“I feel the air from another planet,” announced a woman bathed in light.

Vasily Kandinsky, seated before her in the shadows, was thrilled by this whiff of alien atmosphere. Indeed, he seemed to have been transported to another world. 

It was the first day of a new year, 1911, and Kandinsky was attending a concert of music by infamous composer Arnold Schoenberg with several other artists, among them a painter he’d just met a day or two before, Franz Marc. It was a night that would change Kandinsky’s life. 

Kandinsky believed that music could reveal the route to a new art, an art that shed the material appearances of things in favor of a mysterious inner reality. “The various arts are drawing together. They are finding in Music the best teacher,” he wrote in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912). “A painter … in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art.” 

Over the next decade or so, Kandinsky would collaborate with Modernist composers and would draw inspiration from their wildest and boldest experiments. From the deep friendship that he would strike up with Arnold Schoenberg to his attempt at a total work of the theater with Thomas de Hartmann, to his fascination with the bizarre, messianic multimedia projects of Russian composers who sought to end the world, save the soul of humanity, and free the Tsar from death — all of these fed into Kandinsky’s extraordinary quest for abstract form and spiritual revelation. 

Given the interest generated by Around the Circle, the current Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim, it seems like a good moment to wander through a sonic gallery of his influences, exploring the ways in which he understood his work to be aligned with the musical avant-garde — these wild eccentrics and revolutionaries who sought, like Kandinsky, to transform the world. 

Air From Another Planet

Shortly after that concert of Schoenberg’s music at the beginning of January 1911, Kandinsky painted his emotional record of the event: “Impression III (Concert). 

Vestiges of representation remain in the painting: an audience strains forward, rapt, toward the dark, monolithic mass of a piano. Light blares over all of them. 

It is a study suspended halfway between depiction and abstraction. From 1908 on, Kandinsky had been moving steadily toward the dissolution of form, the abandonment of recognizable spaces and material objects in favor of the revelation of an inner reality. He and his new friend Franz Marc, who also attended the Schoenberg concert, would soon break with several of their colleagues over the question of abstraction — and just a few months later, they would together form the groundbreaking Blue Rider group.

A couple of weeks after the revelations of that January concert, Kandinsky wrote an enthusiastic fan letter to Schoenberg introducing himself and pointing out several philosophical similarities between them. This would spark a close friendship as they enthused about the synesthetic crossover between music and visual art. They would explore the boundaries of representation together. Schoenberg would share his own painting with Kandinsky, and would show his paintings in the Blue Rider’s first exhibition, in the winter of 1911. Kandinsky would translate Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony into Russian. Schoenberg would describe his music in terms of painting; Kandinsky would describe his painting in terms of music.

So what was it in the music of Schoenberg that night that spoke so directly to Kandinsky? 

The two Schoenberg works included in the concert — the Second String Quartet (with soprano), Op. 10 and the “Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 — straddle exactly the same line between representation and abstraction as Kandinsky’s painting of the concert. As it happens, Schoenberg was at precisely the same crisis point in his artistic development. 

A few weeks after the concert, Marc wrote to a friend: “Can you imagine a music in which tonality (that is, the adherence to any key) is completely suspended? I was constantly reminded of Kandinsky’s large Composition, which also permits no trace of tonality and also of Kandinsky’s ‘jumping spots’ in hearing this music….”

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The second of Schoenberg’s “Three Pieces” is a perfect analogue, in many ways, to Kandinsky’s painting of its performance. Though the composition’s harmonies and melodies are unconventional, it still retains a familiar sense of the layout of space. There is an obvious background (the steady, almost menacing, oscillating tread of the two notes in the left hand, which keeps creeping back in); and there is a very clear foreground (a recognizable melody that floats over that background). It resembles a song and its accompaniment. But it is patently not the music of the 19th century: The harmonic clashes are as intense as the color dissonances in Kandinsky’s work. Kandinsky would demand the right to produce new combinations of color, just as Schoenberg, famously, would insist that there were no dissonances — just more distant and remote consonances. 

So, this piece, like Kandinsky’s “Impression III,” still offers vestiges of old form — but promises a new treatment of color. 

The third of Schoenberg’s “Three Pieces,” however, moves definitively away from the familiar, and this may have been what beckoned Kandinsky onward.

The piece immediately hurls itself off a cliff and tumbles forward without a clear shape — in fact, there is no melody, just a constant flow and free fall of ideas: no foreground; no background. It’s more like, say, Kandinsky’s “Bright Picture” or “Black Lines” (both 1913): though there are no solid, referential forms, there are regions, passing moods, characteristic gestures. 

Vasily Kandinsky, “Black Lines (Schwarze Linien)” (December 1913), oil on canvas, 51 3/8 x 51 5/8 inches (130.5 x 131.1 cm) (image courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.241)

Kandinsky’s painting tosses us into a vertiginous scramble of color and line without map or instructions. There are repeated triangular scratches that might almost be called mountains, but the dislocation between the black outlines and the chromatic bursts beneath them flattens the forms and denies them space and distance. Both painting and piano piece are, at first glance, a chaotic welter of passion and emotion. They break with traditional ideas of order, but create their own, seemingly spontaneous, new organization.

Schoenberg and Kandinsky discovered over the next few years, as they corresponded and even vacationed together, that they shared a spiritual cosmology. They both believed that the purpose of art was to reveal a highly mystical inner truth. 

Schoenberg, as the supposed pioneer of “atonality” (a term he hated), has an informal reputation of being the master of music that is cold, calculating, dogmatic, even anti-human. (The first time the Second String Quartet was performed, the morning paper ran their review in the “Crime” section; the evening paper suggested the composer should “be brought to trial by the Department of Health.”) These accusations of emotional distance are ironic: Schoenberg undertook his experiments because he felt he couldn’t express the full measure of human passion within known bounds. Otherwise he considered himself a traditionalist. “My music is not modern,” he once explained. “It is merely badly played.” There is nothing cold about Schoenberg, despite his reputation. Like Kandinsky, he was engaged in a passionate spiritual quest. 

In fact, Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet — the other piece Kandinsky heard at that 1911 concert — ends with a mystical vision of the soprano subsumed into the Godhead: “I am only a spark of the Holy Fire; I am only a whisper of the Holy Voice.” This was what Kandinsky and Schoenberg both strove for as they sought new ways to speak directly to the soul of an audience. 

Music for the End of the World

One of the routes to spiritual revolution that Kandinsky and Schoenberg simultaneously explored were stage works that would combine all the arts into one symphonic experience: not an opera or a ballet, where a clear story controlled the action onstage, but an abstract sequence of colors, music, gestures, dance, and song that together “harmonized” to produce something irrational and yet sublime. 

Kandinsky was particularly taken with the multimedia explorations of Russian composer and would-be Messiah Alexander Scriabin — in particular, his spiritual orgasm for piano, orchestra, and “color-organ,” “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire” (1911). Scriabin, born on Christmas Day in 1871, had gradually convinced himself he was a holy avatar destined to lead humankind to final enlightenment via multimedia performance. The score of “Prometheus” includes a part for a color projectionist who was supposed to create synesthetic color “chords” to accompany the titanic struggle and victory of the music. Kandinsky admiringly remarked, “In ‘Prometheus’ [Scriabin] has given us convincing proof of his theories.” 

In fact, there is no way Kandinsky could have practically experienced the synesthetic pleasures of “Prometheus”: It premiered in Moscow without the “color-organ,” and in any case, it was somewhat unclear exactly what Scriabin’s color/music system was meant to consist of. Nonetheless, people have taken a stab at recreating Scriabin’s intentions. 

Vasily Kandinsky, “Improvisation 28 (Second Version) (Improvisation 28 [zweite Faßung])” (1912), oil on canvas, 44 5/16 × 64 inches (112.6 × 162.5 cm) (image courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.239)

Scriabin planned a larger multimedia event called “Mysterium” — a vast symphony to be performed in the Himalayas that would include music, dance, gesture, processions, colored lights cast onto the clouds, and rare perfumes — a spectacle that would end the world while the people of Earth would ascend to a higher sphere. He died before he could complete the work (perhaps fortunately). 

While Scriabin’s supernatural pretensions might seem ludicrous, these ideas of literal transmogrification through art were widespread at the time: A few years later, Natalia Goncharova, Kandinsky’s Cubist-Rayonist colleague in the Blue Rider group, was asked by Russian composer Nikolai Obukhov to provide a design for a sacred temple. Obukhov was an early experimentalist in electronic and 12-tone music. He was also a Christian mystic in the midst of a Marxist-materialist Revolution. His electronic instrument, the Croix Sonore, was built in the shape of a cross. He wrote his experimental vocal cycle “The Book of Life” — its measure numbers scribbled in his own blood — with the intention that once it was performed in Goncharova’s Rayonist temple, it would not only connect humanity with the Divine, but would also return Tsar Nicholas II to power, though the late tsar and his family had recently been murdered by Bolshevik thugs in a basement. 

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These are not merely eccentric outliers: Though the work of Kandinsky and the Russian creators who surrounded him in the teens and early twenties (Malevich, many of the Constructivists) may seem increasingly angular, geometric, mechanistic, even coldly Futurist, their work is often informed by a deeply irrational, passionate mysticism. 

In his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, for example, Kandinsky prophesies that science will soon recognize Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy, and the Spiritualists. This will lead, he declares, to the imminent salvation of the human race, the rejection of materialism, and the embrace of the soul’s true demands. He ends the first section of his treatise in terms as rapturous as Scriabin’s “Prometheus”: “Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will someday reach to heaven.” 

Kandinsky and Schoenberg were both, in fact, concocting multimedia projects designed to mysteriously “vibrate” with the audience’s souls in cross-disciplinary chords. Schoenberg’s stage work Die glückliche Hand (The Happy Hand), written after a terrible ordeal of betrayal and suicide in the Schoenberg family, opens with the protagonist lying prone on the stage while a bat-winged hyena gnaws at his neck. Things go downhill from there. Kandinsky’s Die gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound) is considerably less narrative, involving colors, shapes, five yellow giants, and some indistinct red flying creatures with human heads. 

Vasily Kandinsky, “Sancta Francisca” (1911), reverse oil painting on glass, 6 1/8 x 4 5/8 inches (photo taken 07/2018 by Allison Chipak; image courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 53.1361, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. All Rights Reserved.)

Schoenberg praised Kandinsky’s total work of art for being less symbolically rational than his own: “Der gelbe Klang pleases me extraordinarily. It is exactly the same as what I have striven for in my Glückliche Hand, only you go still further than I in the renunciation of any conscious thought, any conventional plot. That is naturally a great advantage […] It is important that our creation of such puzzles mirrors the puzzles with which we are surrounded […]”

The music for Kandinsky’s extravaganza was provided by a friend of his youth, Russo-Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann. What survives of it (reconstructed from sketches by Gunther Schuller) sounds almost liturgical, quasi-medieval, though often clotted with modern harmonies. 

Given the incomplete state of the original score, de Hartmann is now better known for another collaboration intended to bring about the transformation of devotees: In 1916, he became a disciple of mystic George Gurdjieff and wrote piano suites to accompany movement at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Paris. If these pieces, which are radically simple and stripped-down, based on different sacred and folk musics, resemble any work of Kandinsky’s, they perhaps echo the knowing primitivism of his lubok etchings

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The Ministry of Enlightenment

Unfortunately, Kandinsky’s Der gelbe Klang was not performed in his lifetime. Dadaist Hugo Ball was about to organize a performance in Munich in 1914 when World War I broke out, and the plan was nixed. Kandinsky had to return to his native Russia; he wouldn’t have any contact with Schoenberg for the next eight years as war and revolution tore apart and transformed Russia. 

During the late teens, as the Bolshevik grip on Russia tightened, the new Communist government employed Kandinsky in various efforts to bring modern art to the masses — notably, as a consultant to Narkompros, the People’s Ministry for Enlightenment. The Party was still drunk on the possibilities and promises of Futurism, and so, for a time, abstraction was seen as a route to rid the country of a bourgeois-feudalist past. It was at the Ministry for Enlightenment that Kandinsky encountered many of the great innovators in geometrical abstraction — but also the composer of our final piece in this gallery, a crypto-Catholic, ex-Jewish aesthete of the arcane, Arthur Vincent Lourié. 

The geometrical figure Lourié is best known for is the love triangle — he was infamously involved in a long-running scandal with Symbolist poet Anna Akhmatova. A famous bon vivant, Lourié was somehow appointed head of the music department of the Ministry for Enlightenment in the midst of the widespread famine and destruction of the Russian Civil War. He was a terrible choice for the position. He spent the department’s money on printing lavish, oversized editions of his own experimental works. Meanwhile, the departmental horses starved to death. (At around the same time, Kandinsky’s infant son died of malnutrition.) 

Vasily Kandinsky, “Blue Circle, Blauer Kreis” (1922), oil on canvas, 43 x 39 inches (photo taken 09/08/2020 after treatment by Allison Chipak; image courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 46.1051, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. All Rights Reserved.)

Eventually, Lourié realized that the new Bolshevik government might not be the best fit for a crypto-Catholic aesthete wearing monocle and cape; he declared he was off to a conference on quarter-tone music in Berlin and never came back. He later became a close associate of Igor Stravinsky in Paris, fled to the United States during World War II, married a White Russian princess who was working as a sales associate at Bonwit Teller, and, having enjoyed in youth the lavish artistic life of Tsarist St. Petersburg, died unknown and unappreciated in the suburbs of New Jersey. 

Although Lourié’s jagged, crystalline little set of experimental pieces from 1915, “Forms in Air,” was dedicated to Pablo Picasso, it is actually one of the best musical analogues to the compositions Kandinsky painted after he had abandoned representation completely. 

The Lourié suite is exactly what its title says: a set of forms in air, floating in the white space of silence. They are not really melodies; they are shapes, jagged shards, soft little dustings, random swoops, a collection of micro-events. The bizarre score itself looks Kandinskian: isolated musical staves drift across the page; the typical two staves of piano music drop down and multiply, sometimes to as many as five, less linear than adjacent. Like Kandinsky’s shapes, these odd fragments occasionally repeat, sometimes in a series, slightly varied or rotated. Some of them are literally symmetrical. Some are gentler in color, others harsher, sharper. Like Kandinsky’s compositions, Lourié’s “Forms in Air” are cryptic and yet vibrate with a sense of something desperately conveyed — gestures demanding attention. 

To see Kandinsky’s art in the light of this music restores connections that the artist himself took for granted as he sought new routes in his explorations of abstraction. Recognizing these mutual influences does not diminish Kandinsky’s originality — it simply contextualizes his work. It repopulates the loosely interconnected circles of creators who urged each other forward into this new century, the epoch of modernity. 

National Book Award-winner M. T. Anderson is the author of Symphony for the City of the Dead: Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad and Landscape with Invisible Hand , soon to be a movie starring Tiffany...