Jeanne Loriod

Saturday 18 August 2001 00:00 BST

Jeanne Loriod, ondes martenot player: born Houilles, France 13 July 1928; died Juan-les-Pins, France 3 August 2001

There aren't many musicians whose identification with their instrument is such that one name automatically invokes the other: Larry Adler and the harmonica, perhaps, and – at least for the first half of the 20th century – Segovia and the guitar. Jeanne Loriod's instrument – the ondes martenot – is such a singular piece of equipment that rivals for seigneurie are few in number; on the other hand, the history of the ondes martenot is almost exactly that of Loriod's involvement with it, and, since virtually every ondist now active is a Loriod student, her influence will be felt for decades to come.

Jeanne Loriod began her studies on the piano, as had her sister Yvonne, four years her senior, and likewise attended Lazare Lévy's class at the Paris Conservatoire. It was there that she made her acquaintance with the instrument that dominated the rest of her life.

The ondes martenot, the invention of Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), is an electric instrument with a seven-octave keyboard; it produces sound, through loudspeakers, using two high-frequency oscillators. The pitch is prepared by the right hand on the keyboard or, for glissandi, by a metal ribbon, while the left hand creates the sound by depressing a raised lozenge in a drawer pulled out of the left-hand side of the instrument. The technical advance the ondes martenot brought over the theremin, an early electric instrument, was that the player now had complete acoustic control. That's where Loriod came into her own: she could make the ondes martenot sound like a human voice of extraordinary range.

The new instrument first stepped before the public on 20 April 1928, with a performance of Dimitrios Levidis' Poème symphonique; the soloist was Martenot himself, who soon joined as propagandist for the instrument by his sister Ginette. Jeanne Loriod joined the class of Maurice Martenot at the Conservatoire just after it was opened in 1947, winning a première médaille, and in 1950 she became a member of the ondes-martenot quartet founded by Ginette. Loriod gave her first concert at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome and never looked back: in the next half-century she was to play under the batons of some of the world's best-known conductors – Boulez, Cluytens, Previn, Munch, Ozawa and Mehta among them – and establish more or less single-handedly the concert repertoire of the ondes martenot.

It has become one of modern music's legends that the important ondes martenot solo in Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony (1946-48) was written for Jeanne Loriod; in fact, it was first performed by Ginette Martenot, but Loriod made the part her own: she recorded the work no fewer than six times. But Messiaen (who in 1961 married her sister Yvonne) did write for her later, including the demanding ondes part in his opera Saint François d'Assise. And other composers responded to the opportunity: André Jolivet, Marcel Landowski, Jacques Charpentier, Sylvano Bussotti, Jacques Bondon, Roger Tessier, Tristan Murail. In total, she gave some 100 first performances. She also ranged backwards, to revive works written for the first appearance of the instrument by Koechlin, Honegger, Varèse, Milhaud, Paul le Flem, Louis Aubert. Her repertoire was huge: it included 14 concertos, some 300 works with concertante parts for ondes and another 250 chamber works.

In 1974 she created the Jeanne Loriod Sextet – which could, in fact, stretch to 12 players if required – with a first aim of performing Messiaen's early La Fête des belles eaux, written for the Exposition Universelle in 1937; she immediately began commissioning new works for ondes ensemble for composers, who were always delighted to write for her. She was happy to work outside the narrow world of contemporary composition, too, featuring on the sound tracks of the Maurice Jarre films Lawrence of Arabia and Mad Max (Jarre was an ondes player himself) and in the Jacques Brel song "Ne me quitte pas". She was planning an appearance with the British pop group Radiohead.

At the Conservatoire of St Maur Loriod had the first personal chair held by an ondes player and, in Paris, she taught at the Ecole Normale, the Schola Cantorum and the Conservatoire, where in 1970 she took over Martenot's own class. She was also the author of a three-volume treatise, Technique de l'onde electronique type martenot (1987).

Her cool professionalism saved the day at the Proms in 1984. After a rehearsal of Varèse's Ecuatorial, the 1923-24 version of which has parts for two ondes martenot, a removal man accidentally pushed the instrument of the other ondes player, Cynthia Millar, off the stage, damaging it beyond immediate rescue. The BBC, at a loss to find a replacement (only 300 were ever made, all hand-crafted by Martenot himself), was left pulling its corporate hair out, until Loriod calmly revealed that she had a second instrument in the boot of the car: "I always have a spare one – you never know what can happen."

The English pianist Paul Crossley, who knew Jeanne Loriod from 1968 when he went to Paris to study with her sister and brother-in-law, describes her as "very funny, extremely humble – there were no airs and graces about her at all". Crossley emphasises that her importance derived not from the fact that she specialised in a weird instrument but that her musicianship was of the highest order:

You are talking about Sviatoslav Richter or Artur Rubinstein status when you're talking about her – one of the supreme instrumental virtuosos.

Her death was unexpected: she was swimming off Juan-les-Pins when she had a stroke and drowned. The performance of the Turangalîla Symphony at the Proms on 11 August was dedicated to her memory.

Asked to isolate the single most prominent characteristic of Jeanne Loriod's playing, Cynthia Millar, her disciple, colleague and friend, pointed to its singing quality – "she was leagues ahead of the rest of us".

Martin Anderson

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