Scriabin‘s "Prometheus" To Be Performed at Yale in Living Color

When Yale’s undergraduate concert orchestra, the Yale Symphony Orchestra, performs Alexander Scriabin’s “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire” on February 13, it will be the first full-production of this multimedia work to benefit from contemporary lighting technology and the recent discovery of the composer’s hand-written directions for its execution.

Scriabin wrote the piece 100 years ago as a sound and light spectacle showcasing his esoteric theory that there is an intrinsic relationship between music and color. Scriabin’s score called for a full orchestra, chorus, organ, solo piano, and a curious keyboard instrument known as a color organ, “tastiera per luce” or, most commonly, “luce” (Italian for “light”). The instrument emits no sounds but projects beams of light that change color according to the harmonic progression of the music.

“Prometheus” is performed frequently as a concert piece, but rarely with the light show, largely because it was not technologically feasible to produce many of the ambient lighting effects the composition called for. Indeed, the “luce” designed specifically for Scriabin’s sound and light extravaganza proved so inadequate that the symphony premiered in the dark.

When full productions of the work were attempted, lights beamed on a screen above the audience substituted for the explosions of light throughout the concert hall that Scriabin envisioned.

In 1969 and 1971, the Yale Symphony Orchestra addressed some of these challenges and performed “Prometheus” with light sources spread throughout Woolsey Hall, using the mass of the audience as a reflective body. This February’s performance builds on the YSO’s history of accurately realizing Scriabin’s vision.

In 1978, the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris obtained a first-edition score of “Prometheus,”with Scriabin’s long-lost hand-written annotations, a copy of which is nowheld at the Gilmore Music Library at Yale. The score, not widely known, dates from 1913, and contains detailed annotations for the “luce” part in Scriabin’s own handwriting. “This information revolutionizes previous conceptions of the relationship between lights and music,” says Yale doctoral candidate Anna Gawboy, whose research provided insights critical for this production. The composer’s newly discovered directions for color and lighting and instructions for such special effects as tongues of flame, lightening flashes and fireworks will enable Yale students to bring the entire work to light, literally, in its most authentic form to date.

Scriabin’s notations also shed light on how far in advance of his times the visionary composer was, since it would take a full century before many of the visual effects he called for could be realized. With lighting created by award-winning designer Justin Townsend, and with guidance from Scriabin’s hand-written notes, the Yale production will use cutting-edge LED technology, allowing a single source of light to produce a full spectrum of color, and, synchronized with the music, change from one color to another without missing a beat.

“This genre-defying production will push even contemporary technology to its limit,” says Gawboy.

The complete “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire” will be performed at 8 p.m. in Yale’s Woolsey Hall, built just a decade before “Prometheus” premiered, on the corner of Grove and College streets. Advanced Tickets are available through the Shubert Theater Box Office, (203) 562-5666, (888) 736-2663 or

The Yale Symphony Orchestra (YSO) was founded in 1965 by a small group of Yale undergraduates who saw a need for a permanent platform for student musicians to perform together. Today, the Yale Symphony enjoys a reputation as one of the premiere undergraduate orchestras in the United States, and performs an average of six concerts a year.

Past conductors of the YSO include such notables as Richmond Browne, John Mauceri, C. William Harwood, James Sinclair, Shinik Hahm and George Rothman. This year, maestro Toshiyuki Shimada takes the podium for his fifth season. Many internationally recognized artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Frederica von Stade, Emmanuel Ax and David Shifrin have shared the stage with the orchestra, and several alumni of the YSO have gone on to musical careers: Sharon Yamada, first violinist of the New York Philharmonic; Miles Hoffman, commentator with National Public Radio; and Miriam Hartman, principal violist with the Israel Philharmonic, among them.

The YSO has presented national and world premieres of many works, including the European premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” in 1973, the United States premiere of Debussy’s “Khamma” and the East Coast premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “The Building of the House.”

On tour, the Yale Symphony Orchestra has performed recently in Portugal, Korea and Central Europe, and domestically the group has appeared in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In 2008, the YSO made its Italian debut, performing in Rome, Florence, Bologna and Milan.

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