Trautonium: the German wave in the history of synthesizers

    In the first half of the 20th century, the German engineering school spawned a host of electromechanical musical instruments that preceded classical synthesizers. Among them is the spherophone of Jörg Mager and the polyhord of Harald Bode. Most of these inventions could not go beyond the narrow circle of enthusiasts.

    But among them was a tool created between the two world wars, which nevertheless left its mark on world culture. This instrument was the Friedrich Trautwein's trautonium .

    Tell us what it is remarkable.

    Photo by Edward Beierle / CC BY-SA / Descendant of Trautonium - Mixturtrautonium

    Designer father

    The inventor of trautonium Friedrich Trautwein (Friedrich Trautwein) to the ideal of "the man of the Renaissance" - a diverse personality. As a child he played the organ in the church. During the First World War, which fell on his youth, in the rank of lieutenant, commanded a division of radio operators. After the war, he studied physics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, physics and law at the University of Heidelberg, and received a doctorate in engineering science. In 1923, he participated in the opening of the first German radio station with regular broadcasting.

    In 1929, Trautwein, already an engineer, was given a teaching position at the Berlin Higher School of Music, where he set about designing a prototype of his instrument.

    Trautonium device

    The first trautonium looked like a cross between a harpsichord and a differential analyzer . The sound in it generated a generator on the lamps of a glow discharge , which gave a rich overtone sawtooth signal .

    Instead of a keyboard, the instrument had a long strip of metal, over which a steel wire-string stretched. Pressing this wire to the rail below, the performer closed the electrical circuit. Depending on the point of contact, the resistance in the circuit and the frequency in the oscillating circuit varied. The force of pressing the wire influenced the loudness of the sound that the performer extracted from this monophonic ancestor of modern synthesizers.

    One of Trautwein's innovative solutions was the use of formant filters.. They are used in speech synthesis systems to form a signal with a certain phonetic structure. Thanks to these systems, trautonium changed the timbral characteristics of the sound. In a sense, the instrument had something in common with the human voice apparatus.

    The “fretless neck” - a metal band - was marked out for the convenience of the musicians in accordance with the chromatic scale. Thus, no one prevented them from playing trautonium as an instrument with a fixed order, such as a piano. However, he allowed to achieve a continuous change in pitch: it was enough to press the wire with the finger to the rail and drive it to the left-right. So the “trautonist” could include such techniques as glissandos and vibrato in his arsenal .

    The expressive range even of the prototype of the trautonium was the widest. It was for those who would undertake to disclose it.

    The first adepts, the first tests

    In the same year that Frederick Trautwein began his engineering studies at the Berlin School of Music, 19-year-old Oskar Sala entered the school. He studied composition with Paul Hindemith , a talented violinist and composer. Soon the teacher and his pupil became friends with the inventor, whose laboratory was located on the territory of the conservatory.

    Both Hindemith and Hall struck the potential of trautonium. The first one showed a desire to compose music for him if he had three such devices at his disposal: for low, middle and high frequencies. The second began to master the instrument as a performer and in a short time achieved outstanding results. Already on June 20, 1930, Hindemith, Sala, and pianist Rudolph Schmidt demonstrated for the first time to the general public what the invention was capable of: the trio gave a concert at which Hindemith's Seven Pieces for Three Troutoniums played . Further more: in 1931, Hindemith composed The Concerto for Trautonium and Strings . The premiere of the work took place in Munich, and Oscar Sala shone on it.

    The new device aroused interest not only in music and engineering (in professional publications printed instructions on how to assemble such a device), but also in industrial circles. For mass production took the company Telefunken. In 1933–1935, she introduced her version of the instrument, Volkstrautonium , or “people's trautonium” to the market .

    However, it was waiting for a commercial failure: perhaps the reason was not only an unusual management system, but also the price of 400 Reichsmarks - at that time the average salary of a worker for two and a half months. Only about 200 copies of the synthesizer were released , and even less were sold, after which the production was curtailed.

    Photo Museumsinsulaner / PD / Volkstrautonium

    By the design of Volkstrautonium, he also had a hand in Oscar Sala, who, having ignited the idea of ​​improving the instrument, in the first half of the 1930s deepened his knowledge of physics at the University of Berlin. At the same time, the father of the trautonium, Friedrich Trautwein, gradually cooled to his brainchild, and in the end gave the Hall the right to engage in its development.

    Trautwein continued to invent instruments (among them electroclave ), however, they are even less aware of them today than they are about trautonium. 11 years after the end of the Second World War, Troutwein died, but his successor, taking the baton from the teacher, carried it for another good half century.

    In the second half of the 1930s, Sala created two new instrument models, including a concert instrument, more convenient in terms of transportation. She also received an additional string, thanks to which it became possible to extract two notes from trautonium simultaneously.

    Descending - and slightly up

    Trautonium and the enthusiasts who advocated its development were hampered not only by the inertia of the perception of the masses, but also by a change in the political situation in Germany. With the advent of the National Socialists to power came black times for avant-garde art. Including for electronic tools that are associated with it.

    In 1935, Troutwein and Sala met with the Third Reich Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and performed works of classical composers for him on the trautonium. But gradually there was less room for creative experiments in the country. With the like-minded duo, too, was tight: the same Paul Hindemith was forced to move first to Switzerland, then to the United States.

    The instrument was not committed to complete oblivion: for example, in 1942, Richard Strauss used trautonium to imitate gongs and bells at the Dresden premiere of his "Japanese solemn music." But the chance of any widespread distribution of the device was missed. And soon after the fall of Nazi Germany, there was a surge in the popularity of electrical agencies - since then, trautonium has been on the periphery of popular musical culture.

    Photo Morn the Gorn / CC BY-SA / Mixtur-Trautonium

    However, “being on the periphery” does not mean “didn’t show itself at all”. As soon as the war died down, Oscar Sala returned to the cause of all life and contributed to the development of musical technique. In the early 1950s, he introduced another model of the instrument - Mixtur-Trautonium.. Its important innovation was the electrical circuit, thanks to which the device could reproduce subharmonic rows - the scale of harmonics, located down from the frequency of the fundamental tone.

    But Oscar never managed to “revive” the instrument. Next-generation avant-gardists — among them Karlheinz Stockhausen — preferred other instruments, including the Hammond organ and ring modulators. So Sala, willy-nilly, retrained in film composers: with the help of trautonium, he voiced dozens of commercials and documentaries in his homeland. An unexpected change of specialization has played into his hands - albeit at a long distance.

    In 1961, Alfred Hitchcock, holding the filming of the thriller “ Birds”, Could not decide on how exactly the crows and seagulls should be in the frame: all sounds seemed to him too familiar and not scary enough. Unknown as the director heard about the Berlin eccentric and his instrument and suggested that the composer try to solve this puzzle. Sala coped with it brilliantly.

    As a result, all the screams and noises that the birds in the legendary tape are pulling up were created on the trautonium.

    In fact, throughout the history of the instrument, only one person has truly masterfully owned it - Oscar Sala. Musicians who chose trautonium as their main instrument are just a few, such as Peter Pichler . Nowadays, some composers are also experimenting with this ancestor of modern synthesizers.

    To work with the sound of the instrument, it is not necessary to steal the miraculously surviving Volkstrautonium from the museum or assemble the device yourself. There are modern variations of the good old trautoniums. There is also a plugin for sound editors Neumixturtrautonium , which emulates the effects of the analog original, but, of course, this is already a step away from the original concept of Trautwein.

    A photojut / CC BY-SA

    Trautonium served as a source of inspiration for composers, experimenters and engineers, but, probably, he was not destined to become truly mass.

    Possessing enormous expressive possibilities, he was nevertheless too difficult to master - a real geek device. No wonder Oscar Sala himselfadmitted: "If you want to play on trautonium, you must collect it."

    Further reading - about the tools and audiogadzhety: Unusual musical instruments Eight audio technologies that fall into TECnology Hall of Fame in 2019 How to turn your computer into a radio continuum Haken: an electronic instrument with an acoustic responsiveness

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