One hundred ten years ago, on March 9, 1911, Clara Reisenberg (married name Rockmore) was born.
Сlara was born with extraordinary musical talent. At three years old, Clara’s uncle gave her a small quarter-violin; when Сlara was five years old, she became the youngest student of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and became a pupil of famous Leopold Auer. But soon, there was a revolution, and Сlara’s family emigrated. A difficult period began in her childhood.
Arriving in America in the early 1920s, Clara continued her studies with Leopold Auer and became his student at the Curtis Institute of Music. Out of all Auer’s students, Clara was the only one supposed to perform at the graduation concert. But she could not do it due to a problem with her arm – she practiced very hard and intensely and injured her arm muscles, which was a great tragedy for young Clara, illness crossed out her musical future.
Theremin by Lev Theremin – the only musical instrument played without contact, became Clara’s primary instrument, unexpectedly for her. As Clara says herself: “The theremin saved my musical sanity.”
Clara Rockmore is the author of the theremin playing technique, which significantly expanded the instrument’s virtuoso possibilities – her repertoire included Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata and Ernesto Bloch’s Schelomo. These pieces are still quite challenging to present in a concert performance on the theremin.
Clara remains an inspiration to many theremin fans all over the world. Many people discover theremin all over the world thanks to Clara. Her performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Swan is one of the most-watched videos on the internet. Ten years ago, Google made a “doodle” – an interactive image of Clara and a theremin on their home page, and hundreds of thousands of people discovered the theremin.
Especially for Theremin Today, Russian thereminists, members of the St. Petersburg Theremin Society, answered our questions about Clara.
Natasha Theremin – thereminist, daughter of Lev Theremin, curator of the Russian Theremin School
What is Clara Rockmore’s musical phenomenon?
Clara began learning to play the theremin with the enthusiasm of a young, ambitious musician. She made her debut in 1934, fourteen years after the theremin was invented and six years after introducing the theremin in America.
The combination of my father’s unique instrument, the Russian violin school tradition, Clara’s talent, and determination has become an unconditional milestone in the history of the theremin.
How would you rate the significance of Clara’s musical heritage for the history and development of the theremin?
Clara made an essential step in the development of the theremin. Clara is an unconditional example of consistent and responsible work with the theremin, dedication to the instrument, and striving for a high performing level.
We often find that modern thereminists cannot fully appreciate what Clara was doing. It usually sounds like this: “Clara played well, but now there are also many good performers.” Is there a qualitative difference between how Clara worked with the theremin and how modern performers work?
I can not entirely agree that contemporaries cannot appreciate Clara’s musical heritage. She managed to play so that her performance captures, captivates, in tune with the listener, emotional mood, and permeates humanity.
But, of course, when people do not make music, they may not even suspect somebody invested tremendous work to achieve such a result.
An excerpt from a letter from Clara Rockmore to Lev Theremin (from New York to Moscow), February 1973 (archive of Natalia Theremin)
“You still keep asking if I am performing – unfortunately not – not because there is no opportunity or invitations to perform, but simply because I don’t dare to bring out my instrument any more.
Radio mechanic who for years helped me support my instrument when something happened died last year.
It was very challenging then since it was impossible to get some lamps and parts that no longer exist on the market. If you remember, you once sent me lamps through Dr. Rosen instead of my 253. But I could not replace them at that time, and now I do not have spare. Due to my professionalism, I do not feel right to take engagements when I can not be sure that the instrument will be alright.
Besides, I protect it like the apple of my eye so I can continue to play, at least at home. The irony of fate is that the only country in which I could freely give concerts is USSR – because you are there. “
Olesya Rostovskaya – thereminist, composer, organist, and carillonist
Clara Rockmore’s tapes are certainly the golden treasure in the history of the theremin. How relevant are Clara Rockmore’s recordings to contemporary theremin performers, in your opinion? Are these recordings a source of inspiration and skill in the modern world? Or is the theremin evolving in a different direction?
The modern world is not just social networks and flashing news. Eternal values have not disappeared anywhere. If someone wants to devote their life to real music, then it is natural and good to be interested in luminaries, founders of the performing school. At one time, I spent hours and hours listening and watching Clara Rockmore’s recordings, and it was an incredible experience.
I would not say that the theremin is developing in a specific direction. After all, these are musicians who form in different directions. If we had Paganini’s recordings, they would be listened, by those who prefer academic virtuoso violin performance. But those who only want to earn a little extra money by playing in a restaurant probably would not listen. Same in the theremin world – those who strive to perfect their performing skills cannot do without Clara’s recordings, those who only want to wave their hands near the right antenna in the rumble of a rock concert – well, probably, should not bother with the heights of these recordings.
Why do you think, despite her outstanding talent, exclusive theremin, and unique playing technique, Clara did not become a world star in the middle of the 20th century?
I do not know how “stardom” is measured. The fact that everyone without exception knows someone’s name? And who are these “all”? If you go out into the street and ask a hundred people at random, who is Karajan, how many people will answer? How many people would have answered fifty years ago? Not much, in either case, I’m afraid. And of those who answered correctly, how many people have heard his performances/recordings? Or just heard something about his dubious connections with the Nazis?
Many musicians are underrated for reasons that have nothing to do with the objective level of their skill. They did not participate in any politics, did not appear in scandals, did not receive effective advertising, etc. Like many famous musicians who became famous for things not related to music. Herbert von Karajan gained wide popularity because his appearance fully corresponded to the ideals of an exemplary Aryan. He became a face of an advertisement. I emphasize – right now, I am not talking about his genius level, but about how this kind of promotion influenced his career at one time. There are overrated musicians for various reasons – but it is not worth talking about them at all.
In general, for me, Clara Rockmore is a world star and will always remain such.
What is your favorite piece of Clara’s recordings (and why)?
Difficult to choose. Clara does not have bad recordings. I could say Anis Fuleihan’s Concerto for Theremin and Orchestra (as many will probably agree). Or maybe it was the Hebrew Melody of Achron because it started my detailed journey into her magnificent technique and unique skill.
Theremin Today is offering to listen to some of Clara Rockmore’s recordings. The albums are available for purchase and listening in all streaming services.