Das Trautonium





The trautonium was but one of a number of electronic and electromechanical instruments that have their origins in the earlier part of the 20th century. The best known of it’s approximate contemporaries are the theremin of Leon Termen, first demonstrated in 1917 and the Ondes Martenot from around 1929. These instruments all share a free intonation, that is to say smooth pitch transition rather than fixed discrete equal temperament scales, such as the ubiquitous keyboard.




That’s right, before Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, the ‘Berlin” school et al, there was a thriving period of innovation in Germany in the 20’s and 30’s. I will now consider the three main personalities whose inventions were precursors or inspirations of the instrument we see today.


In the 1920’s the little known figure of Jörg Mager was a pioneer of electronic instruments who invented the spharophon around 1926 and the later partiturophon. Unfortunately there are no surviving examples and no recordings, save that of a 30 second appearance on the soundtrack to the UFA film Stärker als Paragraphen from 1936.


It’s also important to mention the Hellertion of Bruno Helberger, a pianist who collaborated with the inventor Peter Lerte to design the instrument which became the inspiration for the trautonium’s linear controller.


While not 100% certain what I can discern is that the resistance wire wrapped around a solid rod, sits underneath a flexible conductive strip which is overlaid with leather. Trautwein’s design effectively inverts this arrangement with the resistance wire being wound as a violin string and the rigid conductive galvanised bar situated beneath it. Amplitude, or volume was controlled by carbon resistors under the bar. Which brings us to…


The Trautonium


The trautonium owes it’s origins to a conversation between Freidrich Trautwein and the composer Paul Hindemith at the hochschule (or high school, more akin to university) in Berlin. Trautwein had initially approached Hindemith with a proposal to build an electronic organ but this was declined due to lack of funds.


Hindemith instead suggested that he come up with something simple, yet original. Shortly thereafter Trautwein showed up with the first trautonium prototype using a neon tube relaxation oscillator coupled with low and bandpass filters for timbral variation and the aforementioned linear controller.


The neon tube was soon replaced by a thyratron tube oscillator, after deciding that the former’s waveform was too harsh for musical purposes. This became the established design used up until the semiconductor trautonium, which will be discussed later. Hindemith was very engaged by the possibilities of the instrument, as was Oskar Sala, whose interest was eagerly embraced by Trautwein, obviously keen to find people to play it.


Trautwein acheived something a press coup in 1930 when presenting the trautonium to the public by having Hindemith, one of Germany’s foremost composers perform (along with Sala and Schmidt) his triostucke. Followed in 1931 by Sala, already having attained a high degree of skill, performing Hindemith’s concert piece for trautonium and strings.


Many critics consider these pieces as slight in comparison with some of his works. Yet they have a beauty and a distinct sound world in the case of the triostucke. The langsames stücke und rondo is, I would contend, an important milestone in electronic music. Though not a long work, the music is first rate and the instrument sounds, to this day, unique. It is also, the first time subharmonics were introduced to the world. Trautwein patented his new divider concept that enabled this in1934.


With the reception of the trautonium eclipsing the work of Mager to whom trautwein gave a backhanded compliment, describing Mager as the “German pioneer of the idea of electric music” implying that he inspired the dream, whereas Trautwein had realised it.


During this period telefunken produced the Volkstrautonium, offered for sale to the public at what proved to be a most unactractively high price of about two and a half month’s average wage and suffered a similar commercial fate as the RCA theremin. The volks prefix pre-dated it’s adoption by the Nazis.

The critic Heinrich Strobel noted that Hindemith’s music was comparable with architecture, in that it was an expression of form rather than a form of expression. In that it was not concerned with emotion, but in a spiritual sense, independent of the ego.


During this period, fellow student of Hindemith, Harald Genzmer began composing for the instrument, solo pieces and pieces with piano accompaniment, culminating in his first concerto for trautonium and orchestra of 1939.


Nazi era.


When the Nazis came to power in 1933 things became difficult for anyone not in that sort of mood . Hindemith, while not so overtly political as sometime collaborator Bertolt Brecht, was already disliked by Goebbels for his Mathis The Painter, detecting themes hostile to Nazi ideology. As many works and artists were denounced as ‘entartete’ it was only a matter of time before the radio research laboratory and it’s offshoot the trautonium came to their attention. Trautwein, by now a party member was able to use his influence with Goebbels, which culminated in Sala and Genzmer having to play for the propaganda minister, with their fate in the balance a relaxing gig I’m sure.


Such influence did not extend to a composer of Hindemith’s stature. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler defended him publicly but after Goebbel’s denunciation of Hindemith as an atonal noisemaker, the writing was on the wall. He escaped first to Switzerland and then to America. The previously mentioned Langsames stücke was the last piece he composed for the instrument before going into exile.


Mager and Trautwein traded barbs and each made accusations against the other, trying to protect their backsides from the wrath of the state. According to Patteson “In 1933, Mager, likely bitter about Hindemith favouring the Trautonium over his own instruments, denounced the composer in a letter to Fritz Stein, the party loyalist who had re­ placed Schünemann as director of the Academy of Music.


Shortly after the closing of the Radio Research Section in 1935, Trautwein discov­ ered a few scores of Communist fight songs composed by Mager among the archived documents. Apparently fearful of being implicated by as­sociation, he sent the scores to Stein along with an explanatory letter. Mager’s sponsors abandoned him as a result and he descended into poverty and ill health, dying in 1939.


As the thirties progressed the rundfunk (radio) and concert trautonium were developed, with many broadcasts and concerts given. The times being what they were, the absence of specific repertoire led to progammes of baroque and classical, Sala being keen to try and keep things highbrow. Compositions specifically for the instrument were a pretty light and insubstantial affair, with the exception of the Genzmer concerto. The influence of Hindemith is clear, though now regarded as acceptable being absorbed into Goebbel’s concept of “Steel romanticism”.


In the first years of the ww2, tours and concerts were still given, but by 1944 Sala and Genzmer were sent to the front.

Sala promptly fell in a ditch, breaking several ribs and was invalided out until the end of the war.


Post war/film


After the war Sala began work on the development of the mixtur trautonium. Sala relates that his concert and quartet trautonium were cannibalised by other parties for parts, these being hard to come by, though Jürgen Hiller suspects that Sala used them for the mixture-trautonium, the instrument being completed in 1948.


Mixtur-trautonium features.

Twenty subharmonic divisions. Envelope generators- it’s disputed whether they were a/r or adsr. But it’s certain they had a cycling function, effectively making an lfo, though it only applied to amplitude, not filters. It also saw the addition of a noise generator, which formed a percussion circuit.


In Sala's own words, "The subharmonic series is in itself an interesting occurrence. The tones become lower and lower and therefore have a fuller sound. They don't have anything in common with the sinus tones of the overtone sequence. they always stay polyphonic while being played together and of course respond as sawtooth waves to any kind of formant."
  The other main feature of the Trautoniums' sound are the fourfold formant filters, for the time a very sophisticated means of varying the timbre of a waveform. It is essentially four switchable lowpass/bandpass filters with resonance, one for each of the subharmonics.


Controversial Film scores


While the trautonium had been used for sound effects pre-war it was soon used by Hans Eissler in his score for Council Of The Gods, an East German propaganda film detailing the involvement of Rockefeller standard oil in trading with the Nazi regime during ww2, drawing on evidence presented at the Nuremburg trials.


The second example is Different Than You And Me, a film supposedly promoting tolerance of the gay community, though it is more controversial for it’s director - Jan Harlan. Notorious for Jud Suis considered to be the most anti-semitic film of the third reich. Harlan was trying to redeem his reputation after being cleared of consensual involvement, claiming he and his family were threatened with death if he had not agreed to make it. Members of his family differ about his involvement, some believing he was complicit, others not. An interesting side note, his niece Christianne Harlan became the wife of none other than the celebrated director Stanley Kubrick. Talk of degrees of separation.


Genzmer composed a concerto for the new mixture trautonium and large orchestra, which was recorded in 1952. It’s darker than the first, but also a more original and challenging work, I would venture.


Later in the decade Remi Gassman, who had studied with Sala in the pre-war years, composed the ballet Electronics. Sala realised it completely on the trautonium. The choreography was by George Balanchine and it premiered in New York In 1959.

The soundtrack was also released on disc with Sala’s Five Improvisation On Magnetic Tape, his first outing as a composer on the flipside.


The Birds.


It was through his association with Gassman that Sala was enlisted to create the avian soundscape for Hitchcock's celebrated film.


Sala, as he says, got a lot of soundtrack work on the back of the film’s success. However, toward the end of the sixties and with the advent of the moog synthesizer the trautonium seemed to be technologically eclipsed and work dried up.


While the 70s were a fallow period, 1980 saw interest from an unexpected quarter, in the form of Professor Hans Jörg Borowitz, who had seen information on the instrument as part of a display and thought it would be a good project for his students to convert from tube to semiconductor technology.


So curiously we have the German post office to thank for the development of the halbleiter trautonium. This was a more protracted process than they had anticipated, as Sala was unhappy with their initial efforts in as recreating the thyratron’s waveform and the behaviour of the filters, so several revisions were necessary. They were also unable to model the liquid resistor to Sala’s satisfaction, so this carried over into the new instrument. It was not installed in Sala’s studio until 1987 and according to a bbc world service documentary £130k was spent on it’s development.


With his new instrument Sala gave concerts and composed for the instrument in the 1990s, attracting the interest of prolific dj and synthesist Pete Namlook and others. Strangely Sala would attend raves where some of his recordings were played. Sala was still working up until his death in Feb 2002.



The Kampfhausen frequency shifter


I came across conflicting accounts of exactly when this was added, Trautonist puts it at 1964, but there’s no doubt it was used on Sala’s five improvisations 1959 and the rhythm studies soundtrack 1962. It became prominent, if not dominant on works like electronic virtuosity and other pieces from this time.


The evolution of my instrument


I started out with what was available at the time, namely the modules and manual supplied by Doepfer alongside other modules from analogue systems, particularly the EMS trapezoid generator and the vcs3 filter.


In 2010 I managed to get in touch with Jürgen Hiller who supplied the electronics and mechanism for a set of original specification manuals while I sourced the cabinet locally. I had to wait some time before acquiring the subharmonic generator and filters as he was building Peter Pichler’s instrument. There was also the time invested in adapting it for eurorack, which wasn’t straightforward. Most of the problems were to do with packing it all in 3u height. It was 'up and running' in 2015. So over time it evolved into the instrument you see now.


Acknowledgements and sources:


Elektronische Klangmaschinen

by Peter Donhauser

Instruments for New Music

Sound, Technology, and Modernism

by Thomas Patteson

Jürgen Hiller

Der Trautonist

Stefan Breitenfeld

BBC World Service




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