= The Goethe Triangle – Nigel Morgan

The Goethe Triangle

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About the Piece

From about 1790 to about 1810 the poet Wolfgang Goethe worked on the science of light and colour. The resulting Theory of Colour (1810) consisted of three sections: a ‘didactic’ section on the experimental science, a ‘polemic’ section intended to dethrone Newtonian orthodoxy, and , most interestingly, a ‘historical’ section on theories of colour since the pre-Socratics.

Although, even in his lifetime, Goethe’s physics was regarded as naïve, his work did capture a sense of an unending scientific process – a world containing God and contained by God, in which force is present in action and reaction – and to the endlessly controversial and changing nature of the scientific discourse with which they engage. (John Waley Goethe: Selected Poems 1998).

Should your glance on mornings lovely

Lift to drink the heaven’s blue

Or when sun, veiled by sirocco,

Royal red sinks out of view –

Give to Nature praise and honour.

Blithe of heart and sound of eye,

Knowing for the world of colour

Where its broad foundations lie.

from Serene.

Goethe’s original proposal was “to marvel at color’s occurrences and meanings, to admire and, if possible, to uncover color’s secrets To Goethe it was most important to understand human reaction to colour, and his research marks the beginning of modern color psychology. He believed that his triangle was a diagram
of the human mind and he linked each color with certain emotions. For example, Goethe associated blue with understanding and believed it evoked a quiet mood, while he believed that red evoked a festive mood and was suggestive of imagination.
He choose the primaries red, yellow and blue based on their emotional content, as well as on physical grounds, and he grouped the different subsections of the triangle by ‘elements’ of emotion as well as by mixing level. This emotional aspect of the arrangement of the triangle reflects Goethe’s concern that the emotional content of each color be taken into account by artists.


Using Goethe’s triangle or pyramid as a starting point the American artist and educator Josef Albers developed an experimental way of studying and teaching colour . His book Interaction of Color (Yale University Press 1974) puts practice before theory and aims to help the artist develop a sensitivity for colour leading to an awareness of the interdependence of colour with form and shape. To achieve this Albers assembles a collection of exercises which require little but coloured paper and a pair of scissors.

What Albers is doing is helping the student artist learn for him or herself about the affect of colour, its sensation; what the eye sees when particular colours and shapes come together. Such experience can then form the basis of a personal vocabulary or practice that the artist can use within their own artistic vision.

Albers teased out from Goethe’s triangle a series of colour relationships that had particular expressive characteristics; he gave these names: Lucid, Serious, Mighty, Serene, Melancholic. It is these names that have provided the titles for The Goethe Triangle. They describe particular groupings of colour that seem to contain the essence of particular emotional or psychological states. They provide a rich starting point for a musical invention linked to aspects of both colour and communication. (Nigel Morgan. Introduction to Conversations in Colour BBC Wales 2001).

The remote three ensembles in the premiere of Conversations in Colour.

About the Music

The Goethe Triangle is a five movement work for solo piano lasting about 12 minutes. It has been realised from the composer’s inter-performance Conversations in Colour commissioned by BBC Wales for a major
digital arts event devised by BBC Wales called Platfform 2001. The original composition was a triangular exchange of sounds, visuals and music devised by Nigel Morgan and digital artist Jo Hyde. It was produced by Andrew Burke and Jeremy Garside of RESOUND, the education and community department of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

It was first performed during a day-long experimental webcast in April 2001 and subsequently at the ILIOS Festival, Norway in 2002. The score sets words by Josef Albers, Bridget Riley, Lucretius and Margaret Morgan and involves the forces of a chamber choir, a percussion ensemble, and an instrumental quintet led by members of a continuo trio of MIDI instruments along with electroacoustic music and interactive sound and visual processing.

from Lucid.

This piano realisation of Conversations in Colour has been made to coincide with the revision and publication of the musical strands of the original work: to make the musical elements of the work – devised almost entirely through interaction with the computer language LISP – more widely available. The music focuses on the notion of harmony (the sounding together of two or more pitches) as musical colour, specifically the interaction of one chord with another, and this, in very much the same spirit as Albers’ own experiments. Proximity via duration, intensity of dynamics, the play of register, the use of inversion and transposition are all explored. Each movement’s music is derived in the first instance from a computer investigation of the letters of each title. Thus, Lucid has a predominantly pentatonic harmony extended through inversion and transposition.

from Mighty.

A Guide to Performance

Tempo, dynamics and articulation indicated should be considered as a guide, no more. There are a number of opportunities for the use of the third pedal when available. The use of amplification and signal processing of the piano where possible would be very much in the spirit of this work, particularly in the movements LucidMighty and Serene.


Full score [pdf]

Reference Recording [mp3]

To find out more about Conversations in Colour, click here.