The Saxophone and Ondes Martenot at the 1937 World Exposition

The World’s Exposition in Paris in 1937, initially intended to recreate the successful Expositions of the past (i.e. the Eiffel Tower’s construction for the 1889 Exposition to demonstrate the power of steel), ended up as prelude to war. Each nation built pavilions along the River Seine, but rather than showcasing technological achievement, these pavilions became nationalist displays dominating their surroundings: the German Pavilion located on the left bank of the Seine in the picture above, facing off with the Russian Pavilion on the right. At the Spanish Pavilion, Picasso’s Guernica showcased the horror of bloodshed in Franco’s Spain, with the help of Nazi aircraft. At the Italian Pavilions, visitors were greeted with fascist monuments. In September of that year, Paris suffered a terrorist attack with two bombs exploding in the center of the city. Musically, Paris was suffering from the loss of their most notable composers: Charles-Marie Widor, Gabriel Pierné, Albert Roussel, and Maurice Ravel all passed away in 1937. The loss of this talent changed the direction of music in Paris. The Exposition also became a showcase for new trends in electronic music. The instrument that became the sound of the Paris Exposition was the Ondes Martenot.

The Ondes Martenot is an early electronic instrument designed by Maurice Martenot in the 1920s. The Ondes can produce simple sound waves that can be triggered by a keyboard or a sound ribbon, both played by the right hand. The left hand controls various knobs that control dynamics, sound waves, and articulation. Put together, it sounds like an electric organ crossed with a theremin. The rarity of this instrument means few works outside of Paris were written for the Ondes Martenot. The Paris Exposition became the high point of the Ondes Martenot history, as several works by Parisian composers were written for the instrument, many of them include the saxophone. The works for saxophone and Ondes Martenot have not been performed since the 1937 Exposition.

Fountain display on the Seine River, 1937

Understanding the music of the Paris Exposition requires understanding how the music was intended to be performed. Along the Seine’s banks, the architect Eugène Beaudouin created a display of “light and sound waves, they constitute a sort of immense symphony of light and water, supported and glorified by music. The visual plan is the guiding force, the musical score an accompaniment, the goal being to highlight the beauty of light (using effects of water and steam, of smoke, of colour, of infinitely varied intensity.”[1] Along the Seine, loudspeakers were placed in strategic areas, including speakers on the Eiffel Tower to create sound displays, enveloping the audience in sound as they travel through the park. The light, fireworks, and fountain displays were coordinated with the music, so it became an immersive experience for the audience. Unlike Muzak[2], the music at the Exposition was intended to be listened to. The music was prerecorded on discs which effected the sound quality of the performances. This type of soundscaping is familiar to anyone who has visited a theme park or tourist destination, but for 1937, this was cutting edge technology.

Fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, 1937

The recordings used for the Paris Exposition still exist so we can listen to the music as it was played in the park. The first piece up is Arthur Honegger’s Les Mille et une Nuits. This work features a soprano and tenor vocal soloist, orchestra, four Ondes Martenot, and three saxophones: soprano, alto, and tenor. The video starts at 5:33, where the saxophones have a countermelody with the vocalist. The Ondes Martenot takes over the melody from the saxophones, then they come in as a trio at 9:30.

Musically, this work exists in a weird nether region, between the orientalist melodies of the late Romantics and Impressionist, but before space-age exotica takes over the easy listening airwaves in the 1950s. Once you imagine the surroundings of the nationalist displays with elaborate water and light shows, this music becomes more outer-worldly.

The next work that features the saxophone and Ondes Martenot is Pierre Vellones’ Fête Fantastique. Out of all of the composers who contributed to the World Exposition, Vellones had the most experience writing for the Ondes Martenot, beginning in 1928. In 1935, he wrote two works, Split and Vitamines for the latest version of the instrument which now includes a ribbon controller, that gives the instrument it’s theremin like sound.

Split is a simple waltz, and both Split and Vitamines feature Marcel Mule on the saxophone and Maurice Martenot on the Ondes Martenot. Vitamines–a foxtrot– showcase a larger range of electronic sounds produced by the Ondes Martenot.

For Fête Fantastique, Vellones’ composed the piece for three Ondes Martenot, woodwinds including the tenor saxophone, brass, bass, piano, and seven percussionist playing exotic percussion instruments from around the world.

Like Honegger before him, this use of Ondes Martenot and percussion foreshadows the exotica trends that became popular in the 1950s, where bongos and other percussion showcased stereo advancements in sound technology. But the music from the Paris Exposition has no relation to exotica.

Other notable works that use the saxophone from the Paris Exposition are Darius Milhaud’s Cantate pour l’inauguration du Musée de l’Homme Op. 164 which is written for the opening of the Musée de l’Homme. It is orchestrated for flute, oboe, alto saxophone, bassoon, and timpani with vocalists. For more listening on the Ondes Martenot at the Exposition, check out Olivier Messiaen’s Fête des belles eaux, which is orchestrated for 6 Ondes Martenot. The Ondes Martenot remains a musical oddity, showing up in unlikely places, like the music of the Beatles and Radiohead, and even in opera on occasion (Here in Thomas Adés’s The Exterminating Angel).

To discover more works from French composers for saxophone, check out Honegger and Milhaud who both have listings in the database.

[1] Simeone, Nigel. “Music at the 1937 Paris Exposition: The Science of Enchantment.” The Musical Times 143, no. 1878 (2002): 10-11.  

[2] The origins of Muzak in the 1930s was intended to increase productivity in the workplace, create a more functional workforce, combat on-the-job fatigue and accidents. For more information on the origins of Muzak, check out Elevator Music by Joseph Lanza.

Published by Mary Huntimer

Saxophonist, teacher, opera and silent movie enthusiast. All opinions are my own.

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