Ivan V´shnegradsky

Biography

Born: May 14, 1893; St. Petersburg, Russia   Died: September 29, 1979; Paris, France  
Ivan V´shnegradsky was born the son of a St. Petersburg banker and musical aficionado. As a student at the University of St. Petersburg, V´shnegradsky transferred out of law and philosophy studies to enroll in the music department. V´shnegradsky studied with instructor Nikolai Sokolov, who introduced V´shnegradsky to the work of Alexander Scriabin. Shortly after, V´shnegradsky abandoned the Germanic, post-Romantic idiom familiar to him and Read more followed the example of his Russian forbearer. V´shnegradsky's earliest acknowledged work, the cantata La journÚe de l'existence (1916 - 1917, rev. 1927, 1939) betrays the influence of Scriabin influence very strongly, especially in the massive five-octave chord cluster that ends the work.

Just prior to the composition of La journÚe, V´shnegradsky experienced a flash of what he called "cosmic consciousness," leading him onto a lifelong investigation of microtonal resources as a means of making tactile mystical, unseen universal forces. In 1918 V´shnegradsky tuned the two pianos in his family home a quartertone apart and placed them in a "L" shape so he could play them both. The use of re-tuned multiple pianos as a means of playing in microtones became a standard for V´shnegradsky; in some instances he adds singers in order to provide for lyric settings, often chosen from the work of his philosophical idol, Friedrich Nietzsche.

In 1922, V´shnegradsky realized the situation in Russia was too volatile for him, so he emigrated to Paris, where he would live the rest of his life. V´shnegradsky made several attempts to have microtonal instruments built in the 1920s. V´shnegradsky's joint venture with Pleyel to build a quartertone piano failed to result in an instrument, as did another with composer Alois Hßba. In 1924, V´shnegradsky had a quartertone harmonium built, and finally in 1929 piano maker Adolf F÷rster constructed a three-manual quartertone piano for him. V´shnegradsky's efforts to score microtonal music for strings in the early 1920s led to unhappy results, as the string players could not adjust to the special notational figures V´shnegradsky devised for his scores.

From that time, V´shnegradsky was pursued of his concept of "ultra-chromaticism" and developed microtonal scales consisting of up to 72 notes. As his musical theory was inextricably bound up with new-agey spiritual and cosmic ideas, few took V´shnegradsky's investigations in microtonality seriously, and he found it difficult to find publishers willing to handle his treatises. It wasn't until 1937 at the Salle Chopin-Pleyel that V´shnegradsky was able to mount a comprehensive concert of his works. The notion of V´shnegradsky as a practitioner of musical quackery was confirmed for many during World War II, when the composer suffered a complete nervous breakdown and was placed in a sanatorium.

One musician who did take V´shnegradsky seriously was French composer Olivier Messiaen. Upon V´shnegradsky's release from the sanatorium in 1950, Messiaen encouraged the older composer to work anew, and V´shnegradsky complied with a number of works combining the microtonal pianos with an electronic device, the Ondes Martenot, an instrument played expertly by Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod. In 1959, V´shnegradsky composed an orchestral symphony in quartertones. In 1960, a large choral work followed L'eternel etranger for four pianos, percussion, soloists, and mixed choir. V´shnegradsky was largely inactive in the final two decades of his life, yet near the end of it he was re-discovered. In 1978, the world premiere of his first work, La journÚe de l'existence, was held, and V´shnegradsky was invited to lecture in conjunction with this event. He also was awarded his first and only, public commission for a String Trio, Op. 53, and completed just days before his death at the age of 84. Read less

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Ivan V´shnegradsky


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