- 23 August, 2013
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I’m going to start with a spot of self-indulgence this week, being a fan of Peggy Lee. The lady died in 2002, aged 82, and had a sizeable list of artistic talents, including a career as a popular music singer that never seemed to be able to find the brake pedal. She performed the simple song I Can Sing a Rainbow in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), doubling up on her talent as an actress; the words were by fellow American songwriter Arthur Hamilton, who is still with us today. The lyrics are as follows:
Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue,
I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow too.
Listen with your eyes, listen with your eyes, and sing everything you see,
Now you can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, sing along with me.
Singing colours, listening with your eyes – this isn’t as improbable as it sounds. Consider synesthesia, which occurs when a sensation experienced in one part of the body stimulates a reaction in another. The word is probably most usually applied to the perception of sounds producing the sensation of colours.
Olivier Messiaen was a synesthete. Different chords, for him, conjured different colours; the sensation was part of the compositional process for his Couleurs de la Cité Céleste (Colours of the Celestial City), composed in 1963. His own descriptions of the colours he experienced ranged from simple (“gold and brown”) to incredibly detailed (“blue violet rocks … little grey cubes … cobalt blue … a bit of violet, purple, gold, red, ruby and stars of mauve.”)
The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, although not a synesthete on the same wavelength as Messiaen, nonetheless associated colours with the keys as they pass through the circle of fifths, gradually picking up sharps and flats along the way. He composed Prometheus: Poem of Fire with the intention of projecting colours in tandem with the music.
A so-called colour organ was built for the work’s first performance to achieve this synthesis of light and sound, which took place in March 1915 in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Sadly, Scriabin was unable to attend the première; he died in Russia just one month later. At that occasion, the lights were projected onto the backcloth of a relatively small piece of gauze. More modern and increasingly lush performances can be found on YouTube, such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GEwho6Dbnc that features conductor Riccardo Muti and solo pianist Martha Argerich.
The British composer Arthur Bliss was no synesthete, but he indulged in a colour exercise that most music lovers would feel more attuned to than Messiaen’s clinical, cross-sensory reactions. When commissioned to write a new work in 1921, he hit on the idea of writing his A Colour Symphony (Naxos 8.553460).
“I saw the possibility of so characterising the four movements of a symphony, that each should express a colour as I perceived it,” Bliss said.
The four colours he chose were purple, red, blue and green. Can you match each colour with one of Bliss’ descriptions (edited to make the exercise slightly harder)?:
(a) the colour of … revelry, furnaces, courage and magic;
(b) the colour of … hope, youth, joy, spring and victory;
(c) the colour of … pageantry, royalty and death;
(d) the colour of … loyalty and melancholy
And which thumbnail sketch of each movement do you think matches each of Bliss’ chosen colours (purple, red, blue and green)?:
(i) pensive movement; gently flowing
(ii) explosive scherzo; allegro vivace
(iii) processional march; andante maestoso
(iv) a double fugue; moderato (easy if you get the other answers correct!)
Here’s another quick challenge: the Latvian-born composer Indra Rise wrote her Three Coloured Stories for piano solo in 1985 (Dacapo 8.224142); the movements are titled White Story, Brown Story and Blue Story. Which description do you think goes best with the colour of each movement?:
- raunchy, ragtime, mix of simple and chromatic harmony, staccato
- exotic harmony, sad atmosphere, free-flowing, long held final chord
- gentle tempo, trills, undulating dynamics
And a final question: which colour in the lyrics of Peggy Lee’s I Can Sing a Rainbow doesn’t in fact appear in the rainbow’s spectrum?
(a) Red, the colour of … revelry, furnaces, courage and magic.
(b) Green, the colour of … hope, youth, joy, spring and victory.
(c) Purple, the colour of … pageantry, royalty and death.
(d) Blue the colour of … loyalty and melancholy.
(i) Blue, a pensive movement; gently flowing
(ii) Red, an explosive scherzo; allegro vivace
(iii) Purple, a processional march; andante maestoso
(iv) Green, a double fugue; moderato
- Brown story: raunchy, ragtime, mix of simple and chromatic harmony, staccato
- Blue story: exotic harmony, sad atmosphere, free-flowing, long held final chord
- White story: gentle tempo, trills, undulating dynamics
Pink is the colour that does not appear in the rainbow’s spectrum.