Ivan Wyschnegradsky

Ivan Wyschnegradsky (Born on May, 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia — Died on September 29, 1979 in Paris, France) was a Russian composer known for his microtonal (or ultrachromatic, as he called it) music. He left Russia in the 1920s in search of a quarter-tonal piano, and ended up settling in Paris for the rest of his life.


Wyschnegradsky was born and raised in St. Petersburg. He studied harmony, composition, and orchestration under Nikolai Sokolov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. The most influential figure in his life was Alexander Scriabin, who he considered his spiritual master. [1] Like Scriabin, he also took inspiration from Nietzsche, Wagner, Vedantic ideas, Theosophy, and the Symbolist artistic movement. Wyschnegradsky’s early compositions were debuted in 1914 and earned the interest of Russian avant-garde circles.

In 1916, Wyschnegradsky had and profound spiritual experience which inspired him to pursue the goal of “Creating a work capable of awakening in every man the slumbering forces of cosmic consciousness.” This inspiration came only a year and a half after the death of Alexander Scriabin. Scriabin had died while in a state of intense preoccupation with the completion of the Mysterium, his planned all-encompassing apocalyptic synesthetic work of art that was intended to enlighten all of mankind and bring about the destruction of this world and its replacement with a new one. Scriabin fell short of his goal, but he left behind some disciples and sketches for the first phase of the Mysterium, titled the Prefatory Act.

Wyschnegradsky composed this work in 1916 and 1917 and called it La Journée de l’Existence. It was a symphonic work with a poem for a narrator, which shows a clear influence from Scriabin. It was not performed until 1978.

Wyschnegradsky was enthused for the Communist revolution of 1917 and wrote a number of revolutionary songs.

Wyschnegradsky decided that transcendence in music requires using increasingly small intervals to approach unlimited density. He set about theorizing musical systems that would use quarter-tones, third-tones, sixth-tones, and twelfth-tones: “ultrachromaticism”. To achieve this, in 1918 he took two pianos and had one tuned a quarter-tone above the other. The experimented with this new mode of music and began composing quarter-tonal works.

Wyschnegradsky was not satisfied with this piano arrangement and spent around nine years in Europe seeking to have a suitable piano built. He left for Europe in 1920 and settled in Paris in 1923. He married Hélène Benois, the daughter of Alexandre Benois. They had one son and then divorced.

Wyschnegradsky met the Czech composer Alois Hába, who was also interested in ultrachromaticism. They became close friends. Wyschnegradsky gave a concert using his two-piano quart-tonal system in Paris in 1926. He finally received a quarter-tonal piano in 1929, which was built by the Czech company Förster. He now completely devoted himself to his creative and theoretical work.

Wyschnegradsky wrote articles for reviews and produced quarter-tonal works not only for the piano, but also for string quartets, voice, and chorus. Although he now had a quarter-tonal piano, no professional pianists were interested in learning to play one. He had to continue to produce music for two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart, in order for others to play it.

In 1937, a Festival of Quarter-tone Music was held in Paris at the Salle Chopin-Pleyel, and led by Wyschnegradsky. The concert featured his Ainsi parlait Zarathustra (“Thus Spoke Zarathustra”), a four-piano symphony. The concert was well-received, and earned the praise of Charles Koechlin and Olivier Messiaen, among others.

World War 2 interrupted Wyschnegradsky’s career. He was arrested in 1942 and was compelled by circumstances to stop producing music. His second wife, an American named Lucile, was also arrested. In 1945, Wyschnegradsky held another concert at Salle-Shopin-Pleyel. He then fell severely ill with tuberculosis and did not recover for three years. He used this time to rethink his ideas and work on his book La Loi de la Pansonorite.

Wyschnegradsky met Julian Carrillo, a Mexican composer who had fifteen pianos in micro-tones down to a sixteenth. Wyschnegradsky wrote some works for these pianos. Nevertheless, he had become obscure. He was friends with avant-garde figures such as Olivier Messiaen and Claude Ballif, who paid him visits.

In 1972, Claude Ballif arranged for La Revue Musicale to publish a special issue on Nikolai Obukhov and Wyschnegradsky. A Canadian pianist, Bruce Mather, began to play, conduct, and record Wyschnegradsky’s music. In 1978, Wyschnegradsky’s works were performed in Paris, including the first performance of his La Journée de l’Existence.

Wyschnegradsky’s last work, String Trio, Op. 53, was unfinished when he died in 1979. It was completed by Claude Ballif. He is remembered as a great pioneer of microtonal or ultrachromatic music.


[1] http://www.ivan-wyschnegradsky.fr/en/biography/




Article written by me for Lunyr