A Tribute to Scriabin
I am God!
I am nothing, I am play, I am freedom, I am life.
I am the boundary, I am the peak.
From Scriabin’s notebook, 1905
Almost a century after his death in 1915 at the age of 43, Scriabin remains one of the most controversial figures in music history. He still inspires passionate debates and polarizes opinion. Hardly anyone remains indifferent – one either likes his music or does not.
Scriabin’s music evokes a sense of elation, upsurge and weightlessness, as if the law of gravity has been reversed. The man resembled his music. As described by Boris Pasternak: “He had a habit of walking and then continuing to glide without walking like a stone thrown over the water and gliding over it….It seems that he would simply leave the ground and float above it”.
Indeed, Scriabin was an odd figure who did not quite fit or match any convention. Stravinsky called him “a man without citizenship”, meaning that he did not belong to any particular musical or cultural tradition. Scriabin’s music is not specifically Russian, and it does not quite fit in any other tradition either – a rather unique case in music history. Except for the obvious influence of Chopin in his early works for piano and of Wagner in his symphonic scores, Scriabin found his own idiom, his own harmonic language, his own style and principles of musical construction, and created a system like no other. This system was closed and complete within itself and did not allow further development. His music influenced many but it produced no real followers, only epigones. The music of Webern presents a somewhat similar case – his system can’t be developed, only copied.
Scriabin was a curious and well-read man, mostly self-educated. His reading ranged widely: philosophy (mostly European), Russian symbolism, and a mixture of theosophy, occult teachings and mysticism that was in vogue in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. This peculiar and potentially explosive combination nurtured and defined Scriabin’s ideas and helped to articulate his Teaching, his Uchenie, as he called it. But if his music does not belong to any national musical tradition, his character was truly Russian. Everything had to be pushed to the limits, to extremes – no half measures, no compromises. The goal was nothing less than the complete renewal of humanity and establishment of Paradise on earth. Scriabin was not the first in Russia to elaborate such grand ideas or to cherish Messianic ambitions; Nikolai Fyodorov (or Fedorov), a futurist philosopher and visionary, whose ideas were certainly known to Scriabin, advocated the radical extension of life, physical immortality, cosmic travel and resurrection of the dead in his “Common Task” and produced a detailed manual for the implementation of these ideas.
Scriabin saw music as the means of Redemption and himself as the medium through whom the world and humanity as a whole were meant to be renewed. His messianic ambitions and megalomaniac plans influenced and motivated his work as a composer. Scriabin was experimenting with “hidden energies”, which were meant to be discovered, summoned to life, tamed and through his music released into the wide world in order to transform it. He sincerely believed that his creative synthesis of all the arts could bring into existence a new age of human history. No matter how naïve (and dangerous) such ideas might be, his music actually is capable of inducing altered states of consciousness and borderline experiences. For some people his music could (and did) become an addiction, not unlike an addiction to drugs. One should be mature and clearheaded in order to approach and connect to Scriabin without getting “poisoned”. A warning may not be out of place.
Scriabin’s late works could be seen as alchemical experiments. Like a true alchemist, he was very much aware of the explosiveness of his material, of the danger of being imprecise, of miscalculating. His experiments went well beyond purely musical matters; his most ambitious project, Mysterium (unfinished), included an elaborate system of sound-colors, rituals, theatrical actions, dance and invocations. He considered Mysterium to be the work of his life, his real calling, and he dedicated most of his later years to this project.
In his later works, the so-called “mystical” or “super” chord became a crucial building block, a center of gravity that replaced tonality as such. The writing becomes more concise and precise, the discipline more rigorous. These works are closed within themselves; it is an interior system that no natural light can penetrate. The late works for piano do not move toward the light at the end of the tunnel, but rather discover the source that consumes the light. In purely musical terms Scriabin’s harmonic experiments were at the very edge of the transformation of musical language, alongside Schönberg, and he could arguably be credited with composing the first atonal music. Liszt paved the way towards atonality in some of his late piano works, but it was Scriabin who consciously deconstructed the basic principles of tonality that had been the foundation of European music for centuries.
In spite of his harmonic innovations and the increasing complexity of his musical language, the basic principles of Scriabin’s composition did not change much over time, especially in his shorter piano pieces. He found a suitable working model early; a theme (a formula) is presented and immediately transposed into another key, a bridge follows, which may contain fresh material or not, and the initial theme inevitably returns. Scriabin’s main tools are harmonic transposition and modification, and there is little “development” as such. His musical language evolved over the years, but the mode of writing mostly remained unchanged.
Scriabin was at his best in his works for piano, the finest of which are small scale works: preludes, mazurkas, morceaux, poems, dances, etudes. Actually, most of his compositions are short; his longest work for piano, Sonata No. 8, lasts only seventeen minutes. Many pieces are not much more than one minute, some even less.
This recording was conceived as a portrait of the artist through the mosaic of his works, proceeding in chronological order – from the age of innocence to the age of experience.
The twelve Preludes belong to several opuses from Scriabin’s early period and the beginning of his middle period. They were written between 1889 and 1903 and published by M. Beliaeff, an influential figure on the Russian and European musical scenes and the most important champion of Scriabin’s music.
Sonata No. 4 Op. 30, Two Poems Op. 32, two Etudes from Op. 42, and Valse Op. 38 were written in 1903, a very fruitful year for Scriabin.
The 4th sonata is the shortest of Scriabin’s sonatas and perhaps the most perfect. His craft is flawless here. There are two contrasting movements – a dreamy introduction and a swift and fleeting second movement, which takes off and rushes ahead and up, creating tremendous energy and elation, and then resolves itself in an ecstatic climax. This sonata is based on one theme that penetrates the entire work, making it truly monothematic.
Two Poems Op. 32 have been played and recorded by many. Scriabin himself often played these works. The first Poem is sensual and fluid, written in the beloved by Scriabin key of F sharp major. (Scriabin was attracted to the keys with many additional signs: five or six sharps or flats were routine for him.) The second Poem is a tumultuous affair that starts with a call to arms and unexpectedly ends up quietly, as if depleted of its initial energy.
The two Etudes (Nos. 4 and 5) from Op. 42 explore musical landscapes similar to those of the 4th sonata and Two Poems. Etude No. 4 (in F sharp major again) is written in a simple A-B-A-B form. The mood is benign and peaceful; you are in a good place and there is no need to rush or to get anywhere. Etude No. 5 tells a different story. It is restless, turbulent and dark. There is no happy ending.
The Valse Op. 38 is one of the most popular and frequently performed of Scriabin’s works, and rightfully so. It is stylish, elegant, sensual and sophisticated. It is clearly a salon piece, with all the requisite opportunities for showing off with panache the technical ability of the performer and pleasing the general public. In spite of this, there is nothing cheap or superficial about this Valse. A marvelous work indeed.
Reverie Op. 49 was written in 1905. This “dream” is meticulously calculated; it follows a strict harmonic sequence without deviation and at the end resolves into C major.
Fragilité, Poême aile, Danse languide from Op. 51 (Morceaux) were written in 1906. In these works Scriabin presents similar harmonic patterns in different textures. He is steadily moving towards new harmonic organization, but tonality still holds. The sensuality of his music becomes frankly erotic.
The Morceaux Op. 57 were written in 1908. Desir is the first of Scriabin’s works that does not end in the tonic, but simply extends itself in an unresolved chord. Caresse dansée, as its title suggests, is a seductive dance. It ends in C major. We are out of tonality in the first piece, back in the second.
Etrangeté Op. 63, written in 1912, clearly belongs to the late period. Scriabin is firmly established in his harmonic system and in full command. There is something beautifully alien about this piece, something truly otherworldly. Scriabin creates his own space, unsettling and mesmerizing at the same time.
2 Danses Op. 73, 5 Preludes Op. 74 and Vers la flamme were composed in 1914. In this fateful year the First World War broke out and the general mood in Europe and Russia was not optimistic. Scriabin was in the last full year of his life and his experiments were becoming more and more extreme. His fascination with the dark side is apparent in the Danses Op. 73 and Preludes Op. 74. There has been nothing like this before: Scriabin was the first composer to introduce horror and despair in his music. Such works as the Flammes sombres and Preludes Op. 74 evoke a frightening and desolate landscape, a black hole from which no light or life can escape. Vers la flamme is one of the most radical and unrelenting works in music history, a real masterpiece. It is a ritual enacted in real time, a ritual of self-sacrifice to the all-consuming fire from which everything originates and to which everything returns.
The last piece on this recording brings us back to Scriabin’s youth, to the age of innocence. The Valse in D flat major was written in 1886 by a shy 13-year-old Sashenka (the affectionate diminutive of Alexander) Scriabin. It is simple, naïve and gentle. All is well; there are no clouds on the horizon, just a light breeze. This shimmering sunny day will never end. Sashenka Scriabin closes his eyes and smiles.