased control over the sound that the performer has. Rather than waving your hands around the instrument with nothing to guide you, the ondes Martenot is played by placing your finger inside a ring that’s attached to a wire. To change the pitch, you slide your finger up and down the wire, creating the theremin-esque sliding sound of swooping between pitches, behind which is a keyboard to provide a clear reference – the sound produced will be of the pitch of the key that your finger is in front of. Though originally there only as a guide, later versions of the instrument developed in the 1930s had a functioning keyboard, the keys of which could be wiggled from side to side to create vibrato (predating the invention of the ROLI Seaboard, celebrated today as the keyboard instrument that can produce glissandos and vibrato, by over seventy years). Further elements, such as volume and attack can be accurately managed by various controls in a drawer that slides out of the instrument beside the performer, operated by the left hand. The variety in tone and dynamic that this instrument offers is vast, ranging from the most quiet and hauntingly beautiful glissando melodies to short, deafening stabs of sound.

The most notable use of the ondes Martenot in classical music is found in the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen. His first use of the instrument was in Fête des belles eaux (‘Festival of beautiful waters’), commissioned as music to accompany the movement of the fountains at the 1937 Paris Exposition, and written for an ensemble of six ondes Martenots. Though Messiaen’s was the only work solely for ondes Martenots, a fair few of the pieces performed at the exposition featured the instrument which in general was enthusiastically received, hailed as 'the most sensational musical and scientific achievement of the 1937 exposition’. The otherworldly sound of Messiaen’s piece must have been phenomenal to witness at the time and even today sounds pretty extraordinary. The highlight for me of Fête des belles eaux is the fourth movement (‘L’eau’) (particularly from figure 10 onwards, for anyone who’s interested to see the score). Intriguingly marked as Extrêmement lent, extatique (‘extremely slow, ecstatic’), this breathtaking section features one ondes Martenot playing a lilting melody that seems to endlessly weave up and down, accompanied by a trio of ondes Martenots sustaining – to the point of sounding almost static – soft chords beneath the melody.

See 8:06-15.28

This section of music was in fact reused by Messiaen to form the fifth movement, ‘Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus’ (‘Praise to the Eternity of Jesus’) of one of his most well-known works, Quatuor pour la fin du temps (‘Quartet for the end of time’), composed and premiered in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1941. Here the melody is played by a solo cello, thus in a sense sees it having gone full circle – a melody written for an electronic instrument invented to possess qualities of the cello was now being played on the cello itself. The sustained chords that created the accompaniment in ‘L’eau’ now become gently pulsating chords on the piano.

The ondes Martenot went on to become a key part of the sound of many of Messiaen’s major works, such as his Turangalîla-Symphonie. Though the 1949 premiere, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, featured Ginette Martenot (the inventor’s sister) on the ondes Martenot, the part was later often performed by Jeanne Loriod. As well as becoming the most revered performer of the instrument, Loriod became Messiaen’s sister-in-law in 1961 when he married her sister Yvonne Loriod, a virtuosic pianist who had premiered most of Messiaen’s piano works since the 1940s, including the formidable solo piano part of the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Many subsequent performances and recordings of this work featured the two Loriod sisters performing alongside each other. In the Turangalîla-Symphonie, Messiaen’s use of the ondes Martenot varies from being impressively blended into the texture (interestingly often playing the same music as the first violins) to having a more soloistic part where its glissandos and warbling sound stick out of the texture. For me the most effective ondes Martenot moment in this piece is in the second movement, ‘Chant d’amour 1’ (‘Love song 1’), where relentlessly noisy sections with irregular and constantly changing time signatures are interrupted with moments of serene stillness – here the sound of the ondes Martenot adds a chilling quality to the melody played by the upper strings, accompanied by a sustained chord in the lower strings and brass (not unlike the texture of ‘L’eau’).

See 7:31-15:30 for 'Chant d'amour 1'

Before long the ondes Martenot was being used in a variety of musical genres as well as film scores. In 1959, Belgian singer Jacques Brel recorded the first version of what would become one of his most iconic songs – ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ (‘Don’t Leave Me’). The eerie sound of an ondes Martenot opens the track, setting the mood for the melancholic melody and lyrics, and joins the accompaniment of the final verse before ending the song with two haunting statements of a descending two-note phrase. This song became very popular and has been recorded by a huge number of artists in many different languages. The American jazz singer and pianist Nina Simone recorded a fantastic version (sung with its original French lyrics) for her classic 1965 album I Put a Spell on You.

More recently the ondes Martenot has found a home in the work of English rock band Radiohead. Jonny Greenwood, the band’s lead guitarist as well as a composer of concert and film music, has been a big fan of Messiaen – particularly the Turangalîla-Symphonie – from a young age. In 1999 Radiohead were in Paris trying to begin work on the follow-up to their successful 1997 album OK Computer, but were struggling to work out what new direction their music would take. It was during this time that Greenwood acquired an ondes Martenot, and as the band’s ideas began to develop the instrument became a key part of their new, more electronically influenced style with the release of the groundbreaking Kid A in 2000 and then Amnesiac a year later (recorded during the same sessions). Greenwood’s ondes Martenot playing is used to great effect, from creating sustained lines as a backdrop to the noisy soundworld of ‘The National Anthem’ to adding lilting phrases to ‘How to Disappear Completely’ (blending here with Greenwood’s expressive and innovative string scoring). The band also found more creative ways of using the instrument, such as using its loudspeaker to add a murky resonant quality to singer Thom Yorke’s vocals in ‘You and Whose Army’ – a song that some may be familiar with as the accompanying track to a transition sequence in BBC drama Peaky Blinders, initiated by Arthur Shelby’s sombre moment of reflection in the church. Greenwood has continued to take the ondes Martenot (or often modern replicas) on tour with Radiohead as well as use it in their subsequent albums – a wonderful example can be heard in ‘Where I End and You Begin’ from Hail To The Thief (2003) where, particularly in the second half of the track, it adds a swooping layer of sorrowful phrases on top of the urgent energy of the drums, bass and guitar. Greenwood has also used it in his film scores as well as smear – a 2004 composition for two ondes Martenots and chamber ensemble.

From its origins as a pioneering part of early electronic music to the wider audience it has received more recently in the work of Radiohead, the ondes Martenot has played a fascinating role in the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century music. People are continuing to find use for this instrument’s unique qualities, such as the prominent role in plays in Thomas Adès’ most recent opera The Exterminating Angel, and I wonder what interesting and creative contributions to all kinds of music it will make in the future.

Oran Johnson, November 2020

Oran has also written:

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