Nicolai Obukhov was a Russian composer who, after studying at the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories with Maximilian Steinberg and Nikolai Tcherepnin, left Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Obukhov settled in Paris in 1919 where he studied orchestration with Maurice Ravel and Marcel Orban while supporting his new family by working as a bricklayer.
Obukhov, who signed his name “Nicolas l’illuminé” (Nicholas the visionary), was a deeply religious mystical Christian and profoundly influenced by the new theosophical cult of the Salon de la Rose + Croix which became popular with artists and musicians in the early 1920s. These beliefs were expressed in his compositions which, like his fellow countryman Alexander Scriabin, were intended as a means of attaining a transcendent state and a bridge to the world of the spirit – rather than just an aesthetic creation – Obukhov was driven by the idea that there was a higher reality to which art could reach. He attempted to achieve this spiritual goal through, for the time, unconventional means; a “total harmony” of 12 tone composition, unusual rhythm, experimental methods of notation, new invented instruments and expressive vocal directions –Obukhov was probably the first composer to require a singer to make ‘non musical’ vocal sounds:
‘I forbid myself any repetition: my harmony is based on twelve notes of which none must be repeated. Repetition produces an impression of force without clarity; it disturbs the harmony, dirties it.’1 Schloezer op. cit, p 47.
“…music enjoys decided advantages which endow it with possibilities of insinuation into the depths of the soul, and the mind, of emotions inaccessible to other arts. This faculty resides in the fact that music is hindered less than any other art in the realisation of its aims by material conditions.” 2Manuscript MS 15226, music department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
In order to achieve this musical ‘insinuation’ Obukhov supplemented the traditional orchestra with new instruments of his own invention. These included the “Crystal” a piano type instruments where hammers hit a row of crystal spheres and the “Éther” an electronically powered instruments where a large rotating paddle wheel created various, apparently inaudible infra- and ultra-sonic humming sounds that ranged from approximately five octaves below to five octaves above human hearing. This sound was intended to have a mystical effect on the listener – though the effect was probably physiological, depending on the volume and frequency of the instruments sound. Low frequency infra-sound is known to have a physical effect on the human nervous system causing disorientation, anxiety, panic, bowel spasms, nausea, vomiting and eventually unconsciousness (supposedly 7-8 hz is the most effective being the same frequency as the average brain alpha wave). The effect is unintentionally generated by the extreme low frequencies in church pipe organ music, instilling religious feelings and causing sensations of “extreme sense sorrow, coldness, anxiety, and even shivers down the spine.” 3‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3087674.stm
Obukhov’s only purely electronic instrument was “La Croix Sonore” or “Sonorous Cross” which was essentially 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 Croix Sonore was designed and built in Paris by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Duvalier to Obukhov’s instructions in 1929 and was the result of several years experimenting with beat frequency/heterodyning oscillators probably after witnessing Termen’s demonstration of the Theremin while on tour around Europe. As with theTheremin the Croix Sonore 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.
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. The performances of these pieces were intended to be more like an occult church ceremony rather than an orchestral performance; Obukhov insisted that here were no spectators at his concerts – everyone would play their part in the mystical ritual which would take place in a circular ‘temple’:
“When the ‘Book of Life’ is performed, by which I mean when it is lived, the spectators, the participants will be arranged in spirals, in the interior of a circular and raised scene. The ‘terrestrial’ orchestra will be coiled up around the scene. A dome will contain the ‘celestial’ orchestra. Lighting changes will intervene in the ‘Sacred Action’, a synthesis of cult and orgy (the latter meant symbolically). Such is the ritual where science and religion are married.4‘Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.
“…some like priests will take part directly in the action, the others witness it, participating mentally like the faithful in church.” 5 ‘ de Schloezer, Boris , “Nicolas Obukhoff”, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp 38-56.
These performances received mixed reviews from the puzzled critics:
A Paris concert audience was stirred. and while it squirmed and tittered. tonight when Nicholas Obouhoff’ presented parts of his “Book of Life” and hitherto unknown “Annunciation of the Last Judgement.” to the accompaniment of the new electric musical instrument, the croix sonore.
Henry Prunieres introduced the concert. warning the audience that it was going to hear chords played on the piano. notes sung by a human voice and sounds drawn from an instrument such as it had never heard before. Even this warning. however. did not prepare the listeners for the sudden “shriek” – there is no other word for it-of Suzanne Balguerie on the opening note of one of Obouhoff‘s liturgic poems. There was no warning, either. when the singer suddenly began to whistle instead of sing. Some members of the audience thought it was one of their number expostulating in the classic manner and began to cry, “Hush! hush!“
Prunieres had praised the courage of the singers, Mme. Balguerie and Louise Matha. in attempting music so new, and as they produced strange note after strange note many felt that this praise was well merited. if only because their mastery of their effects prevented the audience from tittering more loudly.6 ‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.
“In “Annunciation of the Last Judgement” the singers stood together, one gowned in white. the other in red. while Obouhoff and Arthur Scholossberg played two pianos. and Princess Marie Antoinette Aussenac de Broglie, apart and sacramentally gowned in black, blue and orange, drew from the croix sonore notes that throbbed like twenty violins or at times sang like a human voice. In all this, it was the instrument that had the most success. Obuhoff’, it is said, dreamed of it long before the invention of the radio made application of the principle possible. He wrote music for it, calling it “the etherphone.” Out of it, by moving the hand back and forth, the Princess de Broglie drew an amazing sweetness or the most dreadful note, like the knocking of fate, to give Obouhofifs strange religious music far more power than his two pianos or even the distortions of his singers’ voices could produce.”7SHAW – MILLER, S. (2002). Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage. Yale University Press, p81
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.
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.
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.
Commentary on Obukhov’s work by Jonathan Powell 8https://www.planettree.org/2000/crussian.html
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.9 Powell: “This is now regarded as not true (see Pol’dyaeva, 2006)” 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.
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.
- 1Schloezer op. cit, p 47.
- 2Manuscript MS 15226, music department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
- 3‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3087674.stm
- 4‘Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.
- 5‘ de Schloezer, Boris , “Nicolas Obukhoff”, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp 38-56.
- 6‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.
- 7SHAW – MILLER, S. (2002). Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage. Yale University Press, p81
- 9Powell: “This is now regarded as not true (see Pol’dyaeva, 2006)”
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)