Charlie Draper

Ondes Martenot

The ondes Martenot is among the earliest successful electronic musical instruments, patented in 1928 by French cellist, radio engineer and visionary Maurice Martenot (1898-1980). The most well-known iteration of the instrument is distinguished by three unique features: a laterally shifting keyboard (which permits vibrato), a ribbon control (which permits unlimited portamento), and special resonant speakers which imbue the sound with an otherworldly resonance. Charlie plays two instruments: an Ondomo, a portable version of the ondes manufactured by Naoyuki Omo, and an Ondéa, a concert-sized version of the instrument manufactured by David Kean in Canada. The evocative tones of the instrument can be reminiscent of a violin, cello, flute, or even a human voice, and have attracted the attention of composers including Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel, Jacques Charpentier, and Jonny Greenwood.



In the closing years of the First World War, teenage French radio operator and cellist Maurice Martenot (1898-1980) noticed that his audio equipment possessed the rudiments of a musical instrument. By adjusting its dials, he could - to the fascination of his soldierly colleagues - pick out a simple melody. This realisation awoke in the young Martenot an insuppressible musical ambition, the very same which had already propelled his sisters Madeleine and Ginette towards respective careers as a musical pedagague and concert pianist. Maurice dedicated the rest of his life to using the "extreme purity of [electrical] vibration" to develop a legitimate electronic musical instrument, which he later named the ondes musicales Martenot (“musical waves Martenot”).

With the war concluded, Martenot began work on an instrument (the “model zero”), which bore little resemblance to later iterations, being practically identical to apparatus developed contemporaneously by Leon Theremin in Soviet Russia. Martenot's contraption comprised a small wooden box and metal antenna, and the player regulated the pitch from a distance, by free motion of the hands in space. Maurice concluded that this instrument was not viable, requiring near-absolute immobility and unheard of precision to play in tune.

Almost a decade later on 3 May 1928, spurred by Leon Theremin’s presentation in Paris in 1926, Martenot unveiled a much-improved instrument, the model one at the Garnier Opera House in Paris. This instrument allowed him to control pitch by means of a wire connected to ring worn on the finger. By pulling the wire longer and shorter, the performer could modify the pitch. A ruler positioned on the floor allowed tones to be found much more easily than on the theremin, while a button positioned on an adjacent table permitted control of the volume. The concert was met with widespread critical acclaim and encouraged Martenot to develop his instrument further.

In his model two instrument, Martenot positioned the string and ring above a dummy keyboard, which eliminated the difficulties of playing in midair, while still allowing expressive and precise glissando. The model three placed the soundmaking circuitry of the instrument within an elegant cabinet housing. The instrument continued to garner attention. Composers including Dmitri Levidivis, Darius Milhaud, Jacques Ibert and Arthur Honegger began composing for the instrument, and Leopold Stokowski (who had also worked with Leon Theremin) invited Maurice and his sister Ginette to demonstrate the instrument in New York, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. This Martenots astounded not just the people of New York but those of Hawaii, Japan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Java.

Maurice Martenot demonstrates his fourth instrument (1934)

On his return from America, Martenot struck a deal with the piano manufacturer Gaveau intended to put a Martenot in every home. Simultaneously, he constructed his fourth instrument, the model four, the first to feature a working keyboard. This was ingeniously suspended to allow transmission of vibrato through movement of the keys, allowing the execution of complex passages without sacrificing the instrument's expressive character.

At the 1937 Exposition Internationale, Martenot unveiled the model five, an improved instrument which was presented in permanent concert at the Salle de l’Union Corporative des Arts Français. Ginette Martenot conducted an orchestra of eight ondists, pianist and percussionist in arranged excerpts of Bach, Debussy, and contemporary jazz standards. Meanwhile, prerecorded music for ondes specially composed by Messiaen, Vellones, Koechlin, Honegger and others was played from loudspeakers positioned along the Seine to accompany a spectacle of illuminated fountains and fireworks.

The partially-transistorised model six (1953) and entirely-transistorised model seven (1971) were Martenot’s final concert instruments. Inventing until his very last days, Martenot was tragically killed in a cycling accident in 1980. His assistant Marcel Maniere continued production for another four years. No longer in production, the authentic Martenot has been succeeded by instruments constructed by Jean-Louis Martenot, by Ambro Oliva’s Mk 1 Ondéa, Jean-Loup Dierstein’s Dierstein ondes musicales, David Kean’s Mk 2 Ondéa, Naoyuki Omo’s Ondomo, and more distantly by Lippold Haken and Edmund Eagan’s Continuum, Analogue Systems’ French Connection, Sonnicouture’s Ondes and the Therevox. All these instruments have taken Maurice Martenot’s basic principles in different directions, encouraging the continuation of his musical and aesthetic legacy.

A block of strange sounds, fallen from the future onto our planet ... - The Ondes Martenot!
— Olivier Messiaen
the limitless range even beyond the capacity of the human ear, the inexhaustible variety of multiple timbres, the richness of dynamics, rhythm and tempo
— Jeanne Loriod