Scriabin, Alexander (1871 – 1915)

‘The public is ready to understand Prometheus in its complete form’

A fine four-page autograph letter signed by Alexander Scriabin (‘A. Scriabin’), Moscow, 24th February 1912. The composer writes in reference to a projected premiere of his composition Prometheus in London by Henry Wood, which would use the clavier à lumières (a keyboard with lights invented by the composer for this particular work).

Scriabin opens with apologies for not responding to his correspondent sooner, ‘but before doing so I needed to speak to the engineer in charge of the construction of the clavier à lumières in order to give you more precise information on the subject. The apparatus should be finished in the autumn, but it’s not going to be portable, at least in its essential parts; the clavier could naturally be easily moved, according to its system of lights etc. — this should be adjusted when its in position and according to the conditions of the room.’

He goes on to note that Prometheus is to be performed In the month of next December Prometheus will be performed here in Moscow and St. Petersburg with the symphony of colours [presumably the composer’s euphemism for the clavier] for the first time, and in my presence. The five first performances in these two cities took place without the symphony of colours, the goal being to give the public time to get used to this work, to understand it better, before giving them other impressions that might delay their understanding.’‘This was perfectly achieved, therefore now the public is ready to understand Prometheus in its completeness. There would be nothing more pleasing than to do the same thing for the English public. In fact, if the clavier à lumières is not available for the first audition Prometheus won’t be interpretable without the choirs where I’ve marked in the score “ad libitum”. Where the piano transcription is concerned, I thought I’d do it myself but I am terribly short of time — it will have to be done by someone else.’

Scriabin concludes that he will ‘remain at the disposition of Mr. H. Wood for any clarifications he might need,’ and notes that he will be in Brussels in September, should there be an occasion to meet with Mr. Wood, ‘but in any case our rapport will be easily established.’ In very fine condition. Letters of Scriabin are rare and desirable.

In fact, only one version of Scriabin’s clavier à lumières was ever constructed, and was used in the New York premiere of Prometheus in 1915. The idea of the instrument was that the notes on the keyboard would cause lights to come on that corresponded to the composer’s synesthetic system. The London premiere under Henry Wood took place (without the clavier à lumières) on February 1st 1913 to a mixed reaction, some leaving the concert hall mystified and enraged, although George Bernard Shaw is reported to have applauded ‘with all his strength’. To aid the audience’s understanding, Wood decided to perform the piece twice; when Scriabin later discovered that this had happened, he expressed his disapproval, noting in a letter that ‘double performances of Prometheus are not to my liking’.