For the past 6 months or so I’ve been listening often to the piano sonatas of Alexander Scriabin; he has been described as being an atonal composer but I think that is, perhaps, somewhat unfair as he is quite melodic (which one would think to be impossible in an atonal context) and seems to cleave to a musical key, at least in his sonatas (and preludes) that I’ve heard. I fell in love with both and have found that I can listen to them repeatedly in one sitting without growing tired of them. When searching thrift store for books I’ve also been on the lookout for his CDs but have had no luck as yet. I’m curious to hear his other works to judge their atonality.

I looked him up on Wikipedia ( just now and was delighted to see that he associated musical notes with colour; below is an excerpt from the Wikipedia page relating to his thoughts on music and colour as well as another colour wheel to add to our collection (see others here, here and here). The excerpt also discusses the colour impressions of other composers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov and discusses a “colour organ” that was designed for a presentation of one of Scriabin’s pieces, also reproduced below. If you get the opportunity, have a listen to his sonatas (and, no doubt, his other works) – they are very restful when playing in the background and equally enjoyable while you are listening to them intently.

Keys arranged in a circle of fifths in order to show the spectral relationship.

Influence of Colour

Though these works are often considered to be influenced by synesthesia, a condition wherein one experiences sensation in one sense in response to stimulus in another, it is doubted that Scriabin actually experienced this.His colour system, unlike most synesthetic experience, accords with the circle of fifths: it was a thought-out system based on Sir Isaac Newton’s Opticks. Note that Scriabin did not, for his theory, recognize a difference between a major and a minor tonality of the same name (for example: c-minor and C-Major). Indeed, influenced also by the doctrines of theosophy, he developed his system of synesthesia toward what would have been a pioneering multimedia performance: his unrealized magnum opus Mysterium was to have been a grand week-long performance including music, scent, dance, and light in the foothills of the Himalayas Mountains that was somehow to bring about the dissolution of the world in bliss.

In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin’s association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff’s opera The Miserly Knight accorded with their claim: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that “your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny.”

While Scriabin wrote only a small number of orchestral works, they are among his most famous, and some are performed frequently. They include a piano concerto (1896), and five symphonic works, including three numbered symphonies as well as The Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), which includes a part for a machine known as a “clavier à lumières”, known also as a Luce (Italian for “Light”), which was a colour organ designed specifically for the performance of Scriabin’s tone poem. It was played like a piano, but projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall rather than sound. Most performances of the piece (including the premiere) have not included this light element, although a performance in New York City in 1915 projected colours onto a screen. It has been claimed erroneously that this performance used the colour-organ invented by English painter A. Wallace Rimington when in fact it was a novel construction supervised personally and built in New York specifically for the performance by Preston S. Miller, the president of the Illuminating Engineering Society.

Scriabin’s original colour keyboard, with its associated turntable of coloured lamps, is preserved in his apartment near the Arbat in Moscow, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works.

Scriabin keyboard