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Dead medium: Scriabin's Color Organ
From: (Philip Downey)

Source(s): The Lives of the Great Composers, by Harold C. Schonberg. 1970. George J. McLeod Limited.
ISBN 0 393 02146 7

"...Scriabin considered 'The Divine Poem' the turning point in his career. "This was the first time I found light in music, the first time I knew intoxication, flight, the breathlessness of happiness." His scores became peppered with such markings as "Luminously and more and more flashing." It might be that Scriabin also suffered from a rare genetic peculiarity known as synesthesia, in which sound is translated directly into color. People with synesthesia cannot hear music without seeing colors...

"...Faubion Bowers relates in his biography of the composer, 'he overflowed with plans. He spoke of tactile symphonies. He called incense an art which joins earth and heaven. He described the 'Mysterium' [a work about which Scriabin had been thinking for many years). He explained this great final, cataclysmic opus as synthesizing all the arts, loading all senses into a hypnoidal, many-media extravaganza of sound, sight, smell, feel, dance, decor, orchestra, piano, singers, light, sculptures, colors, visions...'

" work was the Fifth Symphony, which Scriabin named 'Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.' This had an elaborate program, ending with the world's beginning and a cosmic dance of the atoms. In addition to the full symphony orchestra, 'Prometheus' used a piano, a chorus, and a color organ. It was Scriabin's first actual attempt to synthesize music and colors, and he worked out a chart:

Note Vibrations per second Color

C 256 Red

C sharp 277 Violet

D 298 Yellow

D sharp 319 Glint of Steel

E 341 Pearly white and shimmer of moonlight

F 362 Deep red

F sharp 383 Bright blue

G 405 Rosy orange

G sharp 426 Purple

A 447 Green

A sharp 469 Glint of steel (for some

reason, the same as

D sharp)

B 490 Pearly blue

"Koussevitzky conducted the world premiere of 'Prometheus' in Moscow, on March

2, 1911. But there was no color organ; the instrument turned out to be

impractical and was dropped....Scriabin spent a great deal of time working on

the 'Mysterium'--not composing any music, but thinking about its locale and the

extramusical accompaniments to the spectacle. The 'Mysterium' involved the end

of the world and the creation of a new race of man. At the climax of the

'Mysterium' the walls of the universe would cave in. 'I shall not die,' Scriabin

said. "I shall suffocate in ecstasy after the 'Mysterium'*."...He wanted his

'Mysterium' to be performed in a temple in India, a temple hemispherical in

shape. As Bowers describes the 'Mysterium':

'Bells suspended from the clouds in the sky would summon the spectators from all

over the world. The performance was to take place in a holy temple to be built

in India. A reflecting pool of water would complete the divinity of the half-

circle stage. Spectators would sit in tiers across the water. Those in the

balconies would be the least spiritually advanced. The seating was strictly

graded, ranking radially from the center of the stage, where Scriabin would sit

at the piano, surrounded by hosts of instruments, singers, dancers. The entire

group was to be permeated continually with movement, and costumed speakers

reciting the text in processions and parades would form parts of the action. The

choreography would include glances, looks, eye motions, touches of the hands,

odors of both pleasant perfumes and acrid smokes, frankincense and myrrh.

Pillars of incense would form part of the scenery. Lights, fires, and constantly

changing lighting effects would pervade the cast and audience, each to number in

the thousands. This prefaces the final 'Mysterium' and prepares people for their

ultimate dissolution in ecstasy.'

"Goodness knows how far Scriabin would have gone with the project....But

Scriabin died while all of the Mysterium was in his head. He died in a

ridiculous manner. People like him should go up in a blaze of fire. Scriabin

died from blood poisoning, the result of a carbuncle on his lip."

(((Philip notes: *1. He did compose a piece called 'The Poem of Ecstasy'. 2. For

many years classical musicians debated whether the note 'A' should be tuned to

435 or 440 cycles per second. 440 won and is an almost universal standard today.

It is interesting that Scriabin chose neither. Perhaps it somehow affected his

color perception?)))