Light and Colour Concert in Germany

On May 21 2015 a well-attended concert was held in St. Catherine’s Hall of the Rostock Conservatory of Music and Theater in Rostock (Germany) under the motto of “light and colour in music”. In an introductory remark, Prof. Dr. Fedor Mitschke (Institute of Physics, Rostock University) explained the somewhat unconventional concept. Within the framework of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 (IYL 2015) as declared by the United Nations, a series of events is organized by the Institute of Physics. In this context, the concert aimed at bringing to the audience’s attention the relation between music on one hand, and light and colour on the other; this was exemplified by the works of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.

Painist Wolfgang Glemser
Painist Wolfgang Glemser

In the first part, pianist Wolfgang Glemser and musicologist Prof. Dr. Hartmut Möller appeared together. Möller explained how Scriabin was moved by synesthetic relation between sound and colour to lay down plans for coloured stage lighting to be used in unison with his music. In one case, the symphonic work “Prométhée” for large orchestra, he spelled out these instructions right in the score as two “light voices” (“luce”). It is outright tragic that during his lifetime it was beyond technical capabilities to realize such an inspired concept in any adequate way. While the electric light bulb had been already invented, it had not nearly reached a degree of maturity that would have allowed an impressive display. Today’s stage technology involves LED lights and computerized control so that the desired colours can be produced to exacting specifications.

Möller and Glemser now had transferred Scriabin’s concept of coordination of sound and colours to his piano composition “Poême” op. 59.1, which was written just before “Prométhée” (op. 60). As Möller explained, Scriabin’s concept is rational and free of arbitrary show effects, and it is precise enough so that the colour accompaniment of the “Poême” followed with coherent logic. The result was demonstrated, and anyone in the audience could decide for themselves whether they could appreciate the inner logic of the associated colours as intended by the composer.

During the intermission the audience was invited to inspect poster boards on display in the foyer These posters will remain in place for several more weeks.

In the second part, two sonatas by Scriabin, plus pieces by Wagner and Debussy were performed. Here Glemser showcased the entire gamut of pianistic bravado and expressivity: from the tenderest of lyrical sound to the most thundering furioso. Such program is a challenge for any pianist: Glemser demonstrated his remarkable skills convincingly. With the exception of the Wagner piece (in a piano transcription by Liszt written 1868) all pieces were composed in the time frame between 1893 and 1914 so that they provided a comprehensive survey of the art of piano composition about one century ago. In an indirect way, this also commemorated Scriabin’s death exactly 100 years prior to this event.

After long applause, Glemser presented another gem as an encore: Scriabin had overdone practicing for his piano exam, and had suffered an injury of his right hand. This caused him a period of depression, but it also prompted him to compose pieces for the left hand alone. Here the audience was treated to Prelude op. 9.1. If one kept one’s eyes closed it was easy to imagine that the pianist actually worked the keys with both hands.

On this evening, the organic relation between music and colour as first introduced by Scriabin was transferred in a meticulous, and apparently historically accurate, way to another of his compositions, and the result was presented in a way like it has not been done before. The listener-spectators were inspired to their own contemplation, and to vivid discussions.

The organizers of the sequence of events throughout the year for Rostock University are Profs. Stefan Scheel and Fedor Mitschke, both with the Institute of Physics. For this particular event they teamed up with Profs. Hartmut Möller and Bernd Zack, both of the Conservatory, and Prof. Wolfgang Glemser, Cottbus, as the soloist.

About Rostock University and its Institute of Physics

The city of Rostock is located on the Baltic Sea, roughly equidistant between Hamburg, Berlin, and Copenhagen. It was a founding member of the Hanseatic League, the first international trade corporation. The population today is 200,000 inhabitants.

The university, founded in 1419, is the oldest in the Baltic area and among the oldest in Northern Europe. Tycho Brahe studied here, and Stern prepared the Stern-Gerlach experiment from here (it was actually done in Frankfurt). Nowadays, there are 14,500 students enrolled is. On occasion of its 500th anniversary both Planck and Einstein received honorable doctorates; for Einstein it was the first such honor, and also the only one he received from a German university.

The Institute of Physics presently has 17 professors. Nationwide evaluations have repeatedly placed it in the top echelon in terms of quality in both teaching and research. In August the institute will move to its new building in a street named after the man who was honored in 1919: Einstein street. How very fitting for a physics institute!

About Rostock Conservatory

“Hochschule für Musik und Theater Rostock” is located in a building that originally was a Franciscan monastery devoted to St. Catherine of Alexandria. With its original use suspended after reformation, it was subsequently used for various purposes including as a hospital. Other than in much of the city, damage to the building during WW II was minor. After German unification the preserved architectural structure was thoroughly renovated; as a result the building now displays authentic and contemporary structures side by side. There is wide consensus that it was done in splendid taste, and that the result serves a model for future architects faced with similar challenges. St. Catherine’s Hall is the major hall and a venue for concerts and theater performances; this is where the event described here took place.

About IYL 2015

The International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies (IYL 2015) is a global initiative adopted by the United Nations (A/RES/68/221) to raise awareness of how optical technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to worldwide challenges in energy, education, agriculture, communications and health.  With UNESCO as lead agency, IYL 2015 programs will promote improved public and political understanding of the central role of light in the modern world while also celebrating noteworthy anniversaries in 2015—from the first studies of optics 1,000 years ago to discoveries in optical communications that power the Internet today.  The IYL Global Secretariat is located at the Abdus Salam International Centre of Theoretical Physics (ICTP).

The Founding Partners of IYL 2015 are the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the American Physical Society (APS), the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (DPG), the European Physical Society (EPS), the Abdus Salam International Centre of Theoretical Physics (ICTP), the IEEE Photonics Society (IPS), the Institute of Physics (IOP), Light: Science and Applications, the International Network, 1001 Inventions, The Optical Society (OSA) and the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE). 

Patron Sponsors include Bosca, the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD), Royal Philips Lighting, Thorlabs and UL.


Fedor Mitschke
Institut für Physik
Universität Rostock

John Dudley
Steering Committee Chair
International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015

Joe Niemela
Global Coordinator (IYL Secretariat)
International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015