‘La Croix Sonore’ Nicolai Obukhov. Russia – France, 1929-1934

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L'Opéra, Paris.

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L’Opéra, Paris.

The “Sonorous Cross /La Croix Sonore” was one of several Theremin type instruments developed in Europe after Leon Termens departure to the USA in 1927, others included the “Elektronische Zaubergeige” and the “Elektronde”. The Sonorous Cross was designed and built in Paris by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Duvalier for the the Russian emigré composer Nikolay Obukhov in 1929. The instrument was the result of several years experimenting with beat frequency/heterodyning oscillators. As with the Theremin the Sonorous Cross was based on body capacitance controlling heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. To suit Obukhov’s mystical and theatrical style, the circuitry and oscillators were built into a 44 cm diameter brass orb and the antennae disguised by a large 175 cm high crucifix adorned with a central star.

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The Sonorous Cross was played in the same way as the Theremin – using the bodies capacitance to control the oscillators frequency, in this case moving the hands out from the central star on the crucifix altered the pitch and volume of the instrument. The ritualistic gestures made while playing this most unusual looking of instruments complemented the occult and mystical nature of Obukhov’s music and life.

Nikolay Obukhov composed numerous pieces using his instrument as well as several using the Ondes-Martenot, culminating in his major work;”Le Livre De Vie” which exploited the glissando effects the Sonorous Cross could produce. Obukhov continued to develop the instrument and produced an improved version, completed in 1934. Obukhov also designed two other instruments, the “Crystal” a piano type instruments where the hammers hit a row of crystal spheres and the “Éther” an electronically powered instruments where a large paddle wheel created various, apparently inaudible, humming sounds that was supposed to have a mystical effect on the listener.

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Nicolas or Nicolai Obukhov ( also Obouchov, Obuchov, Obouhow, Obuchow), Born April 22, 1892 in Ol’shanka, Kursk, Moscow – died, June 13, 1954 in St. Cloud, France

 

Nikolay Obukhov studied counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory from 1911 and later at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 (with Kalafati, Maksimilian Steinberg and Nikolay Tcherepnin). His first published works date from this period, and were published as ‘Quatre mélodies’ by Rouart et Lerolle in Paris in 1921.

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In 1915 Obukhov developed his own idiosyncratic form of musical notation (similar to one invented in Russia by Golïshev during the same period) using a 12-tone chromatic language highly influenced by the mystical Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The only performances of his music in Russia took place at this time. A report of the performance describes Obukhov as ‘a pale young man, with gazing eyes’ who ‘confused the audience’. Obukhov left Russia during the revolution with his wife and two children; they eventually settled near Paris a year later. In Paris he encountered financial hardship until helped by Maurice Ravel who found Obukhov a publisher allowing him to devote his time to his music.

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The 1920s saw a handful of performances, most notably that of the ‘Predisloviye knigi zhizni’ (‘Introduction to the Book of Life’) under Kussevitzsky. During this and the next decade he put into practice ideas for electronic instruments Obukhov had conceived as early as 1917: the ‘efir’ and ‘kristal’ (‘ether’ and ‘crystal’) he had described in Russia eventually gave rise to the croix sonore, and even though he built and wrote for the ether, it was with the croix sonore that he gained most attention. He found an exponent of the instrument in his pupil Marie-Antoinette Aussenac-Broglie who had also performed some of his piano music; she demonstrated the instrument around France and Belgium. Similar to both the theremin and the ondes martenot in that pitch production is reliant upon the distance of the performer’s arm from the instrument, the croix sonore was the subject of a film of 1934. During the mid-1940s his notation again provoked heated discussion, this time in Paris; a book containing works from the 18th to the 20th centuries in Obukhov’s notation was published by Durand. In 1947, his ‘Traité d’harmonie tonale, atonale et totale’ ‚ which had already interested Honegger ‚ was published, while a year later he lectured on this subject in the Russian Conservatory in Paris. Obukhov spent his last years incapacitated by a mugging in 1949 where the final version of  ‘the Book of Life’ was stolen; he composed only a few works after this incident.

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Obukhov’s output is dominated by vast works of which the most notorious ‚ notwithstanding the gargantuan ‘Troisième et dernier testament’ and ‘La toute puissance’ ‚ is the ‘Kniga zhizni’ (‘The Book of Life’) on which he worked from around the time he left Russia until at least the mid-1920s. Described by the composer as ‘l’action sacrée du pasteur tout-puissant regnant’ it was intended to be performed (or ‘accomplished’) uninterruptedly every year on the night of the first and on the day of the second resurrection of Christ. Obukhov did not consider himself the composer of this work; instead, he saw himself as the person permitted, by divine forces, to ‘show’ it. Parts of the score, one version of which is nearly 2000 pages in length, are marked in the composer’s blood. The music is preceded by a lengthy exposition in archaic Russian, while the work concludes with one section the score of which unfolds into the form of a cross and another, taking the shape of a circle, which is fixed onto a golden and silver box decorated with rubies and red silk. (Nicholas Slonimsky, in his memoir ‘Perfect Pitch’ relates that the composer’s wife, driven to despair by Obukhov’s obsessive behaviour regarding this piece, attempted to burn ‚ or ‘immolate’, in the composer’s terminology ‚ the manuscript but was interrupted in her crime.) Much of the instrumental writing is characterized by the alternation of chorale-like material (often ornamented by filigree arppegiation) with tolling patterns, building to textures of considerable rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. The vocal parts ‚ as with his writing for the voice in most of his other works ‚ have huge tessituras and are bespattered with glissandi and instructions for screaming or whispering. The style which is consistently applied in this magnum opus is prevalent in all of his mature works and has its roots in the songs and piano miniatures written in Russia.

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Taking as a starting point the language employed by Skriabin in his mid- and late-period works, Obukhov evolved a harmonic technique based on the systematic configuration and manipulation of 12-note chords or harmonic areas. The sonorities resulting from this ‘total harmony’ are often broadly octatonic and frequently have a quasi-dominant character due to the prevalence of diminished fifths in the lower elements. Although longer structures appear to unfold in a schematized yet organic manner, the detail of musical procedure is curiously static. Obukhov saw his work as a musical articulation of his strongly-held religious beliefs and would sometimes sign his manuscripts ‘Nicolas l’illuminé’ or ‘Nicolas l’extasié’. Possibly inspired by Vladimir Solov´yov’s idea of ‘sobornost´’ (collective spiritual or artistic experience), Obukhov sought to abolish the traditional performer-audience polarity in favour of a merging of these previously mutually exclusive groups into one of participants. Obukhov mostly used his own texts which are frequently inspired by the Book of the Revelation or the Apocrypha. It is thus no coincidence that the only poets whose work appealed to him spiritually and compositionally were Solov´yov and Bal´mont, since it was the former’s orthodox mysticism that significantly informed the apocalyptic vision of the latter. In addition to these sources, mention should be made of Obukhov’s use of two verses by Musorgsky; it is between his work and that of Messiaen that Obukhov’s visionary language can be placed.

(details from: Commentary, Composers:4. Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers)
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List of works by Nicolai Obukhov:

1945 Adorons Christ, for piano (Fragment du troisième et dernier Testament) Keyboard
1942 Aimons-nous les uns les autres, for piano Keyboard
1915 Conversion, for piano Keyboard
1916 Création de l’Or, for piano Keyboard
1915 Icône, for piano Keyboard
1916 Invocation, for piano Keyboard
1948 La paix pour les réconciliés – vers la source avec le calice, for piano Keyboard
1952 Le Temple est mesuré, l’Esprit est incarné, for piano Keyboard
1915 Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard
Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard Piece
1915 Prières, for piano Keyboard
1915 Revelation, for piano Keyboard

 


Sources

Hugh Davies. “Croix sonore.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online

E.Ludwig: “La Croix Sonore” ReM, nos 158-9(935),96 ReM,nos 290-91 (1972-73)

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts. Archive. Volume 1 Number 3, December 2000 “Skriabin and Obukhov: Mysterium & La livre de vie The concept of artistic synthesis”. By Simon Shaw-Miller
Commentary, Composers: Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers