The ondes Martenot is without a doubt the invention of the century in terms of musical instruments. In spite of its exceptional powers of expression, this marvellous instrument and remarkable qualities remain surprisingy unknown to the public at large.
From Radio Waves to Musical Waves
It is World War I, and the soldiers in their trenches are living through sonic hell. Bullets and shells rain down, screaming through the air with eardrum-splitting volume. And then one day a surprising new sound-pure and seductive-fills the trenches: the sound of the new triode-tube radios that have just been introduced to the front.
Maurice Martenot, a young wireless operator, is among those posted to these new radios. Although an army technician, Martenot is first and foremost a musician and, as he would himself later admit, infected with the ” invention bug “. The surprising range of sounds emanating from his radio enchants him, and instead of thinking about war he finds himself dreaming about the musical possibilities of these radio waves. The idea of creating a new musical instrument takes root; surely such pure sounds could express artistic sentiment just as well as those created by traditional musical instruments?
After the war, Martenot started working on his invention, designing and producing the instrument known today as the ondes Martenot. In 1928, he gave his first concert at the Paris Opera, the huge success of which prompted him to take his invention on a world tour with his sister Ginette. However, the inventor was more concerned with perfecting his creation, than performing on it or promoting it. These tasks he left to musicians and composers. In fact, many of this century’s greatest musical figures-Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel, Rabindranath Tagore, André Jolivet, Olivier Messiaen-quickly recognised the instrument’s extraordinary expressive qualities. A number of composers began to write for ondes Martenot, which helped it achieve a level of acceptance equal to that of the more traditional orchestral instruments.