A realisation of Alexander Skryabin's
Poem of Fire

The first performance at the Hague on Nov. 20th, 1994.

Robbert van Steijn, Håkon Austbø and Oliver Knussen with the Residentie Orchestra.

The poem of fire

On November 20th, 1994, the Residentie Orchestra of the Hague gave its 90th anniversary concert, conducted by Oliver Knussen. The second half of the programme was devoted to Skryabin's symphonic poem Prométhée, le Poème du Feu. A set of projection screens, 10x15 meters, was hanging behind and above the orchestra together with some 400 lamps. Below this huge installation the choir of the Royal Conservatory of the Hague took their places. In front of the orchestra two soloists took theirs; Håkon Austbø at the piano and Robbert van Steijn at a special keyboard.
The first performance of the LUCE project could begin after four years of preparation and development carried out by pianist Austbø and designer Rob van de Poel. As the first bars sounded, the colours prescribed in Skryabin's score emerged on the five vertical screens; mysteriously shimmering at first, then assuming shapes and movements in close relationship with the musical themes and evolving into seas of light giving their coloured lustre to the entire hall, intercepted by spurs and flashes and alternating with quiet, subtly modulated colours. Meanwhile, the background screen took on more static, uniform colours, culminating in the deep blue projected on the choir, clad in white, at the moment they rose for the grandiose choral finale.
The audience was overwhelmed and responded with ovations. Although some critics were raving, others had problems accepting the impact or the justification of the colour play. At the end of the 20th century, the performance of a work from 1910 may still provoke controversy.


Skryabin's own light instrument: 12 lamps

The LUCE installation: 400 lamps...

Title page of the original edition of Prométhée, with a drawing by the Belgian artist Jean Delville, whom Skryabin met in Brussels in 1908. 
This drawing is full of theosophical and esoteric symbols.

True, the Russian composer Alexander Skryabin (1872-1915) was far ahead of his time. Not only was he an important innovator of the musical language and did he conceive a wholly new approach to tonality. He also made the first attempt in history into the multimedia field. The score of his Prométhée, poème du feu op. 60 for piano solo, large orchestra and choir, includes a two-voiced part, luce, consisting of notes (pitches) without any further indications. Historical sources prove that the composer supposed the use of a colour keyboard, an instrument that had been constructed in 1895 by the British scientist Wallace Rimington. It is also known that Skryabin possessed the synaesthetic ability to associate the hearing of a certain sound with a certain colour. Thus he made his own scale of colours where each pitch in the circle of fifths is represented by its own, specific colour.
The attempt to create a light symphony along with a piece of music was on the one hand part of Skryabin's quest to create an art that would eventually encompass all senses; he who initially saw himself as God (Je suis Dieu! is the opening phrase of one of his philosophical writings) gradually turned his enormous self-esteem towards the role of priest, of liturgy master, of initiator for mankind due to transcend into a higher state of being. These ideas were certainly strengthened, if not determined, by his contacts with the theosophical society in Brussels, and were parts of a process aimed at creating an ultimate work of art, the Mystery, which was actually sketched but remained unfinished. 
On the other hand, the correspondence between vision and audition fitted into Skryabin's esoteric view of cosmos as a holistic, secretive entity, of which all different aspects are merely symbols of the unique reality behind. A reality that the composer, by the way, wished to create himself, as he did in Prometheus.
At the first performance of the work in 1911 the colour projections could not be realised. Skryabin did play, in a smaller circle in his Moscow apartment, fragments of the piece using a set of 12 coloured light bulbs operated by buttons. This simple light instrument, constructed by his friend Alexander Moser, can still be seen in his house in the Wachtangowa street, now converted into a museum. The first performance with colours in Carnegie Hall, New York, March 1915, used Rimington's instrument but failed to convince the audience. Skryabin was not present; he was seriously ill in Moscow and was to die a couple of weeks later. In the decades following there were a few attempts to perform the colour part; with varying success. With modern technology an adequate performance of the piece has at last come within reach. The challenge of such an undertaking lies in the seemingly contradictory belief of Skryabin in technological progress as opposed to the philosophical, mystic nature of his music; a contradiction that is even topical today, almost a century later. The importance of spirituality - the fire that Prometheus brought to mankind - as counterweight to materialism, is maybe greater now than ever.

Skryabin's colour scale

Håkon Austbø(left) and Rob van de Poel

Bergen Festival, 1997

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 1998: Prefatory Act



Luce project group
In 1985, the Skryabin Society was founded in Amsterdam with the purpose to propagate Skryabin's work. From the outset, the realisation of the luce part was one of the aims. One felt that despite the attempts that had been made, no performance had so far responded fully to the intentions of the composer.
In 1990, the Norwegian pianist Håkon Austbø, resident of the Netherlands and internationally known for his Skryabin performances, became chairman of the Society and took the initiative for a new attempt towards realising Luce. Visits to Russia brought him in contact with scholars and sources there. He is now first vice chairman of the International Skryabin Society, Moscow.
In order to set up the project, Austbø associated with designer and computer specialist Rob van de Poel. Van de Poel was trained as a musician and still performs in various unconventional ensembles. Soon becoming involved with electronics, he has worked for several decades on multimedia projects, including the first Dutch realisation of Prometheus in Scheveningen, 1973.
At various stages of the development this team was assisted by other experts. In the initial planning, designer Menno Dieperink, now manager at the Philips corporate industrial lighting design department, contributed with the basic spatial design.
The Norwegian light designer Petter Steen contributed his expertise of colour lighting in the following stage of realistic experiments. This stage was financed by the Prins Bernhard Fonds as main sponsor.

Luce Foundation
In December 1992, the Luce Foundation (Stichting Luce) was founded with the aim of stimulating light-and-music performances in general and to provide a platform for the further preparation and management of actual performances of Prometheus.
In the course of 1993, the project group concluded the development of the project using experiences made in earlier stages. This stage of the project was subsidised by the Dutch Ministry of Culture.
In the final stage leading up to the first performance at the Hague, stage production assistance was called upon. Stage designer Floris Guntenaar assisted the design and construction of the lighting equipment and, as director of Opera Mundi, Amsterdam, supervised the actual production. Light technician Jan Holsbergen was responsible for the installation in the hall. Financial support in this stage was given by NOG Verzekeringen and Janse Lichtreclame.

Further performances
Prometheus was repeated in the Bergen International Festival, Norway, in May, 1997. Martyn Brabbins conducted the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1998, the Luce Foundation embarked on a new project: the light part of the Prefatory Act, a work only sketched by Skryabin but completed much later by Aleksandr Nemtin. It was performed in December, 1998 at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, by the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Valery Poliansky, with Alexei Lubimov at the piano and Håkon Austbø at the colour keyboard. It constituted a main attraction of the "Festival of Contrasts" on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Erasmus Prize.
Prometheus was then revised and performed again on three consecutive evenings in June, 1999 in three different Dutch cities - Leeuwarden, Drachten and Groningen. Jacek Kaspszyk conducted the Northern Netherlands Orchestra. Again, Håkon Austbø played the piano part and Robbert van Steijn the colour keyboard.

More information:

Leeuwarden, 1999

Robbert van Steijn rehearsing at Groningen, 1999