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Ondes Martenot

In 1928 the frenchman Maurice Martenot developed the Ondes Martenot whose circuitry was almost certainly based on that of the Theremin (the Onde uses sine and saw tooth wave sources) but whose playing technique was quite different. Like the theremin the Ondes Martenot is monophonic (playing one note at a time) and variations in pitch are obtained either on a keyboard with a range of 7 octaves or by a ‘ribbon’. This ribbon has a ring into which the right index finger is inserted and notes are produced by sliding the finger ring to various contact points which produces a portamento effect between pitches much like a fretless violin fingerboard. However no sound is heard at all until a button known as the ‘touche’ housed in a drawer is depressed with the left hand. This is connected to a variable potentiometer and therefore acts rather like the air blown through a wind instrument - the harder you press the louder the sound will be on the keyboard. Also in this drawer are a number of electronic filters which change timbre and dynamics. These two ways of playing (on keyboard or finger ribbon) possess great possibilities of expression. Both permit a vibrato that is totally dependent on the gestures of the performer. (the keys allow a slight side to side movement to produce vibrato as on a string instrument fingerboard). The sound is amplified through a 4 speaker system one of which has a small gong positioned in front of it producing a very distinctive 'metallique' reverberation. Another is the "Palme" - an iconically lyre-shaped loudspeaker, using strings to produce sympathetic resonances.

Various combinations of these speakers can be used at any one time. To quote the composer Vincent D’Indy.. ‘since no automatic factor intervenes, the performance adopts the character of a direct human expression and the player, when he or she is in firm command of the playing technique, gets the feeling that the instrument is part of his nervous system, so true it is to the relation between his musical thought and the resulting sound’. Many composers have written for the Ondes Martenot namely Varese, Milhaud, Chaynes, Jolivet, Honegger, Tessier but most importantly Olivier Messiaen whose sister- in- law Jeanne Loriod became the world virtuoso who taught the instrument at the Paris Conservatoire. She also formed a sextet of Ondes Martenots to perform works written solely for them. Britains’ own Cynthia Miller commutes regularly to Hollywood nowadays to perform on film soundtracks featuring the Ondes by the likes of Elmer Bernstein, and composer/performer Tristan Murail continues to explore the wide range of possibilities of the Ondes Martenot. Messiaen features the Ondes in his 3 Liturgies and the mighty Turangalila Symphony where it is featured along side the piano as a solo instrument (as a matter of some interest, the first recorded version of Turangalila Symphony has Maurice Martenot’s daughter Ginette as Ondes soloist). He also uses 3 Ondes Martenots in his opera St. Francis of Assisi and 6 in Fete Des Belles Eaux where in the hands of a master craftsman such as Messiaen the Ondes Martenot is explored to great heights of musical expression.

The production of the instrument by the Martenot family stopped in 1988.


Ondes Musicales by DIERSTEIN

Since 2008, Jean-Loup Dierstein, with the support of Maurice Martenot's son, has been developing a new, ondes Martenot instrument based on the model used when production stopped in 1988.
Jean-Loup Dierstein has created and instrument that is as close to the original Martenot instrument but at the same time has made many improvements by way of new technology that has made the instrument much more stable and reliable.

Ondes Martenot virtuoso Thomas Bloch has spent many hours with this new instrument and comments that it reacts and sounds just as his original models

Jean-Loup Dierstein and Malcolm Ball with the
Ondes Musicales by Dierstein.




In 1997, the Ondéa project began designing an instrument based on the ondes Martenot and has the playing and operational characteristics of the original ondes Martenot. In 2001, a completed prototype was first used in concerts. These instruments have been in regular use since 2005.




My thanks to Christine Ott for demonstrating L'ONDEA to me at the Frankfurt Musikmesse March 2003
See Early Electronic Instruments.


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Le chant des ondes par Caroline Martel, Office national du film du Canada