LUIGI VERDI, Kandinskij e Skrjabin. Realtà e utopia nella Russia pre-rivoluzionaria, Lucca, Akademos, 1996, pp. 176.

Review by Donata Brugioni, in Rivista Italiana di Musicologia, XXXII, 1997, pp.178-81

Luigi Verdi’s study on Kandinskij and Skrjabin is the latest of  the  texts on the Russian composer  published by the author in the last few years: D’Annunzio e Skrjabin (Gardone, 1988) and  Aleskandr Skrjabin tra musica e filosofia (Torino, 1990). This new essay surveys the Russian cultural life of the early 20th century, considering it as a fundamental moment for several artistic experiences of the following years and identifies the two artists as pivots around whom all theorizations on synaestesia and fusion of all arts revolve: this was what some European cultural environments were interested in during the early decades of 20th century, leading to the formulation of the Whole work of art. The text, opened by an introduction outlining the panorama of Russian cultural life between 19th and 20th centuries, includes three parts, each divided in seven chapters, and is complete with the Final where the author outlines a brief description of Skrjabin’s influence on post-rrevolutionary Russian artistic environments and on Bauhaus’s (the school of arts opened in Weimar, where Kandinskij was among the teachers and where research on the relations between sounds and colours was a starting point for the development of new artistic forms) activity. A brief hint to some 20th century composers who got involved in this research ends the essay, which is complete with a rich bibliography divided by chapters, and with a useful name index. The first part of the work, Alle origini (The origins), identifies the starting point of Skrjabin’s and Kandinskij’s research as the so-called “silver age” of Russian arts: in this period, going approximately  from 1895 to 1925, literary and philosophical research in Russia developed together with the artistic and musical ones, establishing a wide network of connections, exchanges and interactions leading to a renewal of the languages and of the expressing tools in the various arts. What is common in Kandinskij and Skrjabin is the aspiration towards a form of art which embraces and includes all as, in Skrjabin’s words, “writing only music wouldn’t be very interesting! Music takes shape and meaning only when it is connected to a unique universal plane” (p.4);  on his part, Kandinskij attributes this potential capacity of music to widen his artistic experience going beyond its limits to the fact that music represents “the art which does not devote itself to reproduce natural phenomena, but to express the artist’s soul and to create an independent life through musical sounds” (p.4). In order to favour the understanding of Skrjabin’s poetic and musical language, the author refers to the relations between the composer and the Russian symbolist poets, taking as an example the text of the poem which Skrjabin had used as an accompaniment to his Fourth Sonata, and which appears to be strongly inspired by the composer’s attitude, mystical and sensual at the same time. In the same ways as Kandinskij, Skrjabin feels that the artist represents the aggregation centre of the spiritual forces which are still hidden in the humanity, the ones which symbolist poet Belyi defines as “the unknown and unlimited element which surrounds the human nature”; in this way, the realization of the work of art takes on a Messianic value towards humanity, announcing a new spiritual era. This concept, which was circulating in many intellectual environments at the beginning of  the 20th century, was supported at its highest level by Skrjabin and Kandinskij: on the basis of quotations and comparisons among writings of that time, Luigi Verdi’s study connects this fact to the remarkable influence exerted by theosophic and anthroposophic doctrines on both artists, who saw in them an answer to their questions or, as Kandinskij wrote, “ a hand pointing to a directions and gives a help”. The leading element of these theorizations is represented by a mystic conception of the work of art, which reveals itself to the artist in its own unavoidable necessity and perfection, to which the artist himself has simply to listen, so that the creation gets “disclosing” what already exists in itself.  The primary task of the artist, therefore, is becoming a mediator of this revelation, by trying to maintain its original value intact, without alterating it. In the second part of the volume, under the title of “Sounds and Colours”, a wide space is reserved to the analysis of the relation between sounds and colours, to which both Kandinskij and Skrjabin devoted a great deal of attention: in formulating the idea of synthetic art, born out of the fusion of all artistic forms, infact, Kandinskij considered the experience of Skrjabin’s Prometheus and the table of sound-colour correspondences used by the composer for this work as fundamental. Luigi Verdi makes a careful investigation on this problem, by starting with a brief excursus on the scholars who, in previous ages, particularly in the 18th century, had tried to codify such correspondences; then, on the basis of an analysis of the composing technical aspects of Prometheus, he defines a space unit through which he translates the passing of time within the score into a graphic representation of the link between sounds and colours as conceived by Skrjabin. In particular, there is the analysis of the part (“Light”, noted in the Prometheus score and consisting of two voices: while the superior voice follows the succession of the various synthetic chords according to a correspondence table between the spectrum colours and the fundamental chord sounds, the author interprets the inferior voice as a symbol of the vision of the world imbued with esoteric meanings which are referable to theosophic and anthroposophic doctrines and connectable, for this common relation, to “The language of colours” included in “The spiritual in art by Kandinskij. Of particular interest is the chapter devoted to the performing problems given by Prometheus which, after a series of attempts, to realize also the light movements, which were carried out without much success in the course of the 1910s, was performed for the first time in its integral form only in 1961. Even Kandinskij’s scene composition “Der gelbe Klang” (The yellow sound), dating back to 1912, had a similar destiny to Prometheus, as it was not performed but in 1973. In “Synthesis among the arts”, which is the third and final part of the volume, the author deals with the problem of the Whole work of art: Kandinskij’s conception of “synthetic art”  approaches Skrjabin’s vision , considering Prometheus one first attempt towards art fusion, a sort of preliminary essay in view of a more complete artistic synthesis to be reach with the Mystery, where a unique work would include in itself all forms of artistic expression, in particular dance and theatre drama. Dance was to Kandinskij the most suitable form for the development of synthetic art, a position which was close to the one of several lovers of esoteric sciences in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, giving great importance to dance, not in sense of traditional ballet, but rather in its sacred value, and therefore referring explicitly to Far Eastern or ancient Greece dances. In a similar way, Skrjabin was convinced that in the Greek tragedy still continued to exist the memory of an ancient Whole art, to which it would be necessary to link for the formulation of the art of the future. Once more, the author identifies Kandinskij, who in his writings used to quote Skrjabin, with the spokesman of this common perceiving: “Soon even in dancing it will be possible to perceive the inner value of every movement and interior beauty will replace the exterior one” (p.101). The closest example to the concept of “Whole art” is to Kandinskij the Orthodox liturgy, and the idea of liturgy is also included in Skrjabin’s Mystery which, according to the composer, would go beyond the artificial nature of the theatre and lead to authentic experiences. Therefore, the Mystery would need a place for its accomplishment, the place which Kandinskij names as “the building devoted to the ‘great utopia’”, and which Skrjabin describes as “flowing and changing, flowing as music” , by imagining it as formed by incense columns continuously gathering and scattering; if, on one hand, this sort of “architectural dance” as named by Skrjabin, in continuous evolution and formed mostly by illusory constructions, appears to be a sort of unrealizable dream, on the other hand it suggests an unconscious virtual setting prefiguration, a non-place transcending all possibilities of concrete realization. Surely this is a long way from the multimedia score arranged by Skrjabin for the Mystery, but the recent attention to the scene compositions of the so called “silver age”, both in the theatre and in the cinema, confirms the presence of  ideas and issues which are still stimulating today. In these reading terms, Luigi Verdi’s essay is extremely interesting, as it is a sort of journey in search for the origins of multimedialty, not only in its formal or content-focused aspects, but also in the ethic-philosophical concern which may also be its ideological substrate.

Donata Brugioni


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