Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979) was born in Saint-Petersburg and had a father
who was banker, and his mother was poet. His grandfather was a well-known
mathematician. Not before his seventeenth year, did he decide to devote himself
to music. He took lessons in harmony, composition and instrumentation with
Nicolas Sokolov at the conservatory of Saint-Petersburg from 1911 to 1915. Then
he studied law but stopped in 1917. He came into contact with the circle of
Scriabin. His first works were composed in the years 1916-1917 and they were in
the normal chromatic system. Soon he came to the conclusion that the semitone
system uses the possible musical tonespace in only a very limited way, and that
a more detailed filling-in of this tone space was a primary musical
need for him. Because he considered using the frequency domain in a fully
continuous way unachievable, he chose the practical compromise of the
quarter-tone system; which is compatible with the traditional system and at the
same time more refined. His first works in the quarter-tone system, Quatre
fragments opus 5 and L'Évangile rouge opus 8, are still rewritings
of works originally written in the twelve-tone system. In 1919 he created a
1/12-tone notation. In 1920 he emigrates with his family to France. In 1921 he
commissions a quarter-tone harmonium of the Möllendorf type from Straube. In
1922 and 1923 he travels to Germany several times and meets Richard Stein,
Alois Hába, Jörg Mager and Willi Möllendorf.
Together with Hába he found the firm Grotrian-Steinweg in Berlin prepared to
work on the development of a quarter-tone piano. In 1923 Wyschnegradsky had
to return to France, while the initiative of Grotrian-Steinweg came to nothing.
Finally in 1928 the Förster company would build a quarter-tone piano in
cooperation with Hába. It had three manuals: the bottom and top ones had a
normal tuning, the middle one was a quarter-tone shifted.
A specimen of this instrument came into the posession of Wyschnegradsky
which arrived in Paris in 1929. Despite the availability of the quarter-tone
piano he kept writing his compositions in the quarter-tone system for
performance on two piano's, a choice presumably dictated by the wider range
of possibilities for performing that result from this choice.
When professor Fokker read an article that interested him, he made notes in the margin and wrote the author a letter full of critical remarks and questions. Also with Wyschnegradsky he had a lively correspondence, which has largely survived and is kept in the archives of the Foundation. The Étude Ultrachromatique was written by Wyschnegradsky in January 1959. On 15 March 1959 he writes to prof. Fokker that the etude has been sent and that it belongs with an earlier 'essai' to his two pieces for 31-tone organ:
This etude is realised according to the general principles of cyclic and expressive harmony, although the work itself is, as you will see, all things considered, not written in an "expressive style". [...] The basic interval is 28 dieses large, the major seventh "douce" (in contrast with the major seventh "forte" of 29 dieses). I use the equal division (two times 14 dieses) and the unequal division (13 + 15 dieses). This latter division has as interesting feature that it allows me to "modulate" progressively, which is to say for the lateral movement. (the term modulation differs some from the one of traditional harmony). [...] In this etude there is bitonality, the left hand plays in another position (key) than the right hand. The bass part is added freely.
Franck Jedrzejewski (ed): La loi de la pansonorité offers an overview of Wyschnegradsky's theories and philosophy. The introduction was written by Pascale Criton. Éditions Contrechamps, Genčve, 1996, 331 pages. See Ivan Wyschnegradsky.