scriabin_prometheus_small
Frontespiece of the original edition of Scriabin’s Prometheus (1910) designed by the French  Symbolist artist Jean Delville. From the RIAM library collections.

Today is the centenary of the death of Aleksandr Scriabin. The composer’s piano music is now a core part of the repertoire, in particular the preludes and sonatas, and in his late style he developed a highly individual but very coherent harmonic language.

Scriabin claimed to be able to associate sounds with colours and worked out a formal schema of sound and colour associations, with the cycle of fifths correlated with points on the light spectrum. The score of his symphonic poem Prometheus even included a part for clavier à lumières (simply marked “Luce” in the score) which used conventional musical notation but projected colours, not sounds.

RIAM doctoral student Svetlana Rudenko is researching the subject of synaesthesia in relation to Scriabin and other composers in a number of papers and conference presentations, including the recent International Conference on the Multimodal Experience of Music (ICMEM)  and forthcoming Sinestesia 2015: Sciencia y Arte conference in Spain (Jaén, 16-19th May, 2015). More information also at http://www.svetlana-rudenko.com/

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Opening page of Scriabin’s Prometheus, with the “colour organ” part on the top stave. The attempt to build this clavier à lumières for the work’s American première in 1915 was very costly, and apparently not very successful in performance.

The clavier à lumières was only the latest in a series of such instruments (the earliest being Louis-Bertrand’s clavecin oculaire dating from the 1720s) as discussed in Kenneth Peacock’s article Instruments to Perform Color-Music: Two Centuries of Technological Experimentation Leonardo, 21/4 (1988), 397-406

1972 Soviet Union stamp commemorating Scriabin
1972 Soviet Union stamp commemorating Scriabin

Perhaps one of the stranger facets of Scriabin’s posthumous reputation was the Soviet state’s revisionism in co-opting the composer as a proletarian hero following previous Stalin-era denunciations of his work. In 1961 Soviet Radio beamed his Poem of Ecstasy into Yuri Gagarin’s spacecraft, and Shostakovich (who privately disdained Scriabin’s music) in a 1972 official speech stated: “It is not an exaggeration to say his music was on the side of those who fought against tyranny and justice”. Lincoln Ballard, ‘Alexander Scriabin’s Centenary Revival in Soviet Era Russia’ (Journal of the Scriabin Society of America – via academia.edu)

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