Ivan Wyschnegradsky:
Microtonalist and Mystic

© Gavin Dixon 2009

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Single-minded and visionary composers are so often the ones most easily ignored by the changing currents of music taste. Ivan Wyschnegradsky led a life characterised by exile and cultural exclusion, he was never part of any school, and the individuality of his work reflects his personal and lifelong determination to honour his deeply idiosyncratic muse. He was a founding father of microtonal composition, yet he was at heart an expressionist, his musical aesthetics directly descended from those of the pre-Revolutionary Russia of his youth. Throughout his long life, most of which was spent in Paris, he actively sought audiences for his music but was never willing to compromise his artistic principles to gain the public ear. A mystical belief in the value of his work sustained him through these decades of neglect, affording his music surety and conviction.

Quartertones are the basic musical unit of the majority of Wyschnegradsky’s works. He saw it as his life’s work to make these minute increments of pitch accepted by musicians and listeners alike. Wyschnegradsky interpreted the decline of tonality in the first decades of the 20th century not as the ‘emancipation of dissonance’ (in Schoenberg’s famous phrase) but as the as the ascendency of the chromatic scale over the major or minor mode. The move to quartertone music was for him the next logical step, the move from the chromatic to the ‘ultrachromatic’. As it turned out, most composers had other ideas about the implications of atonality, but Wyschnegradsky worked hard to demonstrate the viability of his approach, producing a substantial body of eminently playable piano music (mostly for two pianos tuned a quartertone apart) and publishing several theoretical texts to consolidate his own contribution to the emerging discipline of microtonal composition.

The long shadow of Alexander Scriabin hangs over all of Wyschnegradsky’s work. Scriabin’s influence on Russian musicians in the years leading up to the Revolution and beyond is difficult to overestimate. He combined the maniacal keyboard virtuosity of Liszt with a dark mysticism: Satanic Poem and Black Mass are names that appear amongst his piano works. Just as significantly, his music extended the harmonic palette available to the pianist to the point where traditional tonal harmony faded into the background, making way for a musical vocabulary based more on psychologically powerful, if functionally ambiguous, harmonic colours. Wyschnegradsky and Scriabin were of a similar personal temperament, both saw music as capable of manifesting mystical and other-worldly states of consciousness, and while both wrote for a variety of ensembles, the focus of each man’s art was the piano keyboard.

Wyschnegradsky was born in St Petersburg in 1893. His overbearing father insisted he study law at the university, and he completed his studies (auspiciously as he was later to think) on the day before the Revolution in 1917. But his father (who later left the family and moved to Paris) also introduced Ivan to music at a very young age, and the music of Scriabin in particular dominated his early life. The most significant work of Wyschnegradsky’s early years, The Day of Existence, attests to the significance of Scriabin’s music on the composer’s musical imagination. The work is for narrator, choir and orchestra and is in the mould of the Scriabin’s cantata scale works, his 2nd Symphony for example, and uses a similar palette of extended tonal harmonies.

Eastern philosophy and theology were also important to the young Wyschnegradsky. The original title of The Day of Existence was The Day of Brahma. It is a work infused with Hindu theology and imagery, charting the development firstly of the personal and then of the cosmic consciousness. This interest in Eastern Philosophy, and his increasingly erratic behaviour caused growing concern for his parents. In around 1915, his estranged father visited from Paris, and Ivan told him about his recent experiences of ‘cosmic consciousness’. His father’s response was unsympathetic, telling his mother that he should be committed to an institution. They reached a compromise that a psychiatrist would visit him at home and make an assessment. The psychiatrist decided that, while his psychological condition was unusual, he was unlikely to be violent and therefore would not need to be committed, and so the crisis past.

In 1919, Wyschnegradsky had another, more significant mystical experience. He would later describe it as his ‘ultrachromatic revelation’, a vision of musical harmony as a continuum in which the semitone steps of the equally tempered chromatic scale were merely increments on an infinitely variable scale. His course was set, and he would dedicate the rest of his life to writing music that would give voice to his sense of awe at the infinitude of musical space as represented by the microtonal pitch spectrum.

The first consequence of this revelation was the realisation that his music would require new instruments capable of performing the many additional pitches his works would demand. He left Russia in 1919 in pursuit of this purely technological ambition. Politics, it seems, played no part in his decision to leave the newly founded Soviet Union, and his intention was to return with his new instrument as soon as he had found engineers in the West who could build it. Paris, then the musical capital of Europe, was his destination, but his move to France had unintended consequences. The most serious was a loss of citizenship, his Soviet citizenship was revoked on the assumption that he had defected (it transpired he had left the country illegally), and French citizenship was never granted, despite his living the remaining sixty years or so of his life in Paris.

Moving to Paris, he also found that the technological expertise that he had travelled so far to find was not available in the city. After a few years of his plans receiving no interest at all, he managed to persuade the Pleyel piano company to agree to investigate the possibility of making microtonal keyboard instruments. But when this came to nothing he was forced to move on, to Germany, where his ideas would meet with greater success. Germany offered not only the technological expertise to build microtonal keyboard instruments but also kindred spirits, the most important of which was the Czech microtonal pioneer Alois Haba. Wyschnegradsky would later call Haba ‘my alterego’ and it is clear that the two men were a productive influence on each other’s work. Haba is today credited as the more-or-less single handed inventor of quartertone harmony, and as Professor of harmony at the Prague Conservatory he led a course in quartertone harmony, which no doubt seemed an arcane subject to many of his students.

The most important short term result of the partnership between the two men was the invention of the quartertone piano in 1929. Again, Haba took more of the credit that Wyschnegradsky for this innovation, but Wyschnegradsky’s crucial contribution was the layout of the keyboard. The instrument had three manuals, the bottom two tuned a quartertone apart and the upper tuned to the same pitch as the lower. This, as Wyschnegradsky later explained, was for ‘pianistic’ reasons, specifically for situations where the thumb and little finger were playing on the middle keyboard. The other fingers are then unable to reach the lower keyboard and so the upper keys make those notes available. Three such quartertone pianos survived until the later part of the 20th century, two upright instruments, in the homes of Wyschnegradsky and Haba respectively, and one grand at the Prague Conservatoire, upon which Haba could teach his (possibly reluctant) quartertone harmony students.

The quartertone piano allowed Wyschnegradsky to realise a project that he had been working on since before leaving Russia, his chamber/symphonic work Also Sprach Zarathustra. The idea was to return Nietzsche’s work to its musical roots. The earliest draft of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sets the work out as a symphony, with verbal descriptions for each of the sections as if they were symphonic movements. Wyschnegradsky took these verbal/musical ideas and developed them into a quartertone work. His first conception of the idea was in 1918/19, but lacking the instruments upon which to play such music, it had to remain a theoretical proposition. Emboldened by the invention of the quartertone piano in 1929, he returned to the work, and in 1930 scoring it for quartertone piano (six hand), quartertone harmonium, strings and clarinet. The obstacle this time was the lack of players either willing or able to take on the work, and he reluctantly returned it to his desk draw.

But the quartertone piano proved a valuable impetus to Wyschnegradsky’s. Like Haba, he was interested in the theoretical dimension of quartertone harmony, and in 1932 he completed his most significant (although far from his last) theoretical work the Manual of Quartertone Harmony. By the standard of later microtonal theory, Wyschnegradsky had a curious faith in the rationale of equal temperament. Despite his earlier studies of Eastern philosophy, he was never tempted to abandon the temperament systems that had been developed for European keyboard instruments, and all of his experimentation and theoretical consolidation strove to extend the idea of equal temperament, to add notes midway between the ones that were already in use. And his musical language retains the scalar modal properties of Scriabin and the last generation of 19th century Romantics. Wyschnegradsky rejected the term ‘microtonal’, his music was ‘ultrachromatic’, chromaticism to him being the level playing field of all possible modalities within the equally tempered twelve-note system, a hard-won goal for his immediate predecessors in Russia, and one that he saw as his job to consolidate.

In the mid 1930s, Wychnagradsky began to realise that his quartertone piano was not as practical as he had at first hoped. From 1936 he reverted to the idea of having two seperate pianos tuned a quartertone apart, with the result that the majority of his works from then on were written for piano duet. He also revisited his earlier scores for combinations of pianos, including Also Sprach Zarathustra, which finally received a performance in Paris in 1937 in a version for four pianos. Moving away from the quartertone piano allowed Wyschnegradsky to explore another avenue of equally tempered microtonal music, third and sixth divisions of a whole tone. As with his quartertone compositions, these works were based on rigorous theoretical principles. They also required more pianos, but the whole of Wishnegradsky’s output from 1936 onwards can be categorised in terms of which equal division of a whole tone – third, quarter or sixth – it employs.

Outside of Wyschnegradsky’s personal, ultrachromatic microcosm, the most important event of the decade was his marriage to Lucile Gaden, an American who, like him, had run away from home to Paris. Lucile coped with administration and paperwork with a practicality that Wyschnegradsky himself lacked, and what performances there were of his music in the following decades were largely thanks to her organisational skills.

The couple lived in a tiny flat in a rundown area of Paris that Wyschnegradsky had occupied since moving to the city in 1925. They saw out the war, which seems to have had little effect on Wyschnegradsky’s steady output, and by the 1950s, the composer was in an enviable position, residing in a city that was experiencing a remarkable renaissance of new music. Sadly, this was the point at which the traditionalism of Wyschnegradsky’s music finally became a burden to what little reputation he had acquired. By this point, Pierre Boulez was the arbiter of taste for Parisian modernism, and although he had earlier participated in a performance of Wyschnegradsky’s Cosmos, a quartertone work for four pianos written in 1939-40, he was unlikely to further champion the music of a composer so committed to modality – albeit extended modality. This was clearly at odds with the total serialism that was taking on a hegemonic status at the time. ‘Any musician who has not experienced...the necessity of dodecaphonic music is useless’ wrote Boulez in 1952. Wyschnegradsky later complained that serialism was irrelevant to his project. ‘Being a microtonalist, how can [serialism] interest me, because I don’t know how many sounds I have: today I have 24, tomorrow I will have 36. I cannot make a series with 36 tones.’ Leaving aside the fact that later composers (Ferneyhough for one) have done exactly this, Wyschnegradsky’s modally oriented expressionism seems the exact intended target of the serialism that composers of Boulez’ generation were advocating in order to achieve their stated aim of tabula rasa.

A last theoretical innovation that Wyschnegradsky credited himself with in the decades following the war was what he described as ‘non-octavian space’. The idea came in 1953 and involved, treating major sevenths and minor ninths as if they were octaves, transposing music by these intervals and doing away with octave equivalence in favour of seventh or ninth equivalence. It is characteristic of Wyschnegradsky’s theoretical approach that these are the only two intervals he used to substitute the octave, when in theory any interval could be used, but that he comprehensively theorised every possibility that these two intervals could offer. His pleasure at the discovery of the idea stemmed from the fact that it fitted so comfortably with his already existing microtonal theories.

And so he continued, working in relative obscurity almost until the end of his days in 1979. The 1970s saw an increase in interest in his work. An issue of the influential, if slightly academic, journal La Revue Musicale was dedicated to his work in 1972 and contained a number of his by now voluminous theoretical writings. The music department at McGill University in Montreal staged a number of his three piano works in 1977, a project masterminded by Bruce Mather which included three world premiere performances and a number of recordings. An orchestral version of Also Sprach Zarathustra was attempted by the New England Conservatory around this time, although the music’s vast difficulties meant they were only able to perform the slow movement.

These few international successes heartened Wyschnegradsky, but his last years were nevertheless difficult. Charles Akhimarian visited the composer in the 1970s and later wrote:

‘I went to his home, a dark, cluttered flat in a working-class neighbourhood of Paris, and found this charming, warm gentleman living very simply in the same apartment he had occupied since 1925. His wife had died two years previously and he had not yet gotten over the loss. As I left, he offered to prepare dinner, taking a chicken wing out of his small refrigerator to make some soup. It was then I realised that this man was living in tremendous poverty, buoyed up only by the occasional hope that someday his music would find its proper recognition. By 1976 the French government had torn down the houses in the area where he had lived and he had been transplanted to a very modern and very austere condominium living arrangement.’

But the following year, and only two years before his death, a performance took place which Wyschnegradsky considered a vindication of his lifetime’s work. A young producer at French Radio called Robert Pfifer took an interest in Wyschnegradsky, visiting him on a regular basis over a period of months to record interviews about his life. Pfifer used his influence at the radio to organise a daylong celebration of Wyschnegradsky’s music. Most of the events were performances of music by other composers, chosen by Wyschnegradsky to illustrate his early influences, but the culmination was the world premiere of his Day of Existence, an event he had been waiting for over sixty years. Wyschnegradsky explained that the work was his last to use exclusively ‘halftones’ a phrase that by this point was as natural to him as saying ‘quartertones’, ‘thirdtones’ or ‘sixthtones’. He also described the work as the basis of everything that was to follow. To listen to the music today, its debt to Scriabin, who had only recently died when the work was composed, is strong, but its popular appeal is undeniable. After the success of this concert, Wyschnegradsky had grand plans for further performances of the work in other countries. The spoken text, he maintained, is of crucial importance to the understanding of the work. This is why it is spoken rather than sung. And whilst the Paris performance was recorded, the success of the work elsewhere was dependant on its audience understanding the text. His greatest dream for the work was that it be performed in Russia, in the Russian language in which it was conceived. This dream remains unfulfilled, but the common currency of Scriabin’s musical language in modern day Russia surely makes it the most receptive musical environment for a possible revival.

The approachability of the musical discourse in Wyschnegradsky’s seminal early cantata highlights the great paradox of his work. He was a radical, and non-conformist and a musician who saw it as his duty to his art never to compromise. And yet the ultimate goal of his ‘ultrachromatic’ project was to gain widespread acceptance for music based on the scales and temperaments he had devised. A version of Zarathustra was performed in Belgium soon after the war, and Wyschnegradsky took pride in a newspaper review that had commended the work by saying that after hearing it, all halftone music seemed banal. After he had related this story to Charles Akhimarian, he went on to say: ‘This way I will conquer. If I am an avant-gardist I will not conquer, I will just be an avant-gardist. I am a revolutionist, not an avant-gardist.’ Wyschnegradsky had initially hoped that, having devised his microtonal piano in the West, he could return to Russia with it, where his music would be received and fostered as a natural expression of Bolshevik ideals. This, of course was not to be, but an accessibility remains in all of Wyshnegradsy’s music, based on the principle that it was written for the benefit of the whole of humanity. Wyschnegradsky came to musical consciousness in a culture that was dominated by the figure and music of Alexander Scriabin, a composer who married popularity with revolutionary musical ideals better than any since Beethoven. Wyschnegradsky’s music remains there to be discovered, the work of a composer who sought to transform and to communicate in equal measure. And his music carries with it the mystical worldview of its creator. Writing in the months before his death about the eventual possibility that The Day of Existence would one day be performed in Russia, he wrote: ‘that will not be so soon. Many time will pass. I don’t see any harm in that. Time does not exist.’

© Gavin Dixon 2009