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Synesthesia and mysticism as compositional instrument.

Alexandr Skrjabin (1872-1915) wrote the piano poem Vers la flamme in 1914, the last
year of his activity as composer. In these pages we will try to describe the piece, its
harmonic, structural and psychological aspects. Through these considerations, we will try to
understand what could be synesthesia in music and how the composer used it as a
compositional parameter

Background construction

The last works of A. Skrjabin, (1910 to 1914) are built on harmonic elements rather than
melodic themes and are generally variations of the chord that he called mystic:

The chord appears to this form only in its first use, in Promthe, le pome del feu, (1908-10).The
six notes form two perfect fourths, two tritones and one major third. This structure looks to the
harmonic series; it clashes approximately with 8, 9, 10, 11, 13 e 14 harmonics of the
fundamental sound:

It would be conventional look to this chord inside the classical harmony theory, even thus it
should be considered like a ninth major chord with F# and A like appoggiaturas of G.
Skrjabin is far from this conception, considering that from the op. 58 he leaves tonal harmony.
Several composers started in that time to use extra-tonal structures, thinking individually and
following different ways about its development. Debussy, also, started to increase harmony
structures considering the higher regions of harmonics to add different sounds in a chord.
Annihilation in Skrjabin of tonal sense favours the dissolution of time sensation
[Macdonald, p.373], practically that means built pieces throughout a condensed structure. Most
of Skryabins colleagues used write works with several movements; he preferred, instead, to
write music where one only section represent the whole for example in Promthe, le pome de
l'extase and all of the poems for piano.
Vers la flamme was forged with these ideas and represents the last step of A. Skrjabins
mysticism. The mystic chord shows up at the begin of the piece in this form:


Arranging diachronically the sounds we obtain the mystic scale:

B is added to complete the sequence.
As it was said up in this scale are present two tritones and one only half tone (A#-B half tone,
being theorical, is not considered)
Skrjabin splits the sequence according to intervallic relations.
The tritone supports the harmonic structures. This being the most important harmonic element
without any antagonism they represents the unic current harmonic
In the cognitive domain it represents the unic-transmitted information to the listeners.

Tritone as informational constant.

Its not a hazardous to say that this chord produces a big loss of sensation. Stumpf e
Meissner [1914] showed it on the basis of Helmholtzs research work [1863], saying that fusion
features of sounds depend on the relationship of their oscillation frequencies.
Stumpf e Meissner showed that consonances (unisons and octaves at first and fourth and fifth at
second) produce a fusion level higher than the level of dissonances.
Considering that the human sensibility for beats is concentrated in the range of 125 and 8000 Hz,
and that this is the same region of the first 12-16 partials (the most important being in the range of
300-600), it is clear that the sensation of instability produced by two fundamentals in tritone
relation. In spite of this, the presence of tritone as unic-harmonic information is perceived during
the whole piece as a steady element.
In other words, receivers do not frame the tritone neither as an element of rest nor as a motion of
harmony; ambiguity is inside the main structure and its received as informational constant. It also
must to be considered also the context in which harmonic elements take place and the tension that
develops on its own.
While the physical property of intervals have constant features, their use and meanings change the
downstream context
. Consonance and dissonance are considered change as well composers
change their attitudes.

Connotation of sound events is truly complex. From the point of view of traducibility of receivers reactions,
connotation strength isnt connected to the semantic fields that marks out qualitative evaluations but is connected to
another closet definable sensation, the familiarity
[Cifariello Ciardi, 1996, pag.14]
Different tension levels can be accepted as consonant. It is possible to consider them as elements
of motion in a context ruled by dissonances; soft dissonances may seem connected with the
sensation of rest in a context ruled by strong dissonances.
In Vers la flamme the continued presence of the tritone in a chromatic context gives the sensation
that it sounds neuter and, functionally are consonant.

Tritone development in Vers la flamme:
harmonic considerations.

The tritone is always present in the main piano figures of the piece. In this continuity the
tritone is well blended throughout the duration of the piece; it is a focal point of the listeners

Another reason that solidifies the perception of this interval as the main material of the piece is its
continuity at the beginning of the composition for the first 17 measures.
The left hand plays three tritones; they correspond to three exact transpositions of the mystic scale,
always moving a minor third up.

This transposition is tautological: by adding the intervals of each fundamental we obtain another
This terrace-transposition model is developed during the piece.
During the measures 41-76, considering that each sound belongs to the mystic scale, each
harmony has an extra note that is corrected in the subsequent measure. Only the last structure has
no extra notes inside.

The analysis of the micro-blocks above is valid for the other measures, too.
The mystic scale has an original development in the sections of m. 41-76 and 81-96: in the
first the fundamentals move of major thirds; their addition gives the chord of augmented fifth
another feature of the mystic chord:

After, fundamentals return to the ascending minor thirds moving; harmonic changes are faster and
marked by rapid descending arpeggios:

The initial distribution takes place again in the m. 81-96, with more complex moves and opposite

Another interesting element found in the piece, also derivable from the mystic chord, is the
dominant seventh chord present from in m. 65:


As stated above, this chord, in an incomplete form, is inside the mystic harmony:

Theoretically the unmissed sound of the seventh chord corresponds to the note added to complete
the mystic scale. In the rapid arpeggios of the m. 65-75, this sound appears, as a consequence of
the previous trend of the bass. It has not a structural importance for the chord:

The proof that Skrjabin doesnt consider this sound as structural can be found in m. 81-106; here
the fifth isnt present in the chords. It appears another sound, corresponding with the 6
sound of
the mystic chord, transforms the seventh chords into ninth chords:


Several bass notes have ninth chords; this is the entire succession:

These chords are not used in a pure form but they present other added-notes. In m. 81, for
example, chords played by the right hand contain the note G instead of F. G is present also in the
melodic line up the chords and creates an interesting effect of heterophony:

The analysis of this measure is valid for the following ones. Listening to the piece it is clear that
the composer uses these harmonic structures without any tonal reference; he only makes the most
dynamism from their acoustical features. From m. 97, seventh chords appear in the low register,
following the beginning harmonic structures. Low tritones become fifths: their acoustical impact
gives a lot of stability to the harmony. The tritone is recovered among the notes of the tremolos:


On this harmony, the composer puts some ribattuto chords by fourth in the high register. (m.97):

The fundamental of these chords is always the third of the seventh chords of the low register:
From a structural point of view, chords by fourth are only decorative and they havent a harmonic
function. They sounds like laid upon harmonies.
Even thought its too early to refer to them as sound bands, it is clear that Skrjabin wants to
divide the different piano registers, entrusting to each of them different elements and sensations.
Piano texture is evident in this sense.
We said that chords by fourth are not structural in the harmony. They have own importance in a
functional point of view, especially during the listening activity. Once they have appeared, they
rest until the end of the composition, rising their pitch and their frequency. The range is from E5
to C#7.
At m. 125 chords in fourth reach their highest pitch; after this moment the composer works on the
parameter of frequency. If at their beginning they were two measures each, even with some
deregulations, in the last nine bars they form a continuum of ribattutos. From a functional point of
view, the saturation of the rhythm spreads the end of the composition.
During this process the harmonic structure of the piece stays like its beginning, where the color of
the tritone is the primary information. Piano texture recovers with little modifications the m. 1-40.
For all these reasons, chords by fourths have their importance during the listening. Being
structural and not connected with the main harmony, they are able to rise from the background and
transfer themselves to the attention of listeners.

Dialectic of melodic material

In Vers la flamme the first part of the piece contains all the melodic elements that are
developed during the piece.
The first material opens the piece and ends at m. 5:

All the sounds of the two lines in which we can divide the phrase are included in the mystic chord.
This is the lower line:

It has the character of a litany and gives to the whole material some esatonal taste. It moves in
major seconds for the range of a major third; these three notes form a homogeneous tetrachord with
the E of the low register.
The semitone of m. 5 marks the end of the first phrase and the changement of harmony; if A# on the
first harmony was an official note of the mystic chord, over there has the value of an appoggiatura
of B, sound of the new chord:

In this way, seeing the immobility of the bass line, harmonic changes are easier and less sudden.
The esatonal character is one of the features of the mystic scale; its first for notes ore arranged for
major seconds and its in this way that we obtain the tritone. We can consider the whole scale as the
addition of a homogeneous tetrachord with a trichord:

The extremes of the tetrachord are used to build harmonic structures, while the other notes are
involved in the construction of the lower line of the melody.
The semitone between the second and the third note of the trichord s the most important element of
the melodic material and is present in the upper voice.
This is the upper voice extrapolated from its context with its segmentation:

We can see that the tritone is always put on the main accents of the segments the reiteration of the
bass note also marks this accent while consonances are always of passage. The minor sixth
situated at the begin of m. 5 confirms its function of appoggiatura of the new chord; its interesting
to see how a consonant interval sounds quite dissonant in a context dominated by tritons.
The collocation of the melody and its harmonic background gives a sort of dulling sensation of
the melodic line that tries to come out. This is a graphical representation of the whole phrase:

The widest interval is of a minor sixth, situated inside ! and c.
The attempt of elevation of the lines level in m. 3 is suddenly annulled by the stativity of the lower
profile, the too strict relation with the harmony; also, the deepest hollow sudden follows the pick
of the profile.
The attempt of elevation of the profile works only in m. 5 with the segment c; it melts with the
begin of the exact repetition of the material of m. 1-5 in the m. 7-11.
In the next steps the material doesnt have substantial modification and works as a bonding agent
among the different sections of the composition.
Just with a visual approach, the section of m. 41-76 could be too long considering the proportion
of the whole form. In this interpretation, the main segment of m. 70 and 74 have the function of a

The return of the melodic material is made clear in the following four measures (m. 77-80).
The segment b of m. 3 is homogenized in its values for this reason now we called it b1 and
reiterate it five times like an ostinato. At the same time it starts a tremolo of chords by seconds in
relation to the tritone with the lower register chord; it also introduces the piano figure that is
featured in the central part of the piece:

In the whole form the material returns again in m. 107-124 with its original values. There is
another kind of modification of the line: between the segments b and c the composer sets a
segment b1 (m. 110 and 116):

In the m. 13-27 there is a process of liquidation by blocks. All of them are denoting by a
descending semitone, which can be explained by dragging of the final part of the melodic profile.
We can see, infact, that the profile starts and ends with a semitone, but with opposite directions.
During the process of liquidation, a length of approximately 27, the descending semitone
monopolizes the highest part of harmony and forces the listeners to associate its direction like that
one which connotes the semitone itself. Even at the same time the melodic material retreats more
and more from the scene, melding with the harmony that remains alone at the end:

To paraphrase this process, we could say that the melodic material is born and dies in the
background; it emerges for a little moment and quickly it sinks, to emerge again in m. 27 with the
second melodic idea. This idea starts with a descending semitone, the inversion of the one that
opened the piece:

With this analysis we do not see any connection between the two heads but between the end of the
first and the head of the second one. The importance of the semitone is fundamental to understand
the criteria Skrjabin has used to choose it in the section of m. 41-76.
By comparing the melodic materials of the first section is possible make another
consideration, relating the micro-distribution of the register between melody and harmony of this
section: it is important to underline this aspect because it is difficult move, without create any
fall in the reception, very temporally dilated materials. Skrjabin uses the distribution of the parts
like fludifying. As previously stated the first chord of the right hand is active part of the
harmony. This means that the first melodic material is integrated into the harmonic background
the highest voice of harmony then clashes with the melodic element. The second one is:

This one, instead, is separated from the chords and is just situated on them, even though voices are
still immobile, they start to place themselves like the structure of m. 41-76:


In this section the semitone arrives to a place of main importance.
The diatonic descending semitone is associated with the central pedal; the ascending semitone
underlines changes in the bass:

The ascending semitone is suddenly repeated with opposite direction one measure after:

It is possible to observe the other features of the role of the descending semitone. The tritones of
the central part form every two measure. In a second level of analysis, a descending semitone:


The harmonic information keeps the same content, but now the tritone also absolves the function
of secondary voice.
If one considers that only the descending semitones appear in this section, one can see the scheme
of echoes that the composer creates:

The other phrases of this section follow the features mentioned above. They are used to move the
internal part of the music, keeping the semitone that is found also in other parts of the
composition, even though less perceptibly:

From m. 71, the semitone loses its importance and it becomes a descending tone; it carries the
composition into a new section by introducing the new pianistic figure:


The importance of piano figures.

One can now make some consideration, about the treatment of the piano figures. It appears
interesting how the composer has increased the tension that develops in the texture of the piano.
In the second part (m.41-76) the voices, at first quite immobile, begin to move independently from
each other; they form a sandy polyphony:

It does not appear that the intervals of perfect fourth have any connection with the mystic
harmony. The part of the left hand looks like a disturbance of the material of the right one. The
left hand imitates more slowly what occured in the middle register using an interval that works in
two ways: it does not meld with the tritones of the right hand, but works in the background and
swells the resonance of the passage, while considering the acoustic features of the perfect
The movement of the right hand is developed throughout the entire piece. It starts from m. 41 and
has its origin in the disposition of the parts found in the measures just before:

It can be determined that Skrjabin performed three operations until m. 41 on the disposition of the
At first harmony is immobile and melds with the melodic profile
Secondly the melodic profile starts to be independent while the harmonies remain immobile;
Third the composer starts to give some movement to the harmonic parts.
The alternate movements of eighths swell from m. 81. The two sounds become four, always
keeping the tritone; the eighths become sixteenths:

The next step in development of the alternate chords is the transformation in the tremolos, written
in 32nd and close among them selves. The tremolos appear at the same time of the chords by
fourths and they are always associated:

This representation synthesizes the transformation described above:

If the transformation of piano figures cannot be theorized (depending on the taste and sensibility
of composers), passing to shorter values follows the notion of A. Schoenberg about the tendency
to shorter values.
We think that Schoenbergs point of view explains the diachronic transformation of values in the
piece well.
At m.65 some rapid arpeggios appear in the left hand:

The introduction of a new element underlines that something is changing in the music, even
though the harmonic structure is still the same. The sequence of chords in the form of arpeggios
dont create, from a technical point of view, an harmonic progression, but it absolutely has the
feature of it: especially from m. 66, the tendency to the shortest values give the music the
sensation of becoming faster.
Rapid arpeggios are rhetoric in the production of A. Skrjabin. Here are some excerpts from his
other works:

Analysis of the whole form

Considering the official return of the melodic material in the last part of the piece it
should be possible to divide the piece in the classic ABA form:

A B A1
(m. 1-40) (m.41-106) (m.107-133)
Section B is more curious.
In ABA form, the middle section must works to remove the starting material from an harmonic
and melodic point of view. It builds a temporal bridge more or less long and deep, with the final
aim to connect itself with the starting structures again.
Postulated these points, it is clear that the central section of Vers la flamme does not respect them
for the following reasons:
Harmonic structure is the same as that of the beginning and it does not support any function of
contrast considering beginning and final parts;
Melodic material is not elaborated upon; it is cut and arranged in different ways;
Even though some materials of the beginning return in the third part, the listener does not care
for them but follows the progressive increase of the register and of the speed of music, living
the piece as a monodirectional experience.
Since it is not in ABA form, we should try to consider the piece as an example of polisectional
Certainly this conclusion must be drown; if we consider that the adjective polisectional is
applied to pieces like the Kammekonzert of G. Ligeti or Le Sacre di Stravinsky, it is clear that the
use here of this word is just metaphorical.
We should split the piece in four micro sections:

A: batt. 1-40
B: batt. 41-80
C: batt. 81-106
D: batt. 107-137

Now it is clear that this consideration of the form is also not right: the four section are too
close to each other and the typical succession of different scenes present in all the polisectional
pieces is too feeble here. Each pat has too material and parameters in common with the other parts
to permit to consider itself like independent.
In these sections, instead, there is a dense network of melodic relationships within the structure of
the composition.

A1 A2 B C D

Letter A is divided into two parts because, as was seen during the analysis, there are two main
melodic materials.
Therefore, a good way to consider the whole form of the piece, for a higher level of analysis, is as
a monodirectional process of accumulation, respecting homogeneous directionalities: from low
register to high register; from slow to fast; from being calm to being exited; from the dark to the
light. This homogeneity works well during the listening; the listeners may focus their attention on
them, finding a clear way to elaborate the informations transmitted by the piece.

Some flashes of Schenker analysis: intellectual sin?

Since that Schenker analysis methods foresee other kinds of applications in such different
stylistic and harmonic conditions, it could be interesting to investigate the role of the tritone in this
perspective too. If we consider m. 81 from the beginning of the central part of the piece, we can
see how its bass note, Bb, forms an interval of a tritone with the bass of the first and last sections
of the piece:

The composer changed the dialectic relationship between tonic and dominant to that one between
first and fourth note of the mystic scale, thus changing then the dialectic inside the Ursatz: the
musical noumenon. Considering only the movement of fundamentals of the Ursatz, Skrjabin
changed it in this way:

All this remains a truly theoretical speculation
But it is interesting to see at the beginning of the 1900s how the composers, step by step,
started to reject the tonal constructions following a personal and innovative way to building their
own compositional project.

Researching the color

The original purpose of this work was to find in Vers la flamme an interpretative clue to
understanding the nature of the compositional decisions taken by the composer and their related
effects. It could be interesting see the entire piece in terms of the color suggested by the sections
of the piece
The pilot function of the title
creates a strong image in the listeners imagination. It is not
possible to leave out of consideration the reception of the piece from the metaphor that the
composer suggests and its compositional connotation from its choise
Like Sciarrino says, [Sciarrino, 1998, p.45-47] Skrjabin has a nature sensibility, like Wagners: the
composer addresses nature and becomes receptive to its solicitations.
During his life Skrjabin never denied his love for synesthesia (semantic figure that consists in the
association of two phenomena referred to different sensorial experiences, in this case color and
music). He himself declared in 1907 together with N. Rimsky Korsakov his attempt to work in this
way. Skrjabin worked also with Mozer, silently, finding common features between music and
colors and he notated how at a cognitive level these sensory spheres are so subjective that it is not

This definition seeks to indicate the property of a title to synthesize the subject that the music wants to suggest and relate
all the process of the piece with the general metaphor of the text or the music. The listener-receiver interprets all the
meaning in function of the pilot-concept, trying to make a logical reception of the perceived symbols [Caprettini, 1996].
possible to study them with the necessary scientific rigor. He limited his research to the suggestion
to connote the music using other sensory experiences. In this sense he uses colors, like in his
orchestral works, to reduce the subjectivity edge of the public comprehension.
This conception was to be developed years later by the main authors of the hermeneutic
especially Gadamer [1960], Ricoer [1970-79] and Geertz [1973].
Through these considerations we can say that in music the attempt to use synesthesia does not
mean recovering practical experiences or stimulations; it means suggesting the memory of
sensorial experiences different from the audo ones working on the connotation of the symbols
meaning. Harmonic feeling in Skryabins music is strongly suggestive of slow passages from one
color to another one [Macdonald]

It is now necessary to make some empirical considerations about how the composer tried to
use musical parameters to stimulate other sensorial spheres not directly connected. As stated
above, synesthesia starts just from the pilot function of the title, indicating the symbol of the
flame. .
Cognitive psychology tradition says that reception of a symbol presupposes its interpretation in its
natural context; than its normal the association of the flame to the fire and its related colors. This
is the synesthetic run on which the composer works.
At the beginning of the piece the composer indicates, after the dynamic (p), another indication:
dark. At m. 81, instead, the dynamic f is associated with the words brilliant, bright. But how can
sounds suggest the idea of dark or bright? We can give three answers:
Analyzing the piece from an acoustical point of view, at its beginning the harmonics overlapping
of the close sounds in the low register create an implosion of the whole resonance of the passage;
in an opposite way, where the composer writes bright the bass note is doubled at the octave and all
the weft is resonant, respecting the harmonic disposition:

Dark and bright are also suggested by the choosing of register: low at first, higher and higher
during the piece until the end.
The third way to explain the synesthesia refers to the live performance of the piece. At the
beginning we will see the pianist stays on the keyboard, almost without any movement. Little by

Hermeneuti c tradition works on the contextual ized reception of symbols. Thi s tradition works on the
postulate that symbols reception always presupposes a contextual ized and creative interpretation,
depending from the own cultural background of each l istener-receiver.
little, movements of the pianist become more and more concitated: the composer precisely
indicates on the score all the hands crosses. The shifting of both hands in all the zones of the
keyboard is more and more evident and faster and compels the player to play some passages con
bravura; the final result is really suggestive: hands shifting is large and fast and ends when the
fingers arrive to play in the last octave of the keyboard.
The metaphor from dark to bright is given also by the passage from slow to fast and from staying
to moving.
If we relate all these considerations to the Schoenbergs tendency to the shorter values, we see that
it is not only a compositional choice but also a physiologic necessity: more density corresponds to
bigger audio solicitations, and bigger cerebral activity correspond to more use of player energies.
Then, synesthesia is also expressed by variations of density.
We can synthesize all these consideration saying, then, that color in music is a sort of
synesthesia given by the association of particular audio stimulations to situations and
phenomena not directly related to each other, but causes of common effects. Synesthesia will
be strongly expressed if associations are perceptible from all people, that is if they take part
of a common repertoire of background experiences.
It is important to underline the importance of hermeneutic tradition in this definition; in this sense,
music is only a signifier and referential only for itself; objective meaning will be built personally
by each listener, depending on his own cultural and personal background.

Alexandr Skrjabin lived following mysticism, sometimes Apollonian, sometimes Dionysian.
We cannot know what the composer thought in his privacy. However, we scan ee how the flame
was imagined by Alexander Skrjabin at first, after built, then reached through his music.

Maurilio Cacciatore

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Macdonald: A.SKRJABIN
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Guerini Studio, Milano, 1993

Piston, W.: ARMONIA
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traduz. italiana di G. Manzoni
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da Beethoven a oggi
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Stuckenschmidt, H.H.: LA MUSICA MODERNA
da Debussy agli anni '50
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Ed. Il mulino, Bologna, 1995