Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?


This documentary material on Scriabin's "colored hearing" is being proposed for familiarization by the researchers on his ideas of light-music synthesis. On the basis of their analysis a conclusion is drawn up that the nature of "color-tonal" analogies is associative, i.e. psychological and, accordingly, the existing belief that Scriabin was a somewhat unique "synaesthete" who really saw the sounds of music, that is literally had an ability for "co-sensations", is being put in doubt.

Our group - at the beginning it was merely an amateur group and now it is the academician institute "Prometheus" - is named so because, after the first in the USSR performance of Scriabin's "Prometheus" with light in 1962, we have been continuing to explore and develop Scriabin's ideas of art and synthesis up to nowadays (see in English [1; 2]). The analysis of genesis of Scriabin's idea of the "light symphony", realized by inclusion of the "Luce" part in the "Prometheus" ("The Poem of Fire") score [3 -9], ended in our publication of a special monograph on the subject [10]. (A resume was represented in brief also in English [11 - 14].) In the course of this work we had to come to investigation of Scriabin's "colored hearing", because it had been taken for granted and it is now that the "Luce" part was tightly connected with this his faculty .

Having turned to the literature on "colored hearing" (and, more widely, on synaesthesia of which "colored hearing" is a specific case), we encountered the following situation. Both in Russian and in foreign, in popular and in science literature, from year to year from the beginning of the century a following statement, that sounds like an axiom and requires no proof, has been afloat. Approximately, it looks like following: "There exists a unique (strange, wondrous, mysterious, etc.) faculty of human psychics lying in the ability of some individuals - so called "synaesthetes" - to see sounds of certain instruments or certain tonalities as colored in various colors". This statement was based on supposition that this seeing is - real, constant and even inborn, regardless of the will of the individual. For justification of these suppositions the etymology of the term "synaesthesia" itself as "co-sensation" was recalled [15]. And what is of the main importance for us here - it was Scriabin whom mentioned without fail as first in a row of the said uniques (sometimes his name was followed by notorious names of Rimsky-Korsakov, Kandinsky, Chiurlionis, Messian etc.)

Side by side with the pride that among these uniques there is a large number of representatives of Russia (joke!), doubts crept in: if the "light symphony" is determined by the composer's unique (strange, mysterious etc.) faculties, does it mean that the light-music itself is an outstanding, unique (strange, mysterious) art? And what have the spectators of this art to be to apprehend adequately the idea of such composer - also uniques-synaesthetes? Where could we take them from - such a whole lot of the strange and mysterious? And if we would be able to find them, is there a guarantee that they would not fall over one another - because synaesthetic abilities are very personal, different, as practically all the researchers assert it...

The similar questions are matter-of-course for everyone who is interested in the problem of "colored hearing" in the context with its connections with the aims of light-music synthesis. In this case, there is no unambiguous answer yet which would be understood and accepted by everyone. And in order not to be drowned in scholastic theorizing, let us give up this question for better times. Let us limit ourselves to the question proclaimed in the title of the paper. At the same time let us give up any discussions possible in the course of analysis of the literature on the subject, that have been cumulated for 80-90 years. Let us remind a behest of wise Leonardo da Vinci: " Why should you drink from a jug if you can drink from a fountain?" If a skein is tangled you merely have to find the beginning of the thread... In this case we have a score - Scriabin's originals are easier to access for us than for our western colleagues. And that is why we feel it our duty to reconstruct and to present you all the original information, so it would be possible to determine at last: "Was Scriabin actually a synaesthete or not?" Let us refer to His Majesty the fact, to the composer's own confessions documented by his contemporaries, to the handwritten documents being saved in the archives and, of course, to the materials on "colored hearing" published in Scriabin's life , evidently with his approval. This is the only possible way if not to put it all in order then not to become a victim of trivial misapprehension that may arise when using information from second, third etc. hand...

The author of first special publications on Scriabin's "light symphony" and his "colored hearing" was his friend and biographer Leonid Sabaneyev (1881 - 1968). Having got education in two higher schools - in the conservatoire and in the university, in natural science field - he concerned himself with this aspect of Scriabin's creative work more actively than others. His first special paper "On Sound-Color Correlation" appeared in the Russian magazine "Music" early in 1911, synchronously with the publication of a score of "Prometheus"[16]. By the way, only a month later Scriabin's "colored hearing" had been mentioned by him in the same magazine once more in connection with the idea of "light symphony" [17] (this paper on "Prometheus" is of special value because, in German translation and with some additions from the first paper, it was soon reprinted in the famous collected articles "The Blue Rider", giving an access to information about Scriabin's "colored hearing", albeit in short, to a western reader [18]). More serious material on his "colored hearing" was published by Sabaneyev a year after the composer's death - as a separate paper [19] in the chapter about the "light symphony" in his monograph on Scriabin [20]. But in these later releases sometimes it is hard to distinguish Sabaneyev- biographer from Sabaneyev-commentator. So the mentioned papers of 1911 and, especially, the diary records of 1910-1915 about his meetings with Scriabin, that Sabaneyev had managed to publish in 1925 before his emigration to France, are of the major importance for us [21]. One more basic trustworthy source of information on the problem we are interested in - the English psychologist Ch. Mayers' paper written by him after a special appointment with Scriabin in Cambridge in 1914 [22]. Other publications on Scriabin's "colored hearing" - both in Russia and abroad - are secondary and, on more lucky occasions, are based on operating namely this material (merely, there is no other material except some particular passages in the reminiscences of his contemporaries).

In his first papers instead of the conventional concept "colored hearing" Sabaneyev uses his own term "hearing of colors". At first he states this phenomenon to be "strange" and "rare" and then "interesting" and appropriate to musicians with "sensitive imagination and good ear". In this case he always takes in inverted commas the words "audial vision", "colored hearing", "coloring", "sound vision" - as if he accentuates by this their conventional, allegoric (metaphoric) character. In his search for an answer about the nature of "colored hearing" he, both like Scriabin himself, from the very beginning lays aside the idea to search for some "physical" background of it (applying such searchings to an "easeful pastime of mind"). It is demonstrative that from the very beginning of his discourse about Scriabin's "colored hearing" Sabaneyev easily uses the concept of "association". Though, being a physical scientist, he always felt drawn to the idea to explain "colored hearing" as purely Sphysiological" phenomenon. But here he is embarrassed by a subjective, personal character of "associations of light sensation". And this gives him an impulse for supposition of possibility of psychological explanation of "colored hearing": "Colors, on the one hand, and sounds, on the other hand, engender various moods, often similar to one another, therefore - the association of colors and sounds", - writes he in 1911 [16, p.200]. Careful Sabaneyev does not insist on propriety of this version, calling a decisive answer off to the future. But his own observations of "colored hearing", to be accurate, of "color-tonal" Scriabin's hearing, seem to substantiate his conclusions.

As it is known, every musician has his own semantics of tonalities, his own emotion-notional and symbolic evaluation of them, that is being formed in the course of upbringing and creation. It can't be the same and single for all people, as it was supposed in 18 c. by the exponents of the so called "theory of affects" (or, more widely, " the normative aesthetics"). The tonality semantics depends on age, on art school, on style in which the musician works, in brief, on history and art context and also on his personal creative preferences.

So, differences are inevitable, but it does not mean that there is a realm of absolute chaos. Composer R.Schumann noted it very expressly in his well-known work titled "The Characteristics of Tonalities": "We can't say that this or that feeling, if it has to be fully expressed, calls for translation into music by means of namely this and not any other tonality", - he wrote. But we also can't agree with those who "asserts that in every tonality everything can be expressed", - considers Schumann (cited from [23, p.368]). And, correspondingly, particular semantics of colors can be formed in every cultured individual. And it is natural to expect that "similar to one another" (as Sabaneyev said) colors and tonalities can connect in conscience of an interested individual into association (here, to say in terms of psychology, it is exactly" association by similarity").

Let us be back to Scriabin. Under the influence of various factors, including his enthusiasm about theosophy, the composer divided tonalities into "spiritual" (Fis-dur) and "earthen", "material" (C-dur, F-dur). Correspondingly, he characterized and colors: his red is a "color of Abaddon", blue and violet - colors of "reason", "spiritual" colors. Therefore, their juxtapositions are quite matter-of-course: C-dur, F-dur - are red and Fis-dur - deep blue. For Scriabin just these associations were the most evident and vivid. And what about other tonalities? In the Scriabin Museum's archives a list without date and title has remained, but it is filled by his own hand and there - several different(!) versions of correlations between various notes and colors are written. We can see that the composer builds up a conception. It is hard to judge - to what, concretely, it applies, but the connection of this list with "colored hearing" or the "Luce" part is obvious. And the main point here is that also Sabaneyev specially records in his reminiscences about Scriabin - the mental, conscious character of his correlations. The composer did not want to believe that his associations were not compulsory for everyone. He believed that they were universal. "It can't be personal, - said Scriabin firmly. - There must be a principle, must be oneness. Game of chances - is ripple on the surface, and the essential must be common" [21, p.48]. In searching for the common Scriabin builds up a system of color-tonal analogies: "The three clear to me colors gave me three bearings",- said he, confessing that the rest colors are derived by him "theoretically" [21, p.203]. In his natural aim "to put in a system all associations" he juxtaposed the "allied colors" (arranged in spectrum) and the "allied tonalities" (as it is known, this alliance is obvious when they are arranged into the so-called "circle of fifths"). "Having taken cognizance of this consistency, - Sabaneyev writes, - Scriabin found the dropped out links of the scale of color-sound accordance and had to come to the inner agreement that he was right in his theoretical premise. In other words, he began to search in the depth of his apprehension those associations that derived from his theory, an made sure that it is not difficult to call them in" [19, p.171].

Moreover, the effect of selfsuggestion, dependent on the exclusive belief in the "principle" he had ordered, was of the kind that Scriabin (of course, if it were not a coquetry of an artist before scientists) confessed to Ch.Mayers that sometimes he had anticipated a change of colors even earlier than a change of tonalities itself took place.

In addition, belief in the universal validity of the system proposed by him was of such kind that he did not give any explanations in connection with it in the score of "Prometheus", what colors kept dark behind the notes of "Luce" (and these notes, as we set it up, are fine indication of tonal and harmony changes and, so, "Luce" is a colored visualization of this tonal-harmonic plan closely connected with philosophic program of "Prometheus", - but this is a subject of another research [24]).

Nevertheless, accepting Scriabin's system of "colored hearing" (to be more accurate, the system of his analogies) as somewhat fixed, we proposed, for convenience sake, its graphic notation (see fig.1) [25].

krg_e.gif (8220 bytes)


And Sabaneyev first published a table of "color-sound" correspondences as far back as 1911. In its contents it practically recapitulates our scheme on fig.1, but in Sabaneyev's handwritings it is delivered in more familiar column:

C. -  Red.
G. -  Orange-pink.
D. -  Yellow
A. -  Green
E.  -  Whitish-blue.
H. -   Similar to E.
Fis. - Blue, bright.
Dis. - Violet.
As. - Purplish-violet.
Es. -  Steel colors with metal shine.
B.  -  Steel colors with metal shine.
F.  -  Red, dark.

For comparison he gives alongside a table of composer Rimsky-Korsakov's color "vision" of tonalities, that had been published shortly before in Russian press [26]:

C-dur - white,
G-dur - brownish-gold, light,
D-dur - daylight, yellowish, royal,
A-dur - clear, pink,
E-dur - blue, sapphire, bright,
H-dur - gloomy, dark blue with steel shine,
Fis-dur - greyish-green,
Dis-dur - darkish, warm,
As-dur - greyish-violet,
Es-dur - dark, gloomy, grey-bluish,
B-dur  - darkish,
F-dur - green, clear (color of greenery).

First of all we pay our attention the fact that in Scriabin's column Sabaneyev uses the designation of tonalities with capital letters C, G, D etc. (without dur). It's accepted among musicians (and Sabaneyev himself had one more strong reason for this decision, because in "Prometheus" Scriabin's language of harmony, practically, had already went out of the framework of the traditional major-minor system). It is a pity that some researches, especially who are not musicians, take these signs C, G, D etc. for designation of tones and ascribe to Scriabin a nonsensical version of "colored hearing" with elementary, "physical" matter (i.e. seeing in colors the separate tones of the scale "octave - spectrum").

After this necessary remark (to our regret, important, because such a provoking mistake occur rather often) let us take stock of Scriabin ˇs column. Theoretic character of his analogies becomes more evident here, because it is clear that having exhausted the familiar colors of spectrum, Scriabin in the end of the row includes also achromatic colors - for tonalities Es and H, for example. Sometimes he even called them "ultra-red" and "ultra-violet", i.e. the unseen colors at all, what, by the way, was fixated by Ch.Mayers!..)

By the way, Ch.Mayers as a psychologist, as a specialist in the field of "colored hearing" research, specially accents mental and even artificial character of Scriabin's system of color-tonal analogies. He is also inclined to see associative derivation in their origin, but pays attention to the fact that a trivial voluntary or involuntary intention to correspond the "homologous sequences" (here we may refer, for example, alphabet, sequence of natural numbers, spectrum, sound scale, circle of fifths of tonalities etc.) of different modalities tells on many people (and on Scriabin too) in forming their correlations of "color hearing". But, in addition to Mayers, Scriabin's analogies are not so mechanistic in their motivation: his correlations are based on the quality of increasing of "complexity" of colors and tonalities (Schumann had yet seen that "complication" in the external characteristic of increasing number of alteration signs in designation of tonalities; and, correspondingly, the change of colors in culture goes from "simple", from the red part of spectrum, to "complex", from its blue end).

In comparison with Scriabin, Rimsky-Korsakov's color-tonal associations, as Sabaneyev notes, have more natural, spontaneous character. But exactly in it, -as, by the way, Scriabin himself in the private argument with Rimsky-Korsakov - he sees possibility of the effect of chances (the effect of "white keys" for "white" C-dur, possible influence of a traditional application for pastorales of F- dur on its "green color" etc.). But, for addition, the correlations of Rimski-Korsakov appeared to be more preferable than Scriabin's theoretical scheme, at least, for those musicians who lived and created their works in Russia in the middle of the 20 c. (it was shown by our inquiry of all members of the Composers' Association of the USSR in the 60-70s [27]. At the same time it does not mean that one of them, Rimski-Korsakov or Scriabin, had "better" or "worse" "colored hearing". Rimsky-Korsakov proceeded from his personal positions and Scriabin - from his (perhaps, it was also of an importance that the former had the absolute pitch hearing and the latter, as it is known, - the relative) [28].

If we use a method of complex research in arts [29] it becomes clear that Scriabin schematized his associations according to his initial aims: to work out the "light" part to his music to "duplicate" the effect of music (later he would give up that primitive idea (see [30, 31]). Theosophical-symbolistic looks for esoteric, universal "accordances" contributed into his conception of the aims of synthesis (being a great artist he overcame it in the post-"Prometheus" period of his creative work [32, 33]). The more close analysis shows that in Scriabin's work an ability of "light-sound synaesthesia" appeared to be of more importance than "color-", that let him attain an effect of "effulgence", "light-bearing" of the music itself even without real light [34, 35]. But all these aspects of the problem in search overstep our question in the title. And an answer to it is to be done by a reader himself on the base of the information given here and on his own conception of the word "synaesthete"...

What concerns to us, we share O. Messian's opinion; his abilities of art-metaphoric "vision" of color of music were too much bright than Scriabin ˇs, nevertheless, he suspiciously regarded to such wordings as "synaesthete", "synoption". He regarded that his "seeing" of color of music was brought to life by his "inner vision", was conditioned by his mind and could not be compared with what, for example, a man feels under drugs when anyone indeed becomes a "synaesthete", involuntary beholding real color images inspired not by spirit but by chemicals (see about it in [36]). But here we overstep into that "prohibited area" where T.Goteu ("The Fanciers of Hasheesh"), Ch. Bodlair ("Searching of Paradise") would come and where Scriabin refused to go declining with resentment an offer to change his conscience by such base means [21, p.117 ].But it is, as they say, a plot for another novel...

We regard it possible, if it is necessary, to prove founding upon documents that Rimski-Korsakov, Chiurlionis, Kandinsky - also were not "synaesthetes" in the clinical sense of this word that implies the normal ability of metaphoric thinking to be some "brain anomaly".

...It is interesting, if we know that in Germany "timber" is "klangfarbe" (i.e. color of sound), can we consider all the population of Germany "synaesthetes"?


  1. Galeyev B. Music-kinetic art medium: on the work of the group "Prometei". - Leonardo, 1976, v.9, N 3, p.177-182.
  2. Galeyev B. Fire of Prometheus: Music-kinetic art experiments in the USSR. - Leonardo, v. 21, 1988, N4, p.383-396.
  3. Galeyev B. Scriabin and Eisenstein (cinema and visual music). - Volga, 1967, N 7, p.150-162 (in Russian).
  4. Galeyev B. Scriabin and development of the idea of visual music. - In: Music and the nowadays, issue 6. - M.: Muzyka, 1969, p.77 - 142 (in Russian).
  5. Vanechkina I. Idea of synthesis of music and light in the creative work of A.N.Scriabin . In: Conference "Light and music" (theses). - Kazan: KAI, ( p.42-44 (in Russian).
  6. Vanechkina I. The experiments of art group SKB "Prometei". - In: Materials of the conference of young scientists and specialists of Tatarstan. - Kazan, 1971, p.63-65 (in Russian ).
  7. Vanechkina I. On the light-color designs of A.N.Scriabin . - In: Matters of history, music theory and musical upbringing, issue 2. - Kazan: KGPI, 1972, p.119-152 (in Russian).
  8. Vanechkina I., Galeyev B. Conception of synthesis of arts of A.N.Scriabin . - In: Proceedings of the third conference "Light and music". - Kazan: KAI, 1975, p.24-30 (in Russian).
  9. Vanechkina I. "Luce" - a clue to the later Scriabin's harmony. Sovietskaya muzyka, 1977, N 4, p. 100-103.
  10. Vanechkina I., Galeyev B. "The Poem of Fire" (Scriabin's conception of light-music synthesis). Kazan: Izd. KGU, 1981 (in Russian).
  11. Vanechkina I. Castel and Scriabin: Evolution of light-music ideas. - In: From Castel to our days (proc. of conf.) - Clermont-Ferrand, 1995, p.23-29.
  12. Vanechkina I. Genesis of Alexander Scriabin's "Light symphony" - "Ostranenie-97" (Catalog). - Dessau: Bauhaus, 1997, p.50-56.
  13. Vanechkina I. Where does "The Blue Riders" Gallop? Schoenberg, Kandinsky and Scriabin on Synthesis of arts. - Haag, 1998, p. 95- 99.
  14. Vanechkina I., Galeyev B. Prometheus (Scriabin + Kandinsky): Synthesis of music and painting. Proceedings of the conference, Dublin, 1999, p.55-60.
  15. We have already noted that the root of the Ancient Greek word "synaesthesia" - "aesthesis" can be translated also as "sensation" and as "feeling", and even as "sense" (the similar polysemy, by the way, exists in regard to the root "sense-" in English). See about this in: Galeyev B. Man, arts, technique (a problem of synaesthesia in arts). - Kazan, Izd: KGU, 1987, p.104 ( in Russian). There it is proved possibility and necessity of appreciation of the concept "synaesthesia" exactly as "co-sensation", "co-imagination".
  16. Sabaneyev L. On sound-color accordance. - Muzyka, 1911, N 9, 29 Jan., p. 196-200 (in Russian ).
  17. Sabaneyev L. "Prometheus". - Muzyka, 1911 N 113, 26 Feb., p. 287-294 (in Russian ).
  18. Sabaneyev L. "Prometheus" von Skriabin . - In: Der Blau Reiter. - Munchen, 1912, s.57-68.
  19. Sabaneyev L. Scriabin and phenomenon of colored hearing in connection with the light symphony "Prometheus". Muzykalny sovremennik, issue 4-5. - Petrograd, 1916, p.169-175 (in Russian).
  20. Sabaneyev L. Scriabin. Moskow, 1916 (2nd ed., 1923) (in Russian).
  21. Sabaneyev L. Reminiscences about Scriabin. - M.: Muzsector Gosizdata, 1925 (in Russian).
  22. Myers Ch. Two cases of Synaesthesia. - The British Journal of Psychology, v. VII, pr.1, 1914, p.112-117.
  23. Schumann R. Characteristics of tonalities. - In: History of Aesthetics in 5 v., v.3. - Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1967, p.368-369 (in Russian).
  24. Vanechkina I. "Luce" - a beam lightening Scriabin's later harmony. - In: Scriabin: Man, artist, thinker. - Moscow: Scriabin's Museum, 1994, p.137-146 (in Russian).
  25. This scheme with English notations is copied by us from a preface to one of the last American editions of the score of "Prometheus",written by F.Bowers (A.Scriabin. "Poem of Ecstasy" and "Prometheus: Poem of Fire", in full score. New York: Dover Publ., Inc., 1995, p.114), and he advises there that he derived it from our articles and books that had been published earlier in Russian : Vanechkina I. On Scriabin's colored hearing. - In: Proceedings of the third conference "Light and music". - Kazan, 1975, p.33 (in Russian); Galeyev B. Light music: emergence and essence of the new art. - Kazan, Tatknigoizdat, 1976, p.111 (in Russian). By the way, here and later on it is necessary to keep in mind that in English language countries, unlike Russia, there is a difference in denotation of tonalities (they write B instead of H and Bb instead of B). Please, bear in mind that we retain notation of the original in the examples from Russian editions.
  26. Yastrebtsev V. On N.A.Rimsky-Korsakov's color sound- contemplation. - Russkaya muzykalnaya gazeta, 1908, N 39-40, p.842■845 (in Russian).
  27. Vanechkina I. A resume of inquiry on consistencies in "colored hearing" among members of Composers' Association of the USSR. In: Papers of V I All-Union acoustic conference. - Moscow, Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1968. By the way, in course of the inquiry almost all our correspondents underlined specially the associative, metaphoric nature of "colored hearing" in music and excluded from art sphere any cases of clinical, i.e. anomalistic manifestations of "colored hearing" (see about it: Vanechkina I. Soviet musicians and light-music. - In: The art of luminous sounds. - Kazan: KAI, 1973, p.89-110).
  28. On relativity of Scriabin's musical hearing it was noted at personal contact with Scriabin by famous poet B.Pasternak (see B.Pasternak - on arts. - Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1990, p.41. The determinacy of "colored hearing" (its brightness, nuances, permanence) by absolute hearing is underlined by many people. By the way, in this context it must be of interest for those who study real "synaesthetes", an example of musician K.Saradgev. He is not known at all in the West, little studied in Russia and worth studying with an application of any arguments - from aesthetic to neuroscientific. He "heard" tonality of people, natural phenomena (it might be "si with 112 flats"!) and he had his own steady system of "color-tonal hearing". (see about him in: A.Tsvetayeva, N.Saradgev. Master of magic ring. - Moscow: Muzyka, 1986; Gosizdat, 1988). His unique ability is close to that of Shereshevsky described by A.R.Luria in his famous research on "Sh." phenomenon In: A.Luria. The mind of mnemonist. A little book about a vast memory. - New York, 1976. But in this case Saradgev is of more interest for us because, being a musician, he "saw" colors of just musically organized sound.
  29. Vanechkina I. Complex approach to the research on A.N.Scriabin's light-music conception. - In: Problem of complex research of art creativity. - Kazan: Izd. KGU, 1980, p. 107-115.
  30. Galeyev B., Vanechkina I. From "Prometheus" to "Mystery". - In: The art of luminous sounds. - Kazan: KAI, 1973, p.29-66 (in Russian).
  31. Galeyev B. The organic entire, not automatic "translation". - Leningrad: Nauka, 1977, p.266-268.
  32. Vanechkina I. Scriabin, theosophy, synaesthesia. - In: Laokoon of nowadays: aesthetic problems of synaesthesia (pr. of conf.). - Moscow: Izd. MGU, 1992, p.14-16.
  33. Vanechkina I., Galeyev B. New mistakes are the well forgotten ones ( about Scriabin's "light symphony" as colored "aura" of music). - In: Musical science in Middle Volga region: Results and perspectives . - Kazan: Conservatory, 1999, p. 112-116.
  34. Galeyev B. To color and light!.. (on evolution of gravitational synaesthesia in music). - In:Ibid. - Kazan: Conservatory, 1999, p.93-97.
  35. Vanechkina I., Galeyev B. The real origins of Scriabin's conception of "light symphony". In: New technologies in culture and arts (thesis). Kazan: NII "Prometei", 1995, p.5-7.
  36. Samuel C. Entretiens avec Olivier Messiaen. - Paris, 1967, p. 32-56.