Symphony in red

Composer Philip Sparke.
Composer Philip Sparke.

Now then, what colour is the key of C major?  Or the smell of B minor?  Or perhaps the taste of E flat?  The Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov always felt that G major is a brownish-gold key and once remarked that that the key of F-sharp “is decidedly strawberry red”.  His compatriot Alexander Scriabin felt that G major is more of an orange-rose colour.  Beethoven on the other hand is said to have called B minor “the black key”.  Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire was written in 1910 for massive orchestra and choir and was based on key colour.  The work also featured the newly-invented colour organ, but oddly enough no one today seems to know exactly how the thing worked.

The notion of linking musical elements with colour is called chromesthesia.  It is a type of synesthesia – a condition which has been described in layman’s terms as a union of the senses in which one sensory experience involuntarily prompts another.  The philosopher John Locke wrote about combined senses as early as the seventeenth century, though the term synesthesia wasn’t coined until the mid-1800s.

About the same time the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher perceived a correspondence between colours and musical intervals.  He thought that an octave was green, a major sixth was fire-red and an augmented fifth was dark brown.

According to Carol Steen, the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association, there are more than sixty permutations of synesthesia and around four percent of us have the condition in some form.  They might include tasting words to smelling a piano concerto but the most common kinds of synesthesia involve colour.  Sibelius is thought to have sometimes seen music as colours, and Duke Ellington felt that G major is light blue satin but only if Johnny Hodges is playing it.  That seems a curious association because I’ve always thought of G major as warm bright yellow, whether Johnny Hodges is playing or not.

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): Symphony No 3 in C minor Op. 43. Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 53:56; Video: 1080p HD)

Scriabin’s Third Symphony is subtitled The Divine Poem and was written between 1902 and 1904.  The work marked a significant step towards Scriabin’s personal musical language and has a visionary quality which was only hinted at in his earlier works.  At the time the composer was under the influence of the cult philosopher Tatiana de Schloezer and music had come to mean a sensory reaching-out to experiences beyond the prosaic.  Perhaps this is why he used the word “poem” in the title.  The four sections of the work are played without a break and consist of (1) Introduction, (2) Struggles (3) Delights and (4) Divine Play.


Colours play a less significant role in this work but Scriabin’s use of orchestral colour is remarkable, because his orchestration is highly sophisticated.  In some sections, Scriabin turns his orchestra into an ensemble of soloists, each contributing points of detail to a complex web of sound.  Scriabin liked a massive orchestral sound and some moments in this work seem to be the inspiration for the great Hollywood movie scores that would be created thirty or forty years later.  In a way, the music is an expression of the existentialism of the late nineteenth century and the mysticism of the famous Madame Blavatsky, she of the controversial Theosophical Society.  Anyway, if you love big romantic, hedonistic orchestral wall-to-wall sound, Scriabin’s Third Symphony will be right up your soi.

Philip Sparke (b. 1951): Symphony No. 3: A Colour Symphony. WISH Wind Orchestra (Japan) cond. Makoto Kai (Duration: 26:46; Video 720p HD)

In 1922 the composer Arthur Bliss completed his Colour Symphony but its origins lay in heraldry in which symbolic meanings are attached to certain colours.  Philip Sparke is another British composer and this Colour Symphony was first performed in November 2014.  The commission requested the inclusion of a selection of instruments not usually found in a symphonic band, including piano, harp and cellos.  The composer had the idea of writing a symphony of colours to take advantage of the rich palette of instrumental sounds available.  Sparke perceives equivalencies between instrumental tone colours and certain harmonies and colours of the spectrum.

There are five movements and each movement represents a colour.  The first movement (“White”) uses pure instrumental colours and clean textures while the lively second movement (“Yellow”) has a feeling of brightness and sunshine.  In contrast, the third movement (“Blue”) has an atmosphere of stillness and desolation and the next movement (“Red”) makes special use of the brass, with energetic contrapuntal sections and fanfares.  The last movement (“Green”) takes the colour from nature and has a dance-like character with a triumphant ending.

If all this sounds a bit technical, fear not.  Sparke’s music contains many elements of folk-song and the work is delightfully approachable.