• Geoffrey Dean

Telo-melo Cello: Step-Child of Gasparo?

Updated: Apr 11

My recent post on cello poetry brought to mind the writings of Robert Haven Schauffler, who studied cello with Alwin Schroeder at Princeton University at the turn of the 20th century. The author of numerous books, articles, and poems on music and other subjects, Schauffler credited Schroeder for encouraging him to pursue writing professionally. He quoted Schroeder as telling him, “As a cellist you would spend your life playing into the air the music of others. ... But as a writer you might create something yourself that would live after you are gone.” (from R. H. Schauffler letter to Victor Danek, 1955, quoted in Danek, A Historical Study of the Kneisel Quartet (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1962), 197)

Schauffler’s poem “The Music Maker” opens with a tribute to his own cello, made by Gasparo da Salo:

Beneath the bow

Your live cords, ’cello mio, throb and stir,—

My viol-like, dreamful child of Gasparo,—

Raising from reverie your Lombard voice,

And bidding us rejoice,

In all the things of soul and sense that make

These beauty-consecrated chambers glow…

(Schauffler, Selected Poems (London: Heinemann, 1922), 48)

In his 1911 collection of essays on amateur music-making, Schauffler recalls his first tentative steps toward mastering cello technique. He describes how, at fifteen, he “chanced upon an old ’cello in the attic” and “fell devoted slave” to it: “A week of furtive practice convinced me that I could play the ’cello, though I now remember grasping the bow like a tennis-racket and the fingerboard like a trolley-strap.” Taking the Old King Cole nursery rhyme as his point of departure, Schauffler argues that the King himself played the cello in string quartets with his “fiddlers three.” Discussing the effort and dedication required to play well enough to read Beethoven’s Op. 59 quartets (mentioned specifically in the Old King Cole rhyme), Schauffler imagines a yet-to-be-invented “telo-melo cello,” an electric instrument playable by just the touch of a button, that would remove the toil and struggle of mastering the old-fashioned instrument “with bow in hand.” (Schauffler, “Fiddler’s Lure,” The Musical Amateur: A Book on the Human Side of Music (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 30-34)

Though but a passing thought in Schauffler’s essay, it wouldn’t be long before Leon Theremin, purported to be a cellist himself, was marketing his electrical instruments through his New York-based Teletouch Company. Patented in 1928, the space-controlled theremin remains the best known, and most often played, of Theremin's electric instruments. But thanks to a partnership with Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski, Theremin's fingerboard Thereminophone—or cello Theremin—found its way briefly into the modern symphony orchestra. Stokowski, per statements he made to the New York Times in 1929, was planning to add a group of Theremin instruments to his orchestra, ones that were “higher in tessitura and form a group or choir.” These plans pale in comparison to Theremin’s own vision for an entirely electrical orchestra, where each musician “will play without instruments. …before each…there will [be] only a music stand with music, and on it two antennae, and through wave of the air an entire orchestral work will be played—string, wind, drums—all.” (Theremin quoted in Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (University of Illinois Press, 2000), 115)

Like Theremin, Stokowski wanted to expand the overall range of the orchestra. In 1928 he commissioned a fingerboard theremin that encompassed the range of both the cello and the double bass; he first used it in the orchestra on the Philadelphia Orchestra concert of January 1, 1929. Stokowski explained that he was seeking an effect similar to the pedals on a large organ, to reinforce the bass line in his orchestral transcriptions of organ works by Bach. He described the instrument as “like a ’cello, but without strings.” According to Glinsky, it was an improved version of Theremin’s original fingerboard theremin from 1922. Held like a cello, with a fingerboard-length black rod about four inches wide, the fingers of the players left hand created pitches by moving along a celluloid strip attached to the rod, in a manner resembling traditional cello technique. The right hand varied the volume and articulation by means of a lever attached to the rod. In another analogue with cello technique, increased weight on the lever (as on a traditional cello bow) resulted in a stronger, more intense sound. The volume control mechanism could create subtle variations in volume, and the instrument’s dynamic range apparently had no upper limit.

Leon Theremin playing the fingerboard theremin

On December 17, 1929, the fingerboard theremin made its Carnegie Hall debut in Stokowski’s transcription of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor. New York reviewers had noticed “noises in fortissimo moments like the heavy respiration of the lowest register of an organ.” (Samuel Chotzinoff in The World). Olin Downes called it “a fine roar,” and Lawrence Gilman (Herald Tribune) found the effect “quite overwhelming… A gigantic diapason seemed to underlie the orchestral tone, booming and thundering with an effect which at times was like the menacing roar of some fabulous Bachian Fafner.” They had no advance information on the theremin’s inclusion in the orchestra—Stokowski was uncharacteristically secretive about this particular innovation—but had noticed a “shallow black cabinet with open doors” between the timpani and brass, which was in fact the external amplifier for the fingerboard theremin played incognito by a member of the orchestra’s cello section.

The presence of the cello theremin in the Philadelphia Orchestra was short-lived. One of its last Philadelphia appearances was in a fall 1930 performance of the Stokowski transcription of Debussy’s The Engulfed Cathedral. The New York Times wrote that the “reverberations fairly rocked the Academy of Music… The modern instrument provided a ground bass for the entire orchestra below the compass of its closest competitors.” According to Nicolas Slonimsky, Stokowski abandoned the fingerboard theremin because of the nauseating effect of the infrasonic vibrations, particularly on the players in the double bass section. After an even briefer experiment with a keyboard theremin, Stokowski seems to have given up on theremins altogether. Meanwhile his interest in another early electronic instrument, Maurice Martenot's ondes Martenot, inspired this haunting Stokowski transcription.

A “Cello or Fingerboard Theremin” has been on public display at the Shrine to Music Museum in Vermillion, SD, as part of the Charles D. Stein Collection of Early Electronic Instruments. Photos and a description can be found on the Theremin Enthusiast’s Club International website. In the year 2000 Floyd Engels, with assistance from Robert Moog, began his reconstruction of the Theremin cello, based on a nonfunctional instrument in Glinsky's collection. Engels’ version was first heard in a 2002 performance of the 1933 Edgard Varese composition Ecuatorial, which calls for two Theremin cellos. Peter Pringle has documented the 2002 event, with an detailed description of the project and photos of both the original and reconstructed circuitry. Engels is reported to have made ten such theremins, of which Thomas Bloch plays no. 7. Theirry Frenkel has also created a modern reconstruction of the Theremin cello; he introduces it in this video, and you can hear it in performance here.

But who played the fingerboard theremin in the Philadelphia Orchestra 90 years ago? The musician in question, mentioned by name in reviews at the time, was Karl Zeise, a Massachusetts-born cellist who later played for many years in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His first cello teacher was Alwin Schroeder.

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