The Well-Tempered February - Commentary #19
Prelude in E Minor, BWV 855
Color Theory Part 3
"This is Karl Haas..." [or actually it's someone impersonating him. Please imagine that I have just played 12 bars of the slow movement of Beethoven's Pathétique, and that you are washing the dishes or something. It's Public Radio somewhere in the last two decades of the 20th century.]
Today we will continue our conversation on the connections between music and color. This is the third of a four-part series: in the first part, we talked about the artist Kandinsky, who associated different colors with different musical sounds; in the second part, we talked about the teacher Georges Cuisenaire, who found a way for schoolchildren to connect mathematics with music and color. This evening, I would like to talk about the great Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. For Scriabin, music and color were inseparable: you could not hear one without seeing the other.
I first heard of Scriabin's theory of color in 2011, from a prospective candidate in the School of Music interviewing for the position of assistant professor of music theory. It was my custom at that time to conduct job interviews on behalf of the College of Arts & Sciences. This candidate was studying the works of Scriabin and particularly his orchestral work Prometheus: Poem of Fire, written in 1911 but never performed to the composer's express specifications during his lifetime. The work is a meditation on music and light; and requires a complex system of colored lights that was technically unfeasible at the time, including lightning flashes and tongues of flame. Unfortunately, I found her subject so fascinating that we ran over our allotted time, and I was unable to tell her about the tenure process or the opportunities for funded research at the Ohio State University. But she managed to do just fine: here's a picture of her as an Associate Professor receiving accolades for her design of the piece in performance with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, broadcast in over 60 countries in January 2020.
Scriabin's score calls for an unusual instrument called a "color organ," which projected beams of light that changed according to the harmonic progression of the music. This instrument was also known as a "luce," or light, from the Italian "tastiera per luce"; in French it was called a "clavier à lumières." The harmonic progression of color was both elaborate and simple: Scriabin was convinced, influenced by Blavatsky and other theosophists, that each key in the circle of fifths had a different color. Here is Scriabin's color wheel.
Scriabin also claimed to be inspired by Newton's Theory of Optics, but as we will see next time, though Sir Isaac Newton did have such a theory, it was very unlike this one. He may also have been influenced by Goethe, who developed a system of color harmony based on perceived polarities within the spectrum. Be that as it may, we can see that Scriabin's color scheme differs dramatically from the one employed in the Well-Tempered February. Scriabin's C major is red, his D major yellow; Bach's music to me sounds red when he writes in D major, and yellow in E-flat. Many have attributed this sense of color association with synaesthesia, but it is unlikely that Scriabin actually experienced this condition. I don't either, but I can tell when something is wrong. There are two many pinks in the flats for this to be compelling.
Worse than that, there is no blue. How the heck can you have the key of E minor without blue? I mean, come on now. This piece, which has a polarity that Goethe would have appreciated, snaps out of its doldrums to give us another Presto, after the one in the Prelude in C Minor. Like that one, it works a wheel motif in parallel sixths and thirds, and ends, the German editor helpfully tells us, with a possible Picardy Third:
That is, the piece that is in E minor throughout its two very different halves is meant to end in sunlight, with a G# in the third. That would bring the piece into the major key, and E major is a very different color than E minor. Many of Bach's Preludes and Fugues do have this minor-to-major resolution (think of the emphatic end of the Fugue in C# Minor), but here I think the resolution is unjustified. Better to stay in the dark. So I have crossed this one out, and end the Prelude in the minor key.
Associate Professor Anna Gawboy receiving applause for her production of Prometheus, Poem of Fire, Amsterdam, January 17, 2020
Alexander Scriabin with his "Color Circle" superimposed upon his photograph
Prelude in E Minor, BWV 855, measure 41, with suggested major resolution (Picardy Third)