Memories of Lev Theremin

Lydia Kavina:

Theremin for me is more than the name of the musical instrument  or the name of its inventor. Lev Theremin was related to my family and he was my teacher on the theremin, the instrument to which I have dedicated my musical career.

I was 9 years old and he was over 80 years of age. Theremin arrived at our home every Friday evening, after his working week at the University. He would never use the lift when coming to our house: He preferred to walk up to the fourth floor by foot. When I opened the door for him, he alsways made me a gift of some cake or sweets before we began our lessons. His teaching was not strict or formal; I was allowed to play whatever I wanted to play while he sat in an old armchair and listened.  To correct my intonation, Lev Sergeyevich would whistle the melody. Above all, the most important part of the lesson was when Lev Theremin would play on the instrument himself. And in the end he would stay with us for a cup of tea.

Lev Theremin and Lydia Kavina, 1976
Photo A. Snegirev
Lev Theremin teaching Lydia to play
                          theremin. 1976

Lev Sergeyevich Theremin
was the first cousin of my grandfather Mikhail Fedorovich Nesturkh (1895-1979). My first memories of Uncle Liova, as all relatives called Lev Sergeyevich, come from my early years: I remember visiting him at his apartment at Gagarin Square in Moscow around 1972-73. When I was 8, my grandfather Michael Nesturkh moved to live with our family, and since then Lev Sergeyevich often visited us. My grandfather and Lev Theremin were very close friends. Once, Theremin even approached Mikhail Fedorovich for advice about a potential marriage. On that evening, he came to us with a young lady to introduce her to my grandfather.
Mikhail Nesturkh, grandfather of Lydia
Mikhail Nesturkh
Lev Theremin
Lev Theremin
Photo S.Zorin

Lev Sergeyevich was known for having a constantly present kind sense of humour. For example, he taught me to address to him informally; and when I called him formally, he would gaze around with pretended confusion, looking for ‘the stranger’ whom I was talking to. Lev Theremin introduced to me his wonderful Instrument when I was nine years old. One day he arrived at our door with a theremin and began teaching my sister Galya and myself. A couple of years later Lev Sergeevich also made a terpsitone for me and my father built a solid wooden platform for it.
Lydia Kavina on terpsitone The dance on
the terpsitone. “Sovetskaya zhenschina” n.4,1982
“The Young Moscow composer, Lydia Kavina plays a new electronic instrument…”

Cheerful, brilliantly talented, ingenious, considerate and, at the same time, persistent and punctual – Lev Theremin was for me an iconic person. Of course, as a child I looked at him with the eyes of my parents, who admired him. After the death of my grandfather, Lev Sergeyevich took his place on all our family parties. Once he also went to our summer country house.
                        Theremin in the circle of relatives, 1982The circle of the relatives at my sister’s wedding party, 1982. From L to R: Andrey and Yanina Nesturck, Elena Krol, Lydia Kavina, Lev Theremin, Natalia Nesturck, Eugeny Kavin.

Theremin was an optimistic person; however, he shared his troubles with my mother. After he lost his place at the Conservatory, he struggled without a room which he could use as a laboratory. The editors of scientific journals did not take his articles seriously. In the stagnant Soviet 1970s, Theremin's futuristic ideas - including sensors that respond to the human eye; ways of prolonging human life; and the slow-motion study of micro-organisms - often evoked sarcastic smiles.

Another trouble for Lev Theremin was his living conditions. In the apartment shared with the growing family of his daughter, he started lacking space not just for his instruments, but even for himself to take a rest. After long discussions with the authorities, my parents, with friends of Lev Sergeyevich managed to get him a separate room in a communal apartment. He moved there in 1982 and the room immediately became filled with tools and devices. From this point it was I who came to his place once a week, to help with his housekeeping and just to see him.

Lev Theremin and Lydia
                      Kavina, 1988
Lev Theremin and Lydia Kavina,1988
Photo S. Moskalev

My parents, Eugeny Kavin and Natalia Nesturkh, were very enthusiastic about Theremin’s inventions. My father arranged to build enclosures for some Lev Sergeyevich’s instruments. My mother organized a theremin club at the music college (today Schnittke Moscow State Institute of Music). There L.Theremin taught students to play his instrument.  He was even paid for it by one of educational societies.

Lev Sergeyevich enjoyed attending my performances. When I was 14, he arrived at one of my concerts with Viacheslav Mescherin,  conductor of the orchestra of electronic music instruments at the State Radio and Television. After the death of his thereminist Konstantin Kovalsky, Mescherin was looking for a new soloist for his ensemble. Since then I worked with his orchestra for many years. For me this was the beginning of my performing career.

                        at Glinka Museum, Moscow 1987
Duet with Galina Staneshnikova; Lev Theremin is listening in the first row. (Glinka Museum, 1987)

Some of the concerts we did together with Lev Sergeyevich: he would speak about his life and his invention while I was playing the theremin. Two big concerts took place at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow in 1986 and 1987. In these shows I demonstrated the abilities of the theremin in combination with organ, voice, xylophone and even with a light show. I also played theremin duets with another of Lev Sergeyevich’s students, Anna Portnova.
                        Theremin at Glinka Museum Moscow, 1987
Lev Theremin,
Glinka Museum, Moscow 1987

*    *    *

In publications and concert announcements, my relation to Lev Theremin is occasionally indicated incorrectly. I fact, I am the granddaughter of Lev Theremin’s first cousin Mikhail Nesturkh.
Lev Theremin and
                            Lydia Kavina - Familiy relationship
Relationship of Lev Theremin and Lydia Kavina

My great-grandmother was Marie Theremin, the eldest daughter of Emile Theremin.
The family of Theremins with the noble French ancestry has an ancient history, which is well documented from 1525 in the family book.
The book "La
                          Famille Theremin", Fragment
Fragment of the “La Famille Theremin” with Russian translation by M.Tarasova and N.Nesturkh (my mother)

United by family traditions, the relatives kept friendly relationships. Kyril Nesturkh, the brother of my grandfather, introduced Lev Theremin to Abram Ioffe. Later Lev Sergeevich came to Ioffe’s institute to work and there he invented the theremin.
L. Theremin: "Memories
                      of Abram Ioffe"
Lev Theremin writes in his article “Memories of Abram Ioffe” (“Nauka”, Leningrad, 1973):
“My cousin, a young physicist, Kyril Fiodorovich Nesturkh, knowing about my big interest in physics, invited me to come with him to Abram Ioffe’s presentation of his thesis. I was happy to join him. By that time I was 17 and I was in the last year at gymnasium. I had my own laboratory at home where I experimented with high frequencies, optical devices and magnetic fields.”

Revolution and political system changes brought a lot of turmoil in the life of the Theremin family. On the one hand, many of them were inspired by the progressive communist ideas. On the other hand, many relatives were repressed by the regime.

While Lev The
remin was in prison and then at secret work, relatives lost all traces of him and didn’t know whether he was still alive. The Stalin regime destroyed human lives. People were intimidated and the family contacts were broken. In the summer of 1950, my grandfather accidentally noticed Lev Sergeyevich walking along the street of Moscow, accompanied by two non-uniformed agents. Although they recognised each other, they were too scared to do anything more than to look in each others’ eyes. Later Lev Theremin took the risk of asking his bosses for permission to meet his cousin. The permission was granted and he could restore connections with his relatives.

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