In Pursuit Of The Ondes Martenot

A pianist’s journey to learn the instrument that inspired Olivier Messiaen.

Plaque at the Stalag VIII A memorial in Görlitz. This image is shared under the creative commons license. Original here.
Plaque at the Stalag VIII A memorial in Görlitz. This image is shared under the creative commons license. Original here.

peterassimov       By Peter Asimov

Perhaps Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead put it best when he said: “I think I like the ondes Martenot because I can’t sing”.

Jonny was being interviewed in a recent French-Canadian documentary concerning this remarkable early electronic instrument, which had also captured the attention of composers such as Varèse, Honegger, and Olivier Messiaen many decades prior. Even if you have not heard of the ondes Martenot, you may have heard it unknowingly—if not via Radiohead, then perhaps on Daft Punk’s latest album, or in innumerable film scores, especially sci-fi. The history of the instrument, developed in the 1920s by Maurice Martenot, is fascinating, and even includes a mysterious ‘Martenot powder’ that appears to have been a key component to the instrument’s success.

While the ondes Martenot is not wanting for repertoire – some 60 concertos have been written for the instrument – it is rare to see any of it performed. Without a doubt, the highest-profile performance opportunities for players come along thanks to Messiaen, whose Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948), a colossal work scored for large orchestra with piano and ondes Martenot soloists, is increasingly standard repertoire.

Messiaen’s first ondes endeavor, composed for the 1937 World’s Fair, was a suite called Fête des belles eaux (Celebration of the Beautiful Waters) for not one but six ondes Martenot – you may recognize this excerpt from that work. When commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky a decade later to “choose as many instruments as you desire, write a work as long as you wish, in the style you want,” he included the electronic instrument in what was to become a seminal symphonic work of the 20th century.

Simply put, I am obsessed with Messiaen’s music. I have been since the first time I heard his Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (Praise to the Eternity Of Jesus) and I’ve never looked back. Short of converting to Catholicism, I have pursued the composer by as many angles as I can – learning some of his more manageable piano works, reading his treatises, and researching his legendary organ improvisations during a semester spent in Paris.

In an attempt to address Messiaen from a new angle, for the three-week period preceding the beginning of my graduate studies in musicology I set myself one goal: I was going to play an ondes Martenot. Like Jonny Greenwood, I cannot sing; and so as a pianist, I was attracted to this keyboardish instrument, with its elegant voice-like capacities for vibrato and unlimited portamento. This human vocal quality is what made the instrument so appealing to Messiaen, who otherwise showed little interest in electronic music.

However, certain obstacles made this task less than straightforward. First, almost all ondes Martenot activity is concentrated in Paris and Montreal. And yet, visiting one of those cities wouldn’t suffice; ondes Martenot players, due to the rarity of their breed, are in high demand for gigs of all sorts, and are constantly on the move, as are their instruments.

To wit, in September 2015 alone – by apparent coincidence – the Turangalîla was being performed three times in Europe, by three different orchestras and three different ondists. Thus, rather than waiting for a pause in their tour schedules, I decided to actively pursue all three of these performers, determined to meet each ondist and inquire about their niche in the musical world—and, perhaps, how I might join their ranks.

The first stop on my itinerary was Oslo, where I attended Cynthia Millar’s superb performance with the Oslo Philharmonic. Messiaen’s music is firmly rooted in academically rigorous rhythmic and tonal theory; and yet Turangalîla, while all of those things, simultaneously demands indulgence, rapture. The manifold influences Messiaen claimed provide easy (if facile) work for concert producers: the love story of Tristan and Isolde, the alluring Sanskrit name and Indian-inspired rhythms, the composer’s vivid sound-colour associations, and scrupulously transcribed birdcalls. Messiaen shamelessly combines his musical interests in this way, and the resulting symphony is a “more is more” epitome of Maximalism.

The inclusion of the electronic ondes Martenot is one more symptom of this style. Not to be outdone in Oslo, the concert producers staged a lightshow, punctuating climaxes with blinding floodlights and washes of red and blue. These ecstatic moments tend to be when the ondes Martenot is most impressively audible, its tone, high but never shrill, soaring over even the densest brass chorales.

Performance of the Turangalîla-Symphonie in Oslo, complete with dramatic lighting effects.

Cynthia Millar’s agent had informed me that due to a full schedule, there would be no time for an ondes lesson, but that she would happily meet me onstage after the performance as she took apart her instrument. And so I joined a throng of curious audience members who had gathered about the ondes, inspecting as Millar carefully disassembled it. Once the crowd thinned, I was able to chat with her as she completed the teardown. Millar was classically trained from an early age, having studied piano, voice, and violin—she remarked, to my surprise, that the latter two were more important for her as an ondist.

This comment foreshadowed one of the most critical lessons I would learn about this instrument: while having the exterior appearance of a keyboard instrument, the mechanics of the ondes Martenot turned my piano instincts into obstacles.

The next day, Millar explained by way of wrapping up, she was flying to Venezuela to begin rehearsing with Gustavo Dudamel and his youth orchestra, with whom she will be touring with the Turangalîla in 2016. Millar promised to reach out to me when she next passed through London, and seemed impressed by my project such that, despite the brevity of our encounter, I was thrilled and reassured.

A week later, I headed to Manchester with a ticket to see the BBC Philharmonic play Turangalîla, with Valérie Hartmann-Claverie playing ondes Martenot. Until retiring this year, Hartmann held the prestigious ondes Martenot faculty chair at the Conservatoire de Paris once held by her teacher, Messiaen’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod. The Conservatoire certainly has the most rigorous ondes program there is—the only one that requires prospective students to audition on the instrument itself, rather than letting musicians begin their studies at the conservatory. But how many children possibly have access to an ondes Martenot in high school, I wonder?

Hartmann did. She began playing the instrument at age seven, and for many years studied piano concurrently. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, her ondes was unavailable in Manchester, as it was in the orchestra’s custody. But Hartmann agreed to meet me backstage at the beautiful Bridgewater Hall between the dress rehearsal and the concert, and we spoke in the backstage café for nearly ninety minutes.

I wondered who Hartmann’s students were. What kind of people were interested in ondes Martenot? She explained that, once accepted into the Paris Conservatoire on one instrument, you can take an ondes “option”, and it was taken up not only by pianists, but violinists, oboists and jazz students, to name a few. Knowing me to be a pianist, she coyly revealed that I could in fact be at a disadvantage. This comment required more explanation; how could a pianist not have a leg-up on other musicians when approaching a keyboard instrument?

Think of it this way: for a pianist, the process of producing a note comes from one basic gesture, made with one finger. The note is selected and the tone is produced with that gesture, and any changes to the quality of that tone must be effected through modifications to the gesture. Using the keyboard on the ondes Martenot, the note is first selected, but not produced, by pressing a key with the right hand; then the left hand, having selected a combination of timbres (similar to an organist pulling stops) presses a transparent trapezoidal button, which has complete control over the volume of the chosen note. Once the note is sounding, the right hand may add vibrato on the keyboard for some added expression. Moreover, much ondes playing does not take place on the keyboard, but rather by sliding a ring along a cord running parallel to the keys (called the “ribbon”) in order to achieve the distinctive portamento slides with which the instrument is often associated.

In this way, the processes of note selection, production, and expression are separated into multiple gestures, with both hands implicated in the production of a single note. This makes the ondes analogous to the violin family, where the note is selected with the left hand, and then both hands, with bow and vibrato, combine to produce and express the tone. But as a pianist, it does not naturally occur to me to conceive of music in this way—to separate the properties of a note into elements that are each produced individually and sequentially. Understanding this convinced me that playing an ondes Martenot, and forcing myself to think about notes in this elemental way, would benefit me tremendously as a musician, even as a pianist. Hartmann agreed.

Then, finally, I would get my chance to play one. A flight from Manchester to Berlin followed by three trains, and I arrived in the German-Polish border town of Görlitz/Zgorzelec, a town of roughly 60,000 citizens and, astoundingly, a full-time symphony orchestra. The Neue Lausitzer Philharmonie is not a world-class orchestra, nor is it even a particularly large orchestra. Regarding Turangalîla, the conductor Andrea Sanguineti informed me “we don’t normally perform this sort of repertoire”. I learned that many members of the brass and percussion sections were hired specially.

The German-Polish border in Görlitz is, as in much of the European Union, open.

If ever a small orchestra decided to tackle this gargantuan work, however, it makes sense that it should be in Görlitz. When Messiaen, fighting for France in World War Two, was captured by the German army, he was imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp called Stalag VIII-A, located on what is now the Polish side of town. It was while imprisoned here that, against all odds, Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time, the work for which he is perhaps best known, and whose fifth movement had been my transformational initiation into Messiaen’s music. Messiaen seems like a household name in Görlitz. There is an institute named for him, there are signposts directing visitors to the site of the camp just outside of town, and the Quartet is performed every year in the Musicpoint Messiaen Concert Hall. But a Turangalîla is a much grander occurrence.

I was excited to be meeting Thomas Bloch here. As ondist, he has collaborated with Radiohead and Daft Punk, among many others, and he is a prolific composer; (he is also a glass harmonica player, frequently called upon to perform Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which uses this obscure instrument). Bloch had suggested I come to Görlitz three days before the concert; he proposed I attend a day of rehearsals, and I could have an initiation lesson between morning and afternoon sessions.

The rehearsals, held in a remote school gymnasium, were illuminating. Hearing Maestro Sanguineti pick apart the densest parts into their sectional ingredients revealed beautiful voicings and counter-melodies which I had never perceived before. When it was lunchtime for everybody else, Bloch beckoned me over and began a demonstration of the ondes’ timbres and features.

The ondes Martenot has several timbral settings, which fall into the categories of principal, metallic, and resonant; each of these timbral categories has its own dedicated speaker, and the relative volumes of the speakers can be adjusted in order to multiply the potential timbral combinations. There are also settings to transpose the instrument by certain intervals, and to add an octave (like the 4’ organ stop). It turns out that, despite its role as soloist, the potential of the ondes Martenot is underutilized in the Turangalîla, at least compared to what younger composers would write in the ensuing years, and what Messiaen himself would write in his opera in St. Francis of Assisi in the 1970s.

Thomas invited me to sit at the ondes. Unsure where to begin, I played a note as best I could figure how. That transparent button controlling the production of sound was incredibly sensitive, and my first note blared like the rev of a car engine the first time a teenager presses the gas pedal. I eased up. He gave me some exercises to try: first, on a single note, over eight beats, create the most gradual crescendo possible, and then the reverse; then, groups of four notes, first attached then detached. While I was fumbling around, Thomas kindly but repeatedly reproached me for superfluous finger-lifting and wrist-maneuvering of my right hand. “You do not articulate with your right hand,” he would remind me, as I struggled to suppress the same reflexes that were ingrained in me throughout two decades of piano playing.

The same was true when I switched from playing on the keyboard to the ribbon. I was pressing downwards into the grooves that demarcate notes like frets under a guitar string, a motion that was slowing me down and causing me to play out of tune. Meanwhile for the left hand, whose job was to press that delicate button which produces the sound, the gestures were complex—to increase control over pressure, Thomas showed me how to use the wrist; to increase the speed of attack, he showed me how to use multiple fingers.

I try the ondes Martenot for the first time, made possible by Thomas Bloch.

At this moment, I thought back to Cynthia Millar’s comment that violin and voice had served as better preparation for her ondes studies than piano. It made much more sense now. That one gesture that produces a note on the piano has a lot riding on it: the note will irreversibly decay, and the nature of the decay is determined in the same gesture. But singers, violinists, and ondists don’t get off the hook that easily – for them there is a world of expression to be explored between the notes, altering the pitch (as portamento), the dynamic, the speed of vibration, or any combination of the three. Sounding a note is just the birth of a changeable organism. A pianist who works with singers or other instrumentalists might be aware of that world of expression, but it is rare for us to be able to produce it directly. The ondes Martenot, even on my first day exploring the instrument, allowed a glimpse into that realm of possibility.

As I clumsily slid the ribbon through a slow passage from the Turangalîla, with curious members of the orchestra looking over my shoulder as they streamed back from lunch, it dawned on me how both familiar and foreign this instrument felt. I was simultaneously proud – there I was, playing Messiaen on the ondes Martenot, and it was starting to sound OK – and humbled, by the realization that piano technique could not by a long shot be converted into immediate ondes success.

After the rehearsals, inspired by a day of Messiaen’s music and aware of how rare it is to be in Görlitz, Thomas and I took an impromptu evening visit to the former site of Stalag VIII-A, guided by a Polish bassist named Pawel. There is a cultural center on the site, containing a small concert hall and exhibition about the remarkable range of theatrical and musical activity that was permitted to occur in the camp. Outside the modern building, a plaque and memorial statue, with text in French, commemorated the site, the majority of which was now lush forestland. It would all have seemed perfectly pristine, were it not for a dilapidated fence of cement posts and barbed wire, perhaps ten meters long and over seventy years old, standing along the parking lot.

I reflected on how it was here that Messiaen, composing for the motley assortment of musicians in the camp, had thought back to the final movement of his ondes Martenot sextet Fête des belles eaux and adapted it into a movement for cello and piano, which became the fifth movement of the Quartet for the End of Time. While not figuring in the Quartet itself, the ondes Martenot nonetheless inspired some of its most exquisite moments. All this considered, it felt deeply appropriate that my first experience playing the ondes Martenot should have taken place in Görlitz.

All of the ondes Martenot players whom I was privileged to meet were generous in recommending ways I might pursue learning the instrument, which I intend to do this year. They are convinced, as am I, of the instrument’s potential to enhance a pianist’s musicianship; and I am by nature drawn to that which is esoteric.

Excellent recordings of the Turangalîla-Symphonie are too numerous to cite here. I will note, however, that all three ondists I have met have produced one if not several recordings, and I can vouch that they each interpret the work superbly. I can therefore recommend  the following:


  • Hyperion: Steven Osborne and Cynthia Millar, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Ondine:  Angela Hewitt and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
  • Naxos: François Weigl and Thomas Bloch, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

Other ondes Martenot:

  • Naxos: A survey of works for the instrument, featuring Thomas Bloch as performer and composer
  • London Sinfonietta Label: A CD featuring Jonny Greenwood’s Smear, as well as other works, interpreted by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie

Read more about 20th-century classical music:

Different Heroes

Peter Asimov is a graduate student in Musicology at New College, Oxford. He is an accomplished pianist, whose solo and chamber music engagements have included concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Louvre, the Seoul Arts Center, and a recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.