The World, a terrific NPR show, had a segment tonight about the genius and whack job Alexander Scriabin. If you’re a pianist, you know his fantastic (literally) passionate piano music, passionate and psychedelic. Almost literally — Scriabin had a rare condition that translated keys into colors. My two favorite pianists, Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould had almost nothing in common except their brilliant technique, mental illness and monk-like devotion to Scriabin. Scriabin wan’t monk-like — the mayors of both New York and Chicago wanted to deport him because he traveled with a lady who wasn’t his wife.
Scriabin thought keys had colors, and he wrote for the big spectrum, tonal and visual. (As The World emphasized, there is an actual condition where people do see keys as colors.) Here’s Alex’s spectrum:
|By chromatic scale|
|C#||violet or purple|
|D#||flesh (glint of steel)|
|E||sky blue (moonshine or frost)|
|F#||bright blue or violet|
|G#||violet or lilac|
|A#||rose or steel|
|B||blue or pearly blue|
OK, here’s the fun part: I’m married to a pianist, a Scriabin devotee and someone who’s let’s say, artistic. He disagrees with his idol about the colors, almost without exception. He’s sitting next to me on the couch yelling:” C major is rhinestones! Then you go to C sharp and it’s hard, like steel grey. D major: Maybe brown. D flat E minor is golden. E flat major is a lush green. E major is a steely green, except in Mendelsohn. Then you go to F, which is hard — it’s kind of blue. F sharp major is really hard — neutral and brilliant. G is calm and light yellow, A flat is rose. Alexander was wrong: the A keys are red. B flat major is sunshine. Now we have B — it’s not a color it’s a texture: it’s hard. E minor is black mourning — sad beyond belief. D minor is just explosive.”
He was getting a bit off topic, describing the power, not the color. But the fun of hearing a mortal so passionate about an abstruse topic is big fun. But as I write this, he’s yelling: “Bach did this! Don’t forget the Well-Tempered Clavier, and how he just moved the keys a smidge off-center so they worked. And tell everyone they have to listen to Scriabin’s Preludes!”
I would add that erotic, passionate, poetic “Vers la Flamme.”
Scriabin was a weird modern genius, but he’s not the reason I’m writing this. It’s all about the ravings of another musician and how, for nothing, for zilch,one can be transported by someone else’s passion.