Marcus Bierich Lecture
The Curious Case of Trautonium and the Early Years of Electronic Music
During the Weimar Republic, Berlin’s Rundfunkversuchsstelle (RVS) was the site of intense collaborations among physicists, radio engineers, physiologists, and musicians attempting to improve the fidelity of radio transmissions of voices and musical instruments. Their interdisciplinary research culminated with Friedrich Trautwein’s 1930 invention of the trautonium, an electronic music instrument that could mimic human vowel sounds and the tone-color of most orchestral instruments—as well as create strange, futuristic timbres. In this lecture, Myles Jackson details how this curious instrument piqued the interest of renowned avant-garde composers such as Paul Hindemith—who composed a number of pieces for it—and the Nazis, thanks in large part to Joseph Goebbels, who was treated to a demonstration of the trautonium in April 1935 by Trautwein and composer Oskar Sala. Enamored with its sounds, the Nazis went on to sponsor trautonium radio concerts and performances and to finance subsequent versions of the instrument. After the War, Sala continued to tinker with the trautonium, which went on to enjoy a glowing reputation for producing sound-effects for operas, ballets, industry films, and Hollywood movies.