In the lexicon * I already have mentioned here, I found an article about Harald GENZMER (Ger., Eng.) (1909-2007), German composer and disciple of Paul HINDEMITH (Ger., Eng.) (1895-1963). Among GENZMER’s works a Konzert für Trautonium is listed, and KLEE explains it as “an electronic instrument sponsored by GOEBBELS for the Thingspiele“. The German wikipedia article about GENZMER mentions a “number of compositions for this instrument” that are seemingly lost. The first pieces for Trautonium were created by HINDEMITH in 1930.
The Trautonium (Ger., Eng.) is the invention of Friedrich TRAUTWEIN (Ger.) (1888-1956), a kind of early synthesizer. According to this short notice published on the occasion of his surprising death, TRAUTWEIN had the basic idea for his instrument while he performed Hausmusik with his family. Young Friedrich as a child learned to play the organ and throughout his life was a music lover; in the small family orchestra he often had to play parts for instruments that were not available and so had to imitate for example the voice of a violin or a woodwind instrument on the piano: He had the idea of an instrument that would allow to change the Klangfarbe, the acoustic colour, while playing on one board.
This is the basic idea of the Trautonium: Over a metal rail a thin resistor wire is lead and where it is pressed down the number of impulses per time unit is varied, this way the pitch of the sound is modulated; throw in a lot of filters and you have a device that allows to modulate and emulate an awful lot of sounds: It’s not a string vibrating, but the sound itself is modulated. Here you find a way better explanation.
TRAUTWEIN joined the Reichspost in 1920 and worked for the Rundfunk, the radio broadcasting, helping to build the very first broadcasting station Vox-Haus (Ger.) in Tiergarten. He says in a rare documented speech that he found the transmissions to be of poor quality in those early days. To better the situation it was necessary to develop better equipment, especially microphones. The other possibility was to better the transmission, for example by avoiding additional equipment at all and modulating the sound signal itself. Here lies his idea of the Volkstrautonium: He had the vision of an easy to assemble and playable instrument for everybody, fully electric – he speaks of Elektromusik. The Reichspost was not what he liked and 1929 TRAUTWEIN became a teacher at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin: Here he met HINDEMITH, GENZMER, and SALA.
TRAUTWEIN built the machine, HINDEMITH and his composer students explored the musical possibilities and SALA actually played it. Telefunken (Ger., Eng.) even produced around 100 of the early instruments for the market, but it was naturally too expensive and too exotic. The situation changed after 1933 when Telefunken gave back to TRAUTWEIN the patents they had used and so he lost this source of income. HINDEMITH finally left Germany for Switzerland and later America. TRAUTWEIN took up working for the Luftwaffe and was somehow connected with the development of the German Richtfunk, a kind of early radar. GENZMER stayed in Germany and kept on composing, and Oskar SALA (Ger., Eng.) (1910-2002) kept on working and developing the Trautonium. They are said to have traveled together and performed, but I have not found any further information on this.
After the war TRAUTWEIN was for some years in Paris working in the development of aeroplanes and from 1949 onwards until his death was head of the training of recording engineers (Tonmeister) at the Konservatorium in Düsseldorf, today Robert-Schuhmann-Hochschule (Ger., Eng.). His estate is kept in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. SALA professionalized the use of the Trautonium and worked for film and tv, his estate is also in Munich.
The Trautonium had something of a renaissance some years ago and various projects grew around this music machine, especially this year in rememberance of SALA‘s hundredth birthday. There is a rebuilding project under way, new music is composed. On YouTube one can find a tv-feature about the Trautonium (part one, part two), German only, but check the links there are some sound bits. This is all very nice and interesting, but I found no clue that the instrument would have been used for any Thingspiel.
* KLEE, Ernst: Das Kulturlexikon zum Dritten Reich. Wer war was vor und nach 1945, Frankfurt a.M. 2007, article “Genzmer” 177.