Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Music of the Rainbow

Among the ever-growing number of classical composers whose sexuality has been discussed by biographers is one whose name is probably unfamiliar to you – Aleksandr Scriabin (1872-1915). 

Scriabin was a Russian composer, often called a pioneer of modern classical music. One of the elements in his extraordinary life was his belief in the influence colour has on music, which I’ll come to in a moment. Before that we’ll have a brief look at his life to understand why his sexuality has been discussed. 

On the face of it Scriabin was a regular straight guy. He married twice and had 7 children. It is biographers who interpret what little evidence there is to form an opinion. And opinion seems to be all we have with Scriabin. 

Outward appearances can be misinterpreted. Scriabin was quite short and considered effeminate. He was nicknamed “Pussy”, and I don’t need to explain that word’s use in sexual slang. Suffice it to say that during his lifetime Scriabin was never regarded as particularly masculine, even though he was a habitual womaniser and assaulter of young girls. During the turn of the century he had a very close relationship with his music publisher. But was it romantic or bromantic? Faubion Bowers, in the 1996 edition of his biography of Scriabin, wrote “to impute homosexuality – latent, passive or ultimately triumphed over, as it was in Scriabin’s case, in my opinion – still it would be recreant to shirk a rather homosexual interpretation of Scriabin’s life. Incontrovertible proof cannot now be dredged up from the past, but so many symptoms there seem to be”. Robert Craft (Stravinsky’s biographer) refers to Scriabin as “emotionally hermaphrodite”, and a handful of other historians openly label Scriabin as bisexual. The jury is still out as far as I’m concerned. 

So, back to the music. There are many instances in medical history where one sense is expressed by another. For example, seeing a shape and hearing a sound, or touching an object and smelling a fragrance. This very real phenomenon is called synesthesia. Although Aleksandr Scriabin was probably not a true synesthete he formulated a theory in which specific colour represent specific musical keys. He wasn’t the first or only composer who saw colour in music. Even Sir Isaac Newton came up with a similar theory way back in 1702 (I might say more about that later in the year). Here’s how his theory works, and I’m not particularly well versed in music theory so I hope I can explain this properly. 

Starting with the piano keyboard, there are 12 musical keys. Scriabin divided the rainbow colours into 12 hues which he placed in a circle, one colour representing one key, like a clock face. He placed them in a circle because they then coincided with what is called the Circle of Fifths (pictured below). We needn’t say more about it, except to say it’s all about how chords work together. 

Much of Scriabin’s reasoning for his application of colour to music was influenced by his own mystical beliefs and philosophy rather than true synesthesia. From about 1903 he began composing pieces based on his colour theory. The most significant of these was “Prometheus: Poem of Fire”. Scriabin invented a new “musical” instrument called a “clavier à lumières” (“keyboard with lights”) to be played during the piece. The keyboard was linked to projectors, so that whichever key or chord was played its corresponding colour in the Circle of Fifths was projected onto a screen or around the walls. 

The clavier à lumières was such a complex instrument to construct that it wasn’t actually used in the world premiere of “Prometheus: Poem of Fire”. One was built for a performance in 1915 in New York. Scriabin’s original clavier is preserved in his Moscow apartment which is now a museum. This video shows how a recent performance of “Prometheus”. 

The culmination of Scriabin’s colour music was to be extended to all the other senses in a monumental piece called “Mysterium”. This was to have been the salvation of mankind (he was a bit of an egotist and thought he was God!). “Mysterium” was to have been a week-long performance located in the foothills of the Himalayas and would have filled the air with music, light, colour and fragrance, with full orchestra, clavier and dancers. In Scriabin’s mind “Mysterium” was to have created such an aura of bliss on its audience that this bliss would spread around the world and rid mankind of its evils to create a new world of peace. 

Bearing in mind that “Mysterium” was being written in the years running up to 1914 it seems somewhat ironic that such a delusion of the power of his music would never be completed. As Scriabin saw the world descend into the war whose century is being marked this year he caught septicemia, and in April 1915 he died with “Mysterium” unfinished.

Several recreation and reconstructions of Scriabin’s colour/music have been performed in recent years.

1 comment:

  1. Scriabin’s unique association of color and sound is very often mischaracterized. He never actually stated that color could define a specific pitch as is commonly asserted. In fact, he stated that for him, a single pitch could not evoke a color. He was part of a new era of artists who were trying to find a universal correlation between color and sound, but who were faced with having to explain the then recently introduced opponency theory of color developed by Ewald Hering in 1892, as well as the tristimulus perception of color. Before Hering, most correlations between color and sound were a one to one non scientific mapping of the perceived order of visible spectrum color to the linear frequency ordering of the Chromatic circle of pitch (the first such instance being the color organ of Castel in 1740). Once Hering’s color science and trichromatic color theory were introduced, the Chromatic circle to color correlation model was proven to be an impossibility. Artists and musicians then began to conceive that musical key (7 harmonically related pitches) created a fused singular perspective similar to how the tristimulus of the three cones of the eye create the perception of a single color. From this perspective, the harmony of an entire key would then evoke the perception of a single color. For example, Scriabin believed that the harmony of the 7 pitches of the key of D would evoke the color Yellow. These theorists also had to grapple with the realization that the color named Magenta was not perceived within the visible spectrum and how to provide a viable scientific theory which would correlate it to sound. Even though Scriabin was a theosophist, he did not subscribe to Madame Blavatsky’s color sound correlation that adhered to the ROYGBIV chromatic rainbow assignment of Newton which had also long since been disproven. Instead of then attempting to define a direct scientific correlation, or even define a specific scientific color wheel, Scriabin turned to another solution – synesthesia. Scholars assert that Scriabin was a self-proclaimed synesthete who did not actually possess synesthesia neurologically. The invocation of synesthesia allowed Scriabin to project a new color sound solution without being subjected to scientific criticism. Since he viewed musical key as the harmonically fused structure which evoked color, then the order of color should proceed by the Circle of 5ths (Fifths) from a fused key perspective. He then assigned his synesthetic color wheel to the Circle of 5ths. His color wheel was an even further skewing of the already naturally weighted colors of the visible spectrum by the addition of greys, lightness adjustments, and saturation shifts. Accordingly, two of his colors were called Glint of Steel and Flesh. The result was that Scriabin’s color circle had no correlation to color theory and did not possess the fundamental color theory properties of complementarism or primary relationships. His color wheel could therefore not be used to define any harmonic relationships between musical keys or other aspects of harmonic structure through properties of color. It is often stated that he associated ‘the’ color wheel to the Circle of 5ths which is simply not true. His colors were illustrated in a circle or a wheel, but are nothing close to the colors of a scientific color wheel. His ultimate assessment was that the meaning was mystical. His mysticism in general and what he thought was a mystical color vibration evoked by the harmony of a musical key are then the most relevant aspects to consider when further analyzing his use of key within his compositions.
    A comprehensive theoretical analysis and history of the harmonic science correlating tristimulus color to sound can be obtained in the book A Rosetta Stone. A GoogleBooks previews is available at the following link: