From Pythagorean Harmony to Scriabin's Colour of Music

The idea of a correlation between colour and sound, particularly Music, goes back thousands of years to Pythagoras and Miletus even before him, and also to the ancient traditions from the East.

Plato associated colour explicitly with music. In the “Republic”, he ideated the cosmos enclosed in eight concentric spheres each with its own distinct colour and musical note, as a model of the heavens, with the eighth note being same as the first but an octave higher, producing the Pythagorean Harmony or the Music of the Spheres.

Isaac Newton split white light into the familiar spectrum of seven colours, and reconstructed the emerging spectrum from a prism, thus laying the modern scientific foundation of the study of colour properties of light in his epochal “Opticks”. His idea led to his colour-music code, and eventually to the famous ‘Colour-Music keyboard’ that intrigued the contemporary and subsequent musicians and scientists, culminating eventually in the colour-musical compositions of Alexander Scriabin.

Scriabin and  the Colour of Music

The classical definition of the colour of music involves the so-called ‘Timbre’ of the sound source, and is based on complex but scientifically verifiable mathematical theories of the sub-harmonics and harmonic overtones, starting with Pythagoras and continuing to and beyond the Fourier transforms of our time. But there is no room in these theories for any subjective interactions. This was unacceptable to those who could ‘feel’ colour and music or ‘live’ as if in a neo-platonic cocoon. Hence the alternative approach of Scriabin.

Scriabin was probably the first composer passionately dedicated to fusing colour with music in a complex scheme roughly based on Newton’s theories. He wrote detailed instructions for incorporating extra-musical parts in his musical scores, some of which often failed owing to the technical shortcomings of the time.

Scriabin’s premise that there may be some aesthetic connection between musical harmony and shades of colour was shared by many earlier impressionists, notably Debussy. Others who were also interested in the correlation included Berlioz, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov. However Scriabin tended to veer off both music and science in favor of the mystic and the esoteric, no doubt following his involvement in the Theosophic movement of Madame Blavatsky. As a result, his music and theory were often dismissed as nothing but mythic metaphysics like the old Pythagorean mysteries and neither science nor music.

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Synaesthesia and the Colour-Music Link

It has been suggested that Scriabin was probably a “Synaesthete” with the rare neurological condition Synaesthesia which triggers off a firework of colour at any sound of music or even at any mundane sound. Although rare, synaesthesia is often found in musicians and especially in people with perfect pitch. For example, Liszt and Messiaen were probably synaesthetes. Also, Rimsky-Korsakov, like Scriabin, was known to have synaesthesia, but their perceived colours often differed. There was an interesting NPR story on synesthesia not so long ago, about a young synaesthete Pianist, which shows the human side of synaesthesia closer to our daily world purview.

Scriabin’s colour theories, and his new system of extra-musical notation, inspired composers like Stravinsky, Messiaen, Elliott Carter, plus some electronic composers. On the score of his own famous ‘multimedia’ composition Prometheus : The Poem of Fire, the top line is “Luce” (Italian for light) - this is intended for the ‘colour organ’ which does not produce sound but projects beams of light that change according to the harmonic progression as laid out on the score.

Scriabin: the Futuristic Megalomaniac?

Rock legends and mega stars of today may not realize that Scriabin’s multimedia concerts, about a century ago, were the precursors of many of today’s ‘happenings’ like overhead light projection in rock concerts or the pulsing strobes in a disco. Some of his innovations were way ahead of his time as was his unique system of notating special effects.

Scriabin’s philosophical leanings played a major role in his music. The early influence of Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’ theories and then of Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, inculcated in him the unique blend of abstract mysticism and megalomania, which he expressed in his writings including poetry, many unpublished, and of course in his music, which even now resonates with many ‘rebels’ on the fringe of pop rock culture.

The most grandiloquent, ‘Scriabinesque’ concert of all time must be the concert that never happened: his unrealized magnum opus Mysterium . For a while before his death, he planned this as a multi-media super spectacle, combining music, lights, dance, perfume etc, to be performed at the foothill of the Himalayas that was to bring about the dissolution of our world in an ‘armageddon’ of bliss, and usher in a new world! Scriabin must have already been in his new world psychologically. For obvious reasons nobody ever considered staging such an event at such a venue even in the wildest imaginations..

Scriabin: Music & Legacy

Scriabin was undoubtedly one of the greatest and original composers of his time, and the iconic Russian Symbolist composer. He began mainly as a pianist and a composer for the piano. He was a great admirer of Chopin and Liszt, and his early works reflect the lyricism and harmonic qualities of Chopin. His music evolved as he matured and composed in other musical forms like concertos, symphonies, orchestral poems etc.

Scriabin’s mysticism influenced his core musical language, and he gradually developed an original and increasingly atonal musical system that presaged twelve-tone and other serial music, quite independently of Schoenberg. Scriabin influenced composers like Messiaen, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, and was also held in high esteem by Aaron Copland, Nikolai Roslavets and many others.

Great pianists past and present have always liked playing Scriabin’s sonatas, preludes, études, fantasies and lesser known pieces. Interpretations vary widely even for the same piece; for instance, contrast Horowitz with Richter playing the Black Mass sonata no. 9.

Among some of the large scale works the Piano Concerto is popular but owing to technical difficulties not featured often in concerts; the earlier numbered symphonies were well received but had mixed concert hall appeal. The fourth symphony (Poem of Ecstasy) is a great ‘new age’ favorite, and the ground-breaking Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, remains the most emblematic Scriabin work, with or without the multimedia add-ons.

Scriabin left his magnum opus Mysterium unfinished. He died in April 1915.