The Maestro Gains her voice
Caramoor founder Lucie Bigelow Rosen (1890-1968) was already an accomplished musician when she first heard the futuristic electronic musical instrument known as the theremin, calling it “a new sound in the world.” The theremin, named after its inventor, Soviet scientist and spy, Leon Theremin, captivated her attention and she became one of its earliest evangelists, performing throughout Europe and the United States.
Walter and Lucie Rosen met Theremin at a soirée in 1929 in New York City and were impressed by the inventor and his ground-breaking instrument. Made from a wooden box with two metal antennae, it is played by the movement of hands through their electromagnetic fields without any physical contact.
The Rosens offered Professor Theremin the use of one of their three brownstones on West 54th Street, New York, at a greatly reduced rent, as his studio and residence. Lucie Rosen set out to master the instrument, becoming one of Theremin’s best pupils as well as his patron and advocate. Her first performance was as a member of Theremin’s Carnegie Hall ensemble in 1930.
By 1932, Lucie Rosen was performing frequently in New York as a soloist, but it wasn’t until 1935 that she made her official New York debut with a recital at Town Hall. “Mrs. Rosen wove with eloquent hands the magical-seeing spell,” the New York World-Telegram wrote, “and the theremin responded to her summons with some of the most strictly musical sounds it has yet produced in our concert rooms.”
The New York Times described how “the instrument got out of gear and its inventor, Leon Theremin, was called onto the stage to set it right … Mrs. Rosen was in command of its resources all evening. She plays the theremin, not only with an awareness of its possibilities, but with a knowledge of music.” Reviews such as these were quite satisfying to Lucie, proving that the theremin was indeed a serious instrument and she was no dilettante.
That same year, Lucie Rosen gave a successful concert in London, deciding then to return the following year with a grand European tour. She played to enthusiastic reviews in Naples, Rome, Venice, Zurich, Munich, Budapest, Hamburg, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and London. Lucie also continued performing in the United States giving numerous concerts in New York City and throughout the Northeast, again to rave reviews.
“Lucie Rosen is one of the most original women in New York’s social world,” The New York Evening Journal observed. “She has a very curly blond hair which fuzzes out into a wide halo around her delicate and ethereal face … her robe de style evening gowns are said to be designed by Mr. Rosen.”(February 3, 1936)
By late 1938 the Walter Rosen was reconsidering his support for Leon Theremin. The inventor had a significant amount of unpaid taxes, the FBI was monitoring him, and his personal life was in shambles. He was also seriously behind in his rent payments. Later that year Mr. Rosen, in his typically gentlemanly tone, wrote Theremin a letter demanding he vacate the brownstone.
“… With all the good will in the world, it is impossible … to permit you or the Teletouch Corporation to occupy number 37 West 54th Street. … I ask you to be good enough to leave everything … that belongs to Mrs. Rosen or myself.”
Just before Leon Theremin fled the country, he completed a new instrument for Lucie Rosen. She named the September Theremin and it remains the most powerful and technologically advanced instrument ever built by Theremin. The September Theremin is on display at Caramoor’s Rosen House, alongside a Moog Music Etherwave Theremin.
Lucie made absolutely certain she knew every detail of the instrument, each placement of tube and wire, so that she could tune and repair the instrument as she believed she would never see Professor Theremin again. Her detailed “Theremin Notebook” contains schematics, specifications, and RCA part numbers for replacement tubes. Many of these spare parts are still stored at the Rosen House.
During the 1930’s and beyond, the theremin was becoming very popular in the United States and Europe. Lucie continued to maintain a very active performing schedule here and abroad. While other theremin performers preferred to play classical music, Lucie encouraged composers to write music specifically for the theremin and she commissioned many works by such composers as Edward Mates, Ricardo Valente, Jenö Szanto, Jenö Takács, Mortimer Browning, John Haussermann, and Bohuslav Martinü. Much of this original material is in the archives at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.
In April 1950 the Rosens traveled to Europe for Lucie Rosen’s third and last European tour, (her second tour took place in 1939) again crisscrossing the continent with performances in London, Amsterdam, the Hague, Zurich, Geneva, Rome, and Vienna. Her last concert took place in 1953 in Celina, Ohio.
After his release from the Soviet camps, Theremin briefly took a teaching position at a music conservatory, but was soon expelled by the authorities. He contacted Lucie several times before her death in 1968, wishing to visit with her once more and show her his newest inventions, but it was not meant to be. When her beloved Walter died in 1951, Lucie dedicated herself to establishing the Caramoor Music Festival, determined to see it grow and thrive.
Caramoor remains a destination for theremin scholars, historians, and artists who find our archives of Lucie’s correspondence and original scores to be a valuable and comprehensive resource for their research.