The Blue Rider and The Yellow Sound

Kandinsky Yellow Sound

Wassily Kandinsky, “The Yellow Sound”

This is the story of an art movement, a mostly forgotten composer, and two very interesting pieces of music that they produced.

The art movement was titled Der Blaue Reiter or The Blue Rider. Originally a painting by Wassily Kandinsky from 1903, the title was transferred to an avant-garde art movement that began in 1911, and of which Kandinsky was a large part. It was an outgrowth of an earlier avant-garde movement titled Die Brücke which was founded in 1905, and included Franz Marc, August Macke, Alexej von Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter, Lyonel Feininger, Albert Bloch and others. The group was formed in response to the rejection of Kandinsky’s painting Composition V from an art exhibit. Although Der Blaue Reiter lacked a specific purpose, their main goal was to reject the stifling conventions of Romantic-era art and music. Paul Klee was also one of the artists involved. Kandinsky wrote 20 years later that the name of the group stemmed from Franz Marc’s enthusiasm for horses, his own love of riders, and their shared enthusiasm for the color blue.

As stated on Wikipedia:

Within the group, artistic approaches and aims varied from artist to artist; however, the artists shared a common desire to express spiritual truths through their art. They believed in the promotion of modern art; the connection between visual art and music; the spiritual and symbolic associations of color; and a spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting. Members were interested in European medieval art and primitivism, as well as the contemporary, non-figurative art scene in France. As a result of their encounters with cubist, fauvist and Rayonist ideas, they moved towards abstraction.

Der Blaue Reiter organized exhibitions in 1911 and 1912 that toured Germany. They also published an almanac featuring contemporary, primitive and folk art, along with children’s paintings. In 1913 they exhibited in the first German Herbstsalon.

The group was disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Franz Marc and August Macke were killed in combat. Wassily Kandinsky, Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky were forced to move back to Russia because of their Russian citizenship. There were also differences in opinion within the group. As a result, Der Blaue Reiter was short-lived, lasting for only three years from 1911 to 1914.

Supported by their dealer Galka Scheyer, Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky formed Die Blaue Vier (the Blue Four) group in 1923. Together they exhibited and lectured in the United States from 1924.

BlaueReiterBut Der Blaue Reiter was more than a visual art collective. Part of Die Blaue Reiter book was devoted to music. Both Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern contributed compositions specifically for it, but the heart and soul of the renegade musical movement was one Thomas de Hartmann (or Thomas von Hartmann), a Russian composer who lived from September 1885 to March 1956. Hartmann was a pupil of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev, but he came to reject all of their rules and principles. When he moved to Munich, he became friends with Alexander de Salzmann, Rainer Maria Rilke and Kandinsky. Later, back in Russia, shortly after the beginning of World War I, he became a follower of the phony blowhard mystic George Gurdjieff.

De Hartmann

Thomas de Hartmann

Hartmann proselytized for “anarchy in music,” claiming that the strict formal rules of 19th-century Romanticism were outdated and had been played out. Unfortunately, most of the music one can find online by Hartmann are his tonal, belly-dance-type pieces written under the spell of Gurdjieff. But in 1909, he wrote Der Geibe Klang or The Yellow Sound, a pantomime stage work based on very strict rules and principles given him by Kandinsky. The Yellow Sound was the “earliest and most influential” of four “color-tone dramas” that Kandinsky conceived for the theater between 1909 and 1914; the others were titled The Green Sound, Black and White, and Violet. Kandinsky’s pieces were part of a larger trend of their era that addressed color theory and synesthesia in works that blended multiple art forms and media. Such works — Scriabin’s Prometheus (1910) is arguably among the best known — utilized lighting techniques and other innovations to extend the normal range of artistic expression. Kandinsky had published his own theory on color and synesthesia in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911).

The choreography that Kandinsky lined out for Hartmann was extremely precise. He not only chose the color, stage design and lighting for each scene, but also the very specific movements and poses of the dancers. It was a complete theater work that demanded the utmost in discipline from all forces involved, musicians, dancers, stage lighters and set designers. A complete description of the “plot” can be found on pp. 210-225 of the English version of The Blue Rider Almanac issued by MFA Publications in 2015, a 1974 English translation of the 1965 book published by Piper Verlag GmbH, Munich. In it, we also learn Kandinsky’s instructions, part of which follow:

Prelude – A few indistinct chords from the orchestra. Curtain – On the stage it is dark-blue dawn, which at first is whitish and later becomes intensely dark blue, After a while, at center stage, a small light becomes visible and becomes brighter as the color deepens. Adfter a while, orchestra music. Pause.

Backstage a chorus is heard that must be arranged in such a way that the source of the singing cannot be located. The bass voices are to be heard above all. The singing is even, without temperament, but interrupted, as indicated in this text by dots.

First deep voices:
“Dreams are hard as stones…And speaking rocks…
Earth with riddles of fulfilling questions…
The motion of the heavens…And melting…of stones…
Invisible rampart…growing upward…”

High voices:
“Tears and laughter…Prayers while cursing…
The joy of union and the blackest of battles.
Dark light on the…sunniest…day”
(Vanishing fast and suddenly)

Yellow Sound 1

Alas, neither Kandinsky nor Hartmann ever saw a production of The Yellow Sound in their lifetimes. A production was planned for Munich in 1914, but had to be scuttled due to the outbreak of World War I. In later years, Hartmann simply gave up on it, thinking it a product of the times not worthy of reviving. As a result, it didn’t receive its premiere performance until May 1972 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But not all productions of The Yellow Sound use Hartmann’s score; other productions use scores by Anton Webern or Alfred Schnittke. Schnittke’s score was written in 1974, again following Kandinsky’s precise instructions regarding specific stage sets and dancers’ movements. All three have been used ever since.

Yellow Sound 2And somehow, Thomas de Hartmann (whose name was changed to “von Hartmann” when he lived in Germany) got lost in the shuffle. There is no commercial recording of Der Geibe Klang, let alone all of his revolutionary symphonies and other works. All that exists is on YouTube, and most of it is the ersatz-belly-dance music he composed under Gurdjieff’s spell. Happily, there is one complete performance of Der Geibe Klang, staged in 2015 and conducted, once again, by Gunther Schuller. The good news is that the musical realization of the score is superb, and the production retained Kandinsky’s original specifications for colors and costumes. (The Blaue Reiter Almanac uses 15th-century German woodcuts, probably because they were public domain at the time, and not Kandinsky’s state designs, which would have been very difficult to reproduce, particularly in color, at that time.) If you discount the amateurish and often uncoordinated dancing (only the two principal dancers, who only get one scene to themselves, are really any good), you will find it a fascinating work. The pictures accompanying this article are from this performance, which you can watch HERE.

Yellow Sound 3

Hartmann’s music is simply astonishing for 1909—in fact, so far ahead of its time that you may question the year of its inception. He uses several techniques that we today take for granted were initiated by such composers as Ligeti and Penderecki: not only atonal but crushed chords with very close harmonies, music that develops slowly or doesn’t develop, but rather juxtaposes themes and motifs. Although I realize that the orchestration heard in this performance was edited by Schuller, and may not be the composer’s own, there is no question but that Hartmann envisioned the juxtaposition of harsh wind and brass chords against the slow-moving line played by the basses. Although the sound is a little dry for a modern digital recording, the sonorities are clear and undistorted. The second scene uses clarinets, an instrument that Schnittke also used in his version of the music. At one point, one of the flutes flubs a note, but otherwise the technical execution of the Spectra Ensemble is superb. In this second section, too, the male singers perform a wordless atonal melody in which they are supported by a solo trombone or horn (it’s difficult to tell which). Yet percussion is very sparingly used, in fact generally not present at all (though the timpani is heard in the third section). Whether this was Hartmann’s idea or Schuller’s, it creates a sort of liquid, flowing sound, at times not very dissimilar from the kind of music that Leif Segerstam wrote in the 1960s. About the only modern touch that his score lacks is microtonalism; I’m not sure that the concept would have been attractive to either Hartmann or Kandinsky at the time. Yet his expert use of extended chords holds one’s interest from start to finish. Schuller’s conducting gives the syncopated passages a semi-jazzy swagger, though of course jazz was completely unknown in either Europe or Russia in 1909. At one point, Hartmann used high, soft, but edgy-sounding held string notes to create atmosphere.

The Schnittke score is also available on YouTube, HERE. This one has no visuals; it is just the music with the score pictured. It is performed by soprano Nelly Lee with the Bolshoi Soloists’ Ensemble directed by Alexander Lazarev. Although I generally dislike virtually everything that Schnittke wrote, I make an exception in this case because he had to follow Kandinsky’s instructions regarding keys and timbres, and really did turn out a very imaginative piece of music. Possibly this was because Schnittke, like Kandinsky, was synesthetic, viewing music as color.

So there you have it: the full story of a lost masterpiece.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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