Weird Musical History 2 ~ Musaire! Calderdale’s Unsung Pioneer of Electronic Music

In the spring of 1950, an unsung pioneer of electronic music and variety star returned to his native Calderdale for a series of concerts at the Drill Hall, Halifax as part of the Halifax Home and Industrial Exhibition.[i] His name was Joseph Forest Whiteley, but he was best known by his stage name Musaire because he plucked music from out of thin air.

Musaire with his customised theremin

And the way he did this was by playing the theremin, the weird electronic instrument developed by its eponymous Russian inventor in the 1920s. The theremin works by creating electromagnetic fields around pitch and volume antennae and the player moves his or her hands within the fields to create musical notes. The closer your hand is to the vertical pitch antenna, the higher the note. The further away your other hand is from the horizontal volume antenna, the louder the note. It’s the only instrument that’s played without actually touching it.  You’ve probably heard its eerie tones in vintage sci fi and horror movies, such as The Day the World Stood Still or Thing from Another World. Musaire was billed as a ‘Musical Man of Mystery’ and was responsible for introducing the theremin to the UK in his long and illustrious showbiz career.[ii]

He was born in 1894 to a Ripponden family but moved to Canada as a young boy.[iii] He had a varied career which included being a lumberjack in Nova Scotia before becoming an entertainer whilst serving in World War One. He only managed to survive the war years because his train to Halifax (Canada) was a few minutes late. This is because at 8.45am on the sixth of December 1917, two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, and one of them was packed with high explosives. This caused the biggest man-made explosion ever up to that point in time and flattened large areas of the town. Nearly two thousand were killed and thousands more were injured.[iv]

Musaire’s late train meant he had survived the famous Halifax Explosion by minutes. The train he was on was loaded with casualties from the tragedy, and Musaire went back with them to Truro (again, the Canadian one) and was present at thirty operations.[v]

An experience like that would surely make you reassess your life, and perhaps that was what Joseph Forest Whiteley did. Perhaps it started him on his journey into the weird world of the theremin.

He bought and learned to play a customised theremin like no one had played it before. Yes, there had been a few musical theremin virtuosos like Clara Rockmore, and Musaire did not have her amazing technical ability.

In fact, since its invention classical theremin players have been trying hard to get the theremin to be taken seriously as a melodic instrument rather than a gimmicky novelty for making crazy noises and sound effects. Serious thereminists have always been slightly embarrassed by the theremin’s association with flying saucer noises and lurid B movies. However, as well as being able to play melodically, Musaire embraced the novelty aspect of the instrument and used it as the basis for his musical comedy act. Perhaps he was the Bill Bailey of his day.

In 1932 he was the first to introduce the theremin to the UK and it caused a sensation.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s he amazed and baffled audiences on music hall bills by playing the tunes they requested simply by waving his arms skilfully in the air in front of his instrument, which looked like a writing desk with a vertical antenna sticking up from one side and a looped horizontal antenna on the other. Newspaper reports at the time inform us that Musaire could make his instrument sound like a human voice, a cello, bassoon or violin.[vi] Not only that, he used his theremin to create a range of amusing sound effects such as a dog being stung on its tail by a bee, a steamship approaching docks, seagulls squawking, horses neighing and pioneering aviators Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison taking off in their aeroplane.[vii]

His audiences were mystified, and it’s apparent many thought there was some trickery involved. To convince audience members that the instrument was real, he would call for volunteers to have a go themselves at playing a tune. The result was almost invariably ‘weird grunts and groans and ear-splitting squeals’, until he stood behind the volunteers and guided their hands, when once again recognisable tunes could be heard.[viii]

Sometimes in his performance he would open the cabinet of his instrument to satisfy the curiosity of sceptics and produce from within the innards of his contraption sweets and bananas.[ix] At other times, the inside of his theremin was revealed to contain a hidden cocktail cabinet.[x]

Musaire and his theremin entertained millions over the decades. He performed his shows in theatres, cinemas, schools, hotels and restaurants around the country. He played before royalty and appeared alongside stars of the era such as Arthur Askey and Stanley Holloway. It’s reported that he guided the hands of countless mayors of provincial towns throughout the UK as they attempted to pull a tune out of the temperamental beast that is the theremin.[xi] As recently as 1982 he performed with the London Symphony Orchestra.[xii]

In his later years he was involved in setting up and running Pendley Manor, the world’s first School of Music Hall. He served on the board of Equity, the actors’ union, and become Vice President of the British Music Hall Society for life.[xiii]

Musaire and showbiz chums (L-R: Musaire, Leslie Crowther, Arthur Askey, Cyril Fletcher, David Nixon (The Stage 8 February 1979)

He died on 23 February 1984, a few weeks short of his 90th birthday. However, his theremin can still be seen at the Musical Museum, Brentford and there are some clips of him in action. Here’s one from 1937:


As a fan of both the theremin (I played theremin and other oddball instruments with Hebden Bridge’s much missed psychedelic garage band the Electric Brains for many years), I can’t resist debunking a couple of theremin myths as a little footnote.

Myth 1: The theremin is easy to play.

No, it isn’t. Yes, it was originally marketed as something that anyone could play. If you can whistle, you can play the theremin was one of the early marketing slogans for it. And, yes, it’s easy to make spooky noises on it. But the thing is, when it comes to actually playing a melody, with no keys, and no fret board, it’s just about the most difficult instrument ever invented.

The Electric Brains (author second from right)

If you’ve ever tried to play one, you’ll know what I mean. The theremin can smell fear. When novices have a go on a theremin, the first warbling scream it makes causes the player to instinctively step back in shock, resulting in the squeal getting louder as the player moves away from the volume antenna. Panic often ensues. Not many have tamed this weird musical beast, but a few who have that you might want to look up are Peter Pringle, Lydia Kavina and Charlie Draper.

Myth 2: The Beach Boys used a theremin on their hit ‘Good Vibrations’.

No, they didn’t. The Beach Boys never recorded with a theremin. I know Brian Wilson says they did, but he’s wrong. What they actually used was an electro-theremin (sometimes called a Tannerin after its inventor, Paul Tanner).[xiv] This is a very different beast that involved moving a slider along a keyboard strip. It sounded similar to a theremin, though was actually very easy to play. And playing the electro-theremin involved touching the instrument, which means an element of theremin magic is missing.

The Beach Boys used this fake theremin soundalike on ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ from the Pet Sounds album, and again on ‘Wild Honey’ as well as their classic ‘Good Vibrations’. But they never used a theremin. In fact, Paul Tanner was asked to tour with the band but declined because of his studio commitments. And besides, Tanner quipped, his hair was too short![xv]

[i] Halifax Evening Courier, 18 April 1950

[ii] The Stage, 22 March 1984

[iii] Halifax Evening Courier, 18 April 1950. Some sources put his place of birth as Leeds


[v] The Courier and Advertiser, 24 February 1940

[vi] The Gloucestershire Echo, 7 August 1946

[vii] The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 10 November 1935; Leicester Evening Mail 7 September 1936

[viii] Eastbourne Gazette, 18 April 1934

[ix] Midland Daily Telegraph, 9 December 1935

[x] Gloucestershire Echo, 7 August 1946

[xi] The News, 16 October 1969

[xii] The Stage, 22 March 1984

[xiii] The Stage, 22 March 1984

[xiv] Albert Glinsky, Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, (University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2005) pp.294-295

[xv] Ibid

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: