The Yellow Sound

Excerpt from Alfred Schnittke's score from 1974 for Der gelbe Klang (1912) by Wassily Kandinsky
© Sikorski

Wassily Kandinsky published his stage composition Der gelbe Klang in 1912 in Munich in the almanac he coedited with Franz Marc: Der Blaue Reiter.[1] The music for his scenario was provided by a friend of Kandinsky’s, the composer Thomas de Hartmann.[2] De Hartmann’s incidental music, however, has the character of a draft — the musical presentation should, after all, be dependent on each theater and its specific performance possibilities. Consequently, a number of new musical versions of Der gelbe Klang have been written; the composition by Alfred Schnittke from 1974 has proved to be particularly effective.

Kandinsky’s text is not a finished work in the traditional sense but is rather both a concept and theoretical program for a work for the stage. The actors are nameless, abstract figures: Five Giants, so-called Indistinct Beings, a Tenor behind the stage, A Child, A Man, People in Flowing Garments, People in Tights, and a Chorus behind the stage. The sequence is divided into an introduction and six scenes without an interval. The events on the stage are specified by precisely prescribed directions for the lighting, the movements of the actors, and very brief speaking parts. There is no narrative plot: movement, sound, and light form an abstract synthesis. The figures on stage interact more with these esthetic elements than with one another.

Accordingly, Kandinsky described the events of the third scene as follows: In quick succession, brightly colored rays fall from all sides (blue, red, violet, and green alternate several times). Then all the rays meet in the center, becoming intermingled. Everything remains motionless … . Suddenly, all colors vanish. For a moment, there is blackness. Then a dull, yellow light floods the stage, which gradually becomes more intense, until the stage is a bright lemon yellow. As the light is intensified, the music grows deeper and darker … . During these two movements, nothing but light is to be seen on the stage: no objects. The brightest level of light is reached, the music is entirely dissolved.[3]

The extraordinary significance of Der gelbe Klang lies in the idea of a strictly antinaturalistic theater that dispenses with logical, causal connections of plot and instead uses equally and autonomously a variety of design elements such as color, light, movement, sound, and music. Yet Kandinsky did not create a self-contained overall concept but rather a stage situation in which the various arts are brought together without being subjected to a hierarchical dependency.