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Ondioline

electrophone

 

The ondioline is a monophonic electronic instrument, considered to be the forerunner of the synthesizer. The Frenchman Georges Jenny (1900 -1976) is its inventor.

 

 

Jenny built his first ondioline in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The exact year is difficult to define. According to the sources, the first exemplar was built either in 1938 (during Jenny’s tuberculosis treatment in a sanatorium) or in 1941. Like many other electronic instruments, the development of ondioline was slowed down by the Second World War. The instrument did not make its breakthrough until the late 1940s. It was popular in dance bands, popular music and film music until the 1960s. 

 

The growing popularity of the instrument naturally had an influence on the demand. But unlike someone as Constant Martin (inventor of the clavioline ), Jenny did not license any company to produce his instrument on a larger scale. On the contrary, he built all his ondiolines himself in his Parisian workshop until his death: "Les Ondes Georges Jenny", later known as "La Musique Électronique". In addition to the ready-to-use ondiolines, it was also possible to buy the instrument as a self-assembly kit. Jenny tried to keep the price of his ndiolines as low as possible ($400 to $500); the aim was to offer the public an instrument much cheaper than the ondes martenot. This is why he often used poorer quality parts, with the consequence that after a few years – when badly maintained - the instruments were no longer playable. The number of ondiolines sold is not known. Estimations vary from 600 to more than 1000 exemplars.Naast afgewerkte ondiolines was het ook mogelijk om zelfbouwpakketten te kopen.   

The electronic circuit of ondioline consists of electronic tubes in which the sound is not produced according to the heterodyne principle (as with theremin and ondes martenot), but by a multivibrator (multi-vibrator oscillator). Underneath is an integrated loudspeaker. 

 

 

The keyboard has three octaves, but the rotary knob allows seven. The black knob at the back and the four buttons next to the rotary knob (fig.5) allow all octaves to be tuned.

   

A particularity about the keyboard: on the one hand, it rests on springs, thanks to which vibrato is easily achieved when the fingers are swung sideways. On the other hand, the keys are pressure sensitive: by pushing harder, the musician increases the volume. In front of the keyboard is a golden brown band to realize percussion effects (after setting the right filter presets).  The volume is adjusted using the knee pads located under the keyboard on the left.

The most important accessory of the ondioline is of course the filter bank. By combining these buttons it is not only possible to imitate the sounds of existing acoustic instruments (fig.9), but also - even more interesting for musicians and composers - to create new timbres. The letters A to P are indicated in front of the various filters and waveforms (e.g. envelope filter, band, low and high pass filters).  V1 and V2 determine the type of vibrato, W describes its speed. On the far right is the on/off button.

The mim owns two ondiolines. The first one was purchased in 1996 from Pieter Bouckaert (nr. 1996.034), and is probably more recent than the other exemplar of the museum. It was playable at the time of its acquisition, but this is no longer the case today. The second ondioline (2019.0047) was acquired in 2019 from Daniel Kitzig and dates from 1949-1950. Kitzig himself had bought the instrument from Morgan Fischer and restored it professionally. The instrument plays and sounds perfectly. Neither instrument bears a label, only "Georges Jenny" and "Paris" (1996.034), as well as "Brevet Georges Jenny" and "Breveté S.G.D.G. Paris" (2019.0047) are indicated.

 That the sound of the ondioline is familiar to us is not surprising, given that its timbre is close to that of the clavioline, and that both instruments have been widely used in popular music. It is not surprising that it is stated occasionally that the Telstar melody (The Tornados) was performed on an ondioline, despite the testimony of musicians such as Peter Knight who assure that this was not the case.

As with the clavioline, the ondioline was originally played with the piano. With his left hand, the musician played the accompaniment on the piano, while his right hand played the melody on the ondioline. By using the presets it was possible to imitate with great accuracy traditional acoustic instruments. A fine example of this is Charles Trenet's song L’âme des poètes (1951), which is also the oldest known example of the use of the ondioline in popular music.


 

L'âme des poètes also marks the breakthrough of the ondiolinist Jean-Jacques Perrey (1929-2016). When he was about twenty years old, he discovered the ondioline through a radio programme in which Georges Jenny presented his instrument. He obtained Jenny's telephone number from the radio station, and after he had visited Jenny’s workshop, Jenny offered him an instrument. Within six months Perrey acquired the complete technique (piano and ondioline) and, after a demonstration, Jenny offered him a job as a salesman and demonstrator. The rest is history: Perrey became the face of the ondioline. And not only ondioline: at the end of the 1960s, he was also one of the first (and one of the few) musicians able to play Moog synthesizer.

It took more than ten years for the ondioline to be adopted in the United States. It was with More (1963) that Kai Winding made his first recording with the instrument. He was followed by Al Kooper who regularly used the ondioline for The Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Motown Records also relied on the sound qualities of the instrument (e.g. Dream come True by The Temptations), not so much because of their faith in the infinite possibilities of electronic instruments, but primarily for financial reasons: the ondioline was cheaper than the wage of a string orchestra.

Like theremin, the clavioline and many other electronic instruments, the ondioline was widely used in film music. She began this new career in 1959 with La Vache et le Prisonnier (The Cow and the Prisoner), with Perrey as the ondiolinist. Many other productions followed, of which Spartacus is probably the best known.

The ondioline was not used exclusively in popular music. "Art music" did not ignore her, and this brings us to Belgium. On the occasion of the World Fair in Brussels (1958), Jenny wrote to various composers to encourage them to write works for ondioline especially for this event. The result was a long-term LP, Masterworks from France - Program No. 428 [Originally subsidised by French funds, but presented in English on the radio] - New French Instruments Presented at the Brussels Fair. The disc not only contained works for ondioline, but also for Cristal Baschet. According to the sources, this is 'quasi-classical' avant-garde music. Chants pour les Eternités Différentes (also on the LP) was performed by the composer Darius Cittanova himself at the top of the atomium.      

 Illustrations

Fig. 1: Ondioline, Georges Jenny, Paris, 1949-1950, nr. 2019.0047.          
Fig. 2: Georges Jenny (detail from the cover of L’ondioline, conception et réalisation d’un instrument de lutherie électronique, Editions Radio, Paris, 1957.)             
Fig. 3: 2019.0047 (detail) : rotaru knob, tuning buttons and filter bank 
Fig. 4: 2019.0047 (back side)
Fig. 5: Ondioline, Georges Jenny, Paris, after 1950, inv.1996.034.          
Fig. 6: Jean-Jacques Perrey.