Composers Datebook®

Leon Theremin's good vibrations


When a flying saucer circled over Washington, DC, in the classic 1951 sci-fi film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” it did so to music played on an electronic instrument known as the Theremin.

Its Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, was born in St. Petersburg on today’s date in 1896. In 1927 Theremin traveled to America, where he obtained a patent for an electronic instrument he called the Thereminovox. In the 1930s, Theremin arranged concerts for his creation at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Then, in 1938, without explanation, Theremin disappeared. Some said it was because he was in debt, others because he was married to two women at the same time. The truth was even stranger: Theremin was a spy.

He had been passing on American technical information to the Soviets. Ironically, when he returned home, Theremin was immediately thrown into a Soviet prison for seven years. While incarcerated, he developed miniature electronic eavesdropping devices for the Soviet government.

Decades later, in 1989, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the 92-year old Theremin again showed up in New York to be honored at a festival of electronic music, amazed that his name and instrument were even remembered.

Music Played in Today's Program

Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975) The Day the Earth Stood Still National Philharmonic; Bernard Herrmann, cond. London 443 899

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) Berceuse, fr The Firebird Clara Rockmore, theremin; Nadia Reisenberg, piano Delos 1014

On This Day


  • 1875 - English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in London; His father was from Sierra Leone and his mother English; He composed a very successful trilogy of oratorios based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "Hiawatha": "The Song of Hiawatha" (1898), "The Death of Minnehaha" (1899) and "Hiawatha's Departure" (1900);

  • 1890 - French composer Jacques Ibert, in Paris;

  • 1896 - Russian inventor Lev Sergeivitch Termen (anglicized to Leon Theremin) in St. Petersburg (Julian date: August 3); He invented the theremin, an electronic instrument whose sound was used or imitated in a number of film scores (“Spellbound,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, etc.) and in the Beach Boys’ song “Good Vibrations”

  • 1922 - German-born American composer and conductor Lukas Foss, in Berlin (presumed date; Foss says his birth year is not authenticated and he has no birth certificate);


  • 1728 - French composer and gamba virtuoso Marain Marais, age 72, in Paris;

  • 1985 - American composer Richard Yardumian, age 68, in Bryn Athyn, Pa.;


  • 1865 - Liszt: oratorio, "St. Elizabeth," in Pest, Hungary;

  • 1935 - Grofé: "Hollywood" Suite, at the Hollywood Bowl;

  • 1986 - Penderecki: opera "The Black Mask," at the Salzburg Festival in Austria;

  • 2000 - Saariaho: opera "L'amour de loin," at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, with a cast including Dawn Upshaw, Dwayne Croft, and Dagmar Peckova; and Kent Nagano conducting the Southwest German Radio Orchestra of Baden-Baden;


  • 1772 - Johannes Nepomuk Maelzel, German inventor credited with the creation of the metronome, is born in Regensburg; For a time he was the friend of Beethoven and collaborated with him on various projects;

  • 1969 - The three-day Woodstock Music and Arts Fair begins in Bethel, fifty miles south of Woodstock, N.Y., attended by nearly half a million rock 'n' roll enthusiasts.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®