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Born in Russia in 1911, Clara Rockmore grew up to become a trailblazing performer of the world’s first electronic instrument—the theremin. Rockmore was a child musical prodigy with perfect pitch, but by the time she was a teenager, an arm injury forced her to give up her beloved violin. Still, music called to her, and after Rockmore was introduced to a brand new instrument—one that made the player look like she was pulling notes out of thin air—she embraced the theremin’s magic, amazing the world with her virtuosic talents.
Jess Gillam is a British saxophonist and BBC radio broadcaster. She is the first-ever saxophonist to be signed to Decca Classics and recently released her second album, ‘TIME’. Gillam is also a presenter on TV and Radio. She became the youngest ever presenter for BBC Radio 3 and hosts her own weekly show and podcast called “This Classical Life” where she chats to musical guests to swap tracks and share the music they love. She has been the recipient of a Classic BRIT Award (in the Sound of Classical Poll), and was the first-ever saxophonist to reach the final of BBC Young Musician.
|Once upon a time, there was a girl who made music out of thin air. Her name… was Clara…
Clara was born in Vilnius (vil·nee·uhs), Russia—in what is now called Lithuania—in 1911.
When Clara was little, music swam in her ears. And when her uncle bought her a tiny violin, playing the instrument felt as natural to Clara as breathing.
She was so good that, at age four, she auditioned for a special music school in St. Petersburg.
Clara was quite small, so she had to stand on a table so the professors could see her. But she didn’t mind. She just tucked the violin under her chin and moved her bow across the strings, closing her eyes as the music flowed through her.
When she finished, the professors’ mouths hung open in amazement.
Clara got a perfect score and became the youngest person ever to attend the school. And one day, her incredible abilities would lead her to master a new kind of instrument—and become its first virtuosa.
|I’m Jess Gillam. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Clara Rockmore. A trailblazing performer of the world’s first electronic instrument—the theremin.
|At Clara’s new school, she studied with some of the world’s best violinists. And the whole time, her older sister Nadia, a gifted pianist, was by her side—attending the same school and even playing concerts with her.
People delighted in watching them perform—Clara with her tiny violin, and Nadia’s fingers traipsing up and down the piano keys.
They were on their way to becoming musical stars.
But in Russia, in 1917, there was a revolution—and then a civil war—and the fear of violence forced Clara’s family back to their hometown of Vilnius (vil·nee·uhs).
Hunger gripped the land. Neighbors turned on neighbors. And because Clara’s family was Jewish—a religious group that was persecuted by Russia’s new leaders—they were in even more danger.
So, Clara’s family fled.
One day, they loaded into a carriage and headed west. The carriage bumped and jostled across the countryside and through towns. They sneaked across borders, and Clara listened as the languages around them transformed into words she didn’t understand.
Finally, they were able to get visas, or special papers, to go to the United States. And on a chilly winter’s day in 1921, Clara and her family boarded a huge steamship bound for the other side of the world.
|Clara and her family shared a large room with many other immigrants bound for America. During the day, a chorus of languages mingled in the air, and at night, their voices were often raised in song.
The voyage was difficult, though, and the crowds of strangers sometimes overwhelmed Clara.
Days and nights passed, and then finally, Clara saw it from the ship’s deck: The Statue of Liberty. The city beyond the statue gleamed in the winter sunshine—New York City, her new home.
|As Clara walked New York’s streets, cars roared by and, above her, the roofs of buildings scraped at the sky.
It was a strange new world. But Clara had her family, and she had had her violin, which felt like a good friend.
Then, one day, Clara discovered something amazing. One of her teachers from her music school in St. Petersburg had come to the United States, too—and he was here in New York!
Clara took to studying under him right away, and she practiced every day until her arms and fingers ached.
|A few years later, when Clara was a teenager, one of her friends invited her to check out a new, incredible invention—the world’s first electronic instrument. Together, they went to see the inventor, a young Russian man named Léon (lee-ohn) Theremin (theh·ruh·muhn), who was visiting New York.
Léon was delighted to meet Clara and gestured to the instrument.
When Clara first saw it, she was perplexed. It looked like a large wooden box on four thick legs—almost like a podium. On one side, an antenna poked up toward the sky. On the other, a metal loop pointed toward the wall.
Léon demonstrated first. After the box hummed on, he lifted his hands close to the antennas—but didn’t touch them—and they made a sound—one long, high note. It sounded like a person singing a high, clear tone, or maybe a ghost calling from another world.
As Léon moved his right hand closer to the antenna pointing at the sky, the note slid higher. And as he moved his left hand toward the other antenna, the tone got softer.
When it was Clara’s turn, she took a deep breath and approached the theremin. She lifted her hands. She gracefully moved them up and down, closer and farther from the antennas.
And then, she was pulling notes from the air, making music, and the other people in the room stopped to watch her hands floating like a conductor’s, reaching for the notes she needed to make her song.
When Clara finished, Léon’s eyes sparkled. He knew if anyone could make beautiful music with his new instrument, Clara could.
|Léon had, in fact, created the theremin on accident.
A few years before, he had been making radio surveillance equipment in Russia. But when he moved his hands between the two antennas of the invention he was creating, they produced a ghostly wooooo sound.
Léon kept working on his new invention—which eventually became the instrument known as the theremin. When Léon first brought it to the United States in the 1920s, audiences were awestruck.
Before then, the only way to play a musical instrument was to push on keys or strum on strings or blow through mouthpieces. There had never been an instrument you could play just by touching the air.
The theremin seemed to be magic. And Léon believed he was at the start of a musical revolution—one that would be fueled by electricity.
|Léon sent Clara a new theremin as a gift. Clara was intrigued, but her first love was the violin.
But then, one day, something terrible happened. While Clara was practicing, her arm began to ache. Clara didn’t know what was wrong.
She tried everything to make it better. But every time she played her violin, her arm was filled with terrible pain.
One doctor even tied her arm to her body for 6 months so she couldn’t move it, thinking that would help!
But it didn’t. It only got worse.
Soon, Clara realized a hard truth: She would have to stop playing the violin. Forever.
The decision broke Clara’s heart. Every day, she woke up and felt music coursing through her veins. Without the violin, what would she do?
But then, she remembered the theremin Léon had given her. Maybe there was another way, she thought.
|So, Clara started playing the theremin.
It was exciting because there weren’t many other theremin players out there. Clara had to figure out the best techniques. She came up with a complicated airfingering system to get the notes just right.
Under her skillful hands, the theremin sometimes sounded like a beautiful, haunting voice and at other times like the sweet, low tones of a cello. And as she lifted her hands to the theremin’s antennas, she felt the music move from her heart and into her fingertips.
Clara played her favorite classical songs on stages around the country. To the audience, it looked magical—this slight young woman in a cascading dress drawing melodies in the air.
As one admiring conductor once commented to Clara, “You could make music on the kitchen stove!”
|Clara and Léon became friends, and Clara often gave Léon ideas about improving the theremin. He loved her suggestions and set to adding the improvements right away.
Soon, the two became inseparable, and eventually, Léon proposed. But while Clara loved Léon, she wanted to be his friend.
Léon was heartbroken. And when Clara married another man, Léon stopped coming to Clara’s performances.
Then, in 1938, Léon disappeared from the United States. Rumor was that secret Russian police had taken Léon back to Russia, while others said he had fled. But none of his friends or loved ones knew where he was—or if he was okay.
Clara and her husband asked questions and searched for him. But they found nothing.
|Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Clara performed with orchestras and symphonies—and often with her sister Nadia. Sometimes, Clara gave as many as four concerts per week!
Composers wrote special music for Clara, and crowds came to see this star with her strange, new instrument.
Clara thought often of her friend Léon, the man who had invented this instrument she loved. She wondered where he was, and hoped he was okay.
|Years later, in 1962, Clara and her husband, Bob, visited Moscow, and they heard from a scientist that Léon was alive!
Clara’s heart flooded with relief.
In those days, Russia was called the Soviet Union, and it was dangerous for Soviet citizens to meet with Americans. So, after they made contact, Léon suggested they meet in a subway station.
There, as the trains rumbled by, Clara and Léon sat side by side, holding hands, talking about their lives.
Their visit was brief, but all that mattered to Clara was that her friend Léon was safe. After that, they wrote letters to each other, and Léon never disappeared again.
|Years later, in the late 1980s, a documentary filmmaker reached out to Clara. He wanted to make a movie about the theremin. More than anything, he wanted her to play for him.
Clara told him that she couldn’t do that—her theremin didn’t work anymore.
So the director offered to fix it for her. It took several days, but when they finally were done, Clara lifted her trembling hands to the antennas. The theremin’s clear, high tones filled the air.
When Clara finally lowered her hands, she had tears in her eyes. “I thought I would never play this instrument again,” she said.
She gave one last public performance at her sister Nadia’s memorial service in 1989. And as her fingers danced through the air, everyone who could hear hushed, breathing in every last note.
|Clara Rockmore was a trailblazer in the world of electronic music, and her unique way of playing the theremin remains unmatched to this day.
Although Clara passed away in 1998, her soul lives on through each note of music she played—and the thereminists and theremin fans—or theremaniacs—she inspired. Even today, new thereminists learn Clara’s air-fingering techniques to make their own music out of thin air.
“Before you do anything, you have to have music in your soul,” Rockmore once said. And she told thereminists, in particular, to have courage. “Playing the theremin is like being a trapeze artist without a net. You don’t know if you’ll land correctly or not, but you take a risk and you jump.”
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producer is Katie Sprenger [sprain-GRR].
This episode was produced by Camille Stennis [kuh-MEEL sten-nis]. Corinne [cuh-RIN] Peterson is our Production Manager.
This episode was written by Alexis Stratton [uh-LEK-sis strat-UHN]. Proofread by Ariana Rosas [Are-ee-an-uh r-OH-s-aa-s]. It was narrated by me, Jess Gillam, who you will get to know better on Thursday’s episode!
Sound design and original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi [el-LET-tra bar-JOCK-ee]. Final mix by Mattia Marcelli [mah-TEE-uh mar-CHELL-ee]. For more, visit Rebel Girls dot com. Until next time, stay rebel!