‘I could have been a poet, a philosopher or a musician. I chose music: I am therefore a composer.’
These words by Ivan Wyschnegradsky give an idea of the commitment of his life, his culture and generosity of spirit. For him, a work (regardless of its form or instrumentation) first had its origin in the musical consciousness before manifesting itself in a musical space.
Portrait of Ivan Wyschnegradsky by Hélène Benois, 1923
Ivan Wyschnegradsky was born into a highly cultivated Saint Petersburg family on 4 May 1893. At the age of 17, he studied harmony, composition and orchestration with Nikolai Sokolov, a professor at the Conservatory and himself a student of Rimsky-Korsakov’s. However, the person who truly marked his work, the one he considered his spiritual master, was Alexander Scriabin. His youth was bathed in the warm atmosphere of Saint Petersburg, where the Symbolism of the turn of the century reigned, and he was impassioned by Nietzsche and Wagner, and the discovery of Vedantic hymns, theosophy and speculations on the fourth dimension. This was a world open to all avant-garde trends, whether Futurist or Constructivist.
In February 1917, like all young people, he was filled with enthusiasm for the revolution. From this would come a series of revolutionary songs, L’Évangile rouge, for baritone and piano.
But the major event of his life was elsewhere. In November 1916, he was deeply moved by an experience that he could barely articulate: ‘I saw the great light in full day’. Henceforth he assigned a goal to his composing work: ‘creating a work capable of awakening in every man the slumbering forces of cosmic consciousness’. This work would be La Journée de l’Existence, a grandiose poem for narrator and symphony orchestra, written during the feverish months of 1916 and 1917. It would be the source of all his later work but was not performed until 1978, 60 years later in Paris, in his presence. This was certainly one of the musical events of the late 20th century.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1932)
This composition put the young Ivan Wyschnegradsky face to face with another obvious and equally unsettling fact: music can tend towards cosmic consciousness only by blending into the sound continuum. What does that mean? Breaking with the traditional system of intervals to achieve a sound space where increasingly tight intervals tend towards an unlimited density. To give life to this music, he conceived a sound universe in micro-intervals (intervals smaller than the chromatic semitone): in quarter-tones, then in thirds, sixths and twelfths of a tone. The young composer then set himself a new task, that of establishing the philosophical and theoretical foundations of the continuum and of micro-intervals (ultrachromaticism).
He first wanted to hear these sounds that were unheard of, in the literal sense of the word. In November 1918, he brought together two upright pianos and had one tuned a quarter-tone above the other. Playing with each hand on a keyboard, he discovered and explored a new sound universe. In the course of exalted weeks, he composed his first works in quarter-tones.
His earlier compositions had already been given in concert in 1914, and Russian avant-garde circles were interested in his work. The time had come to make his revolutionary music ring out, but instruments did not yet exist for it. Henceforth, his efforts would focus on the construction of a piano in quarter-tones that would be an instrument for both research and concert. With this aim, he left Saint Petersburg to meet the principal European piano builders in Paris and Berlin. This research, which lasted from 1920 to 1929, led to his meeting Alois Hába, a Czech composer of his age, exploring like him the paths of ultrachromaticism, and together they would launch into impassioned discussions. Finally, the piano in quarter-tones built by the Förster company (Georgswalde, now Jiříkov, Czech Republic) saw the day. It would be delivered in 1929 to Ivan Wyschnegradsky in Paris, where he had lived since 1923. The composer insisted on the fact that he did not leave Russia to flee Communism but to have this instrument made, indispensable for his work.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky’s piano in quarter-tones made by A. Förster
(currently in the Instrument Museum of Basle, Switzerland)
In Paris, in 1923, he married Hélène Benois (1), the daughter of Alexandre Benois (2), and they would have a son, Dimitri; the couple divorced a year after his birth.
For Ivan Wyschnegradsky an intense period of creation and theoretical research began. He gave himself over entirely to the goal he had assigned his work. ‘I am nothing. I am only what I create.’ This thought, coming from Alexander Scriabin (3), could have been his own. In addition to the works for piano in quarter-tones, he composed string quartets, songs and works for chorus. He developed his ideas in reviews and began to be known in contemporary music circles. But with none of his works being played in concert, he understood that he had to renounce specific instruments for ultrachromatic music. No pianist was ready to learn the demanding technique of piano in quarter-tones. He had to return to the initial experiments of the new sound universe: two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, played by two pianists, each having a score written in customary notation. This practice had already enabled him to participate in a concert in Paris (1926) before the arrival of his piano.
Hélène Benois: self-portrait, 1925
Unshakably tenacious, Ivan Wyschnegradsky rewrote twenty-five opuses of his catalogue. And finally, on 25 January 1937, Salle Chopin-Pleyel (Paris) organized a Festival of quarter-tone music, for two and four pianos tuned two by two a quarter-tone apart. He conducted this never-before-heard pianistic orchestra himself. The concert ended with a work that had matured over a long time: Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra (‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’), a symphony for four pianos. The term ‘symphony’, chosen on purpose, showed that the extraordinary sound richness displayed was the entrance to the continuum.
This concert had considerable impact. Charles Koechlin and Olivier Messiaen, amongst others, welcomed his music and ideas. The composer envisaged giving a concert every year to explore the promised land of ultrachromaticism: sixths and twelfths of tone played by using three or six pianos tuned at the appropriate distance from one another. His prophetic spirit was not mistaken: many of these works would indeed be played. But a half-century later by a new generation of musicians…
The war years would put an abrupt end to these projects. In 1942, Ivan Wyschnegradsky — who did not have French citizenship — was arrested, then released two months later. He entered a period of ‘obligatory artistic passivity‘, as he called it. Lucile, his second wife — and American citizen — was arrested and interned in a camp from which she would not return until the Liberation.
On 10 November 1945, the composer organized a new concert of works in quarter-tones at Salle Chopin-Pleyel, receiving the support of Olivier Messiaen. The four pianists were his students and friends: Yvette Grimaud, Yvonne Loriod, Pierre Boulez and Serge Nigg. This concert attracted considerable attention, and the future looked promising.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky, wooden bust
Height with base 14 cm, by C. Pelletier, c. 1950 (private collection)
But, once again, fate was against him. He came down with tuberculosis and had to spend three years in a sanatorium, not being released until 1950. Still turned towards the future, he wanted to begin a new life. Up until then, he wrote, his musical thinking had been empirical; he now wanted to base it on unshakeable principles. He made some improvements to his major book, La Loi de la pansonorité (which would not be published until 1996). His composing activity entered a period of exceptional fruitfulness.
He wrote works for orchestra, for ondes Martenot, and was interested in the early stages of electro-acoustic music (still called musique concrète). But above all, he deepened his mastery of ultrachromaticism. He met Julian Carrillo, a Mexican composer who had fifteen different pianos built, ranging from a third to a sixteenth of a tone, and wrote works for several of these instruments.
Paris, Salle Gaveau, autumn 1958, left to right:
Dolores Carrillo (daughter of Julian Carrillo),
Alois Hába, Mrs A. Fokker, Prof. Adrian Fokker,
Julian Carrillo, Ivan Wyschnegradsky
But those were the years when serial music reigned in avant-garde circles. Schoenberg’s posterity temporarily supplanted Scriabin. Granted, the works of Ivan Wyschnegradsky were played, but their audience remained limited, and he lived away from the world. ‘I am only the transmitter of a force that passes through me. I am nothing other than a pilgrim, as there were in the Russian people. They were called “seekers of God” or “seekers of truth”’. He suffered from the loss of his wife, Lucile, on 7 May 1970. During those difficult years his solitude was broken by the visits of faithful friends, Olivier Messiaen, Henri Dutilleux, Claude Ballif, sometimes accompanied by their students. The American writer Paul Auster visited and put him in a metaphysical novel (4).
In 1972, under the direction of Claude Ballif, La Revue Musicale published a special issue devoted to Nikolai Obukhov and Ivan Wyschnegradsky. The latter received letters from Bruce Mather, composer and pianist in Montreal, who was getting ready to play his works in concert. Subsequently he would play, conduct and record numerous others.
The first ‘official’ concert of the composer was organized by Martine Joste at the Maison de la Radio (Paris) in 1977. The following year, an Ivan Wyschnegradsky Day was programmed by Alain Bancquart, director of the ‘Perspectives of the 20th century’ series. The afternoon of 21 January 1978 works by the composer were played along with others chosen by him. That evening La Journée de l’Existence, the work that had sustained him throughout his life, received its first performance so he at last had the pleasure of hearing it. A disc preserves the memory of that event.
In 1979, Ivan Wyschnegradsky received his first commission from Radio-France. The String Trio, Op. 53, would be his last work, left unfinished, and Claude Ballif, a fine connoisseur of his music, completed the composition. The work was performed on 16 March 1981, at the Maison de la Radio, being played twice, at the beginning and end of the concert.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky died on 29 September 1979.
He would not attend two concerts of the ‘Alexandre Scriabin and His Contemporaries’ cycle, which accompanied the memorable 1979 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, ‘Paris-Moscow 1900-1930′. With Manfred Kelkel, the organizer, he had prepared the performance of five of his compositions, including three premieres. Now contemporary music is looking into its past and again discovering the horizons and riches of ultrachromaticism.
‘What remains is the basis of a thought: illumination. For the artist, regardless of his field, is a visionary who lives in intuition and the continual search for a universe that, to start with, interests no one and, owing to this, is used by no one,’ wrote Claude Ballif (5).
Michel Ellenberger (English translation: John Tyler Tuttle)
1 Hélène Benois (1898-1972), painter and set designer.
2 Alexandre Benois, painter, stage designer and art historian, known especially for the sets he created for Diaghilev’s ballets.
3 Boris de Schloezer, Alexandre Scriabine, Librairie de cinq continents, 1975, p. 80.
4 Paul Auster, New York Trilogy, Faber and Faber, 2004.
5 Claude Ballif, Voyage de mon oreille, UGE, 10/183, 1979, p. 225.
This biographical résumé was based on:
– Ivan Wyschnegradsky’s autobiography, written (in German) in the third person and signed in the name of his wife, Lucile Gayden. Editions Belaieff, Frankfurt, 1973;
– Pascale Criton’s preface to La Loi de la pansonorité, Editions Contrechamps, 1996 and appendices by Franck Jedrzejewski;
– the author’s personal memories.
At his home, rue Mademoiselle (Paris), 1973
(click on the thumbnails to enlarge them)