Ancient Airs & Dances - Suite No.3 (1) Ottorino Respighi Download 'Ancient Airs & Dances - Suite No.3 (1)' on iTunes
Some people report seeing colours when they hear certain keys or notes in music. They probably have synesthesia – its definition? A condition in which the stimulation of one sense leads to the automatic and involuntary experience of a second. You can test yourself too to see if you have it.
The main Russian 'Symbolist' composer, Scriabin was influenced by synesthesia. He maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown and that E-flat major was a reddish purple. Rimsky-Korsakov disagreed, favouring blue for that particular key.
When the French pianist was 11 and practicing a piece by Bach, she perceived “something that was very bright, between red and orange, very warm and vivid." Grimaud says she sees C minor as black, and her favourite key - D minor – “the most dramatic and poignant, is blue.”
When Liszt first became Kapellmeister at Weimar, the orchestra was astonished to hear him demand, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” and “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” At first the players thought Liszt was joking, but later realised he actually seemed to be seeing colours.
“If I play a B-flat on the G string, I would say that the color for me is probably deep forest green,” the Israeli-American violinist has said. “And if I play an A on the E string, that would be red. If I play the next B, if I look at it right now, I would say that it's yellow.”
The legendary pianist, composer and band leader wrote, “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one colour. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different colour.”
The German-Swiss composer declared that the “sound of a flute produced the sensation of intense azure blue; of the [oboe], yellow; cornet, green; trumpet, scarlet; the French horn, purple; and the [bassoon], grey. The clearest and most distinct shades were those evoked by the high notes."
A biographer wrote that for Sibelius, “there existed a strange, mysterious connection between sound and color, between the most secret perceptions of the eye and ear. Everything he saw produced a corresponding impression on his ear – every impression of sound was transferred and fixed as color on the retina of his eye and thence to his memory.”
The 20th century Hungarian composer also associated sounds with colours and shapes. “I feel that all letters have a colour,” he said. "I do not have perfect pitch, so when I say that C minor has a rusty red-brown colour and D minor is brown this does not come from the pitch but from the letters C and D."
The Russian composer saw colours for musical keys. For Rimsky Korsakov, the key of C major was white while B major was a “gloomy dark blue with a steel shine.”
Many of Messiaen’s compositions – such as Oiseaux Exotiques, L'ascension, and Couleurs de la cite celeste – are directly based upon his trying to “produce pictures” via sound, writing specific notes to produce specific colour sequences and blends.
When designing for the opera and ballet, British artist David Hockney says he bases the background colours and lighting upon the colours he sees while listening to the music of the piece he is working on. This design is for Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss, designed by Hockney for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1992.