Alexander Scriabin (1871 - 1915)
Alexander Scriabin considered himself to be a messianic figure, and he was actually half justified—he really was born on Christmas Day 1871, but several Russian biographers, in an overzealous attempt to enhance this messianic reputation, erroneously attribute the date of his death to Easter Sunday, April 14, 1915, when in actuality, Easter Sunday came early that year, on March 29. He died amidst the immense conflagration that was gripping all of Europe at the time—the “Great” War, which he thought would purge mankind and usher in a glorious new era of mystical wonder. Inspired by Wagner’s ideas concerning Gesamntkunstwerk, he even planned on composing a mammoth piece, the Mysterium, to commemorate this cataclysmic event. “The performance of this piece was to take place in a half-temple to be built in India. Bells suspended from clouds would summon the spectators from all over the world. A reflecting pool of water would complete the divinity of the half-circle stage. Spectators would sit in tiers across the water. Scriabin would be seated at the piano, surrounded by hosts of instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. Costumed speakers reciting text in processions and parades would form part of the action along with the dancers, whose choreography would include eye motions and touches of the hands in conjunction with odors of both pleasant perfume and acrid smoke. Pillars of incense would form part of the scenery. A light show, bathing the cast and audience in changing effects would also be included.” Unfortunately he died before completing this work, only a fraction of this revolutionary piece, the Prefatory Action was sketched out (it was completed by Alexander Nemtin).
Scriabin started out as a prodigy pianist, studying as a boy with the renowned Moscow pedagogue Nikolai Zverev, whose other star pupil was Sergei Rachmaninoff—interestingly, Scriabin started out as a pianist and ended up a composer, and to a large extent, Rachmaninoff started out as a composer and ended up a pianist. A hand injury, suffered supposedly while over-practicing the Don Juan Fantasie of Liszt, forced Scriabin to turn to composition—two of the most famous left hand pieces in the piano repertoire, the Nocturne and Prelude Op. 9 were of course, a direct result of this, and later, also the 1st Piano Sonata. Although he eventually returned to the concert-stage, his right hand never was quite the same, and may explain why in so many of his compositions the left hand is technically the equal (and often surpasses) the right hand. Cesar Cui, in a concert review of Scriabin from 1905 complained that Scriabin’s left hand actually overwhelmed the right.
Like his early idol Chopin, aside from the five orchestral works and a piano concerto, Scriabin wrote exclusively for the piano. The ten sonatas of Scriabin provide a marvelous harmonic timeline, and provide perhaps the best way to view his compositional evolution since they virtually encompass his entire compositional lifespan.
The 1st Sonata in F minor, Op. 6, with strong intimations of Liszt, Wagner and Chopin, was written in 1892. Thematically this piece is bound together by a rising F-G-Ab motive that is echoed in each of the four movements; although some writers have pointed to the Brahms F minor sonata, Op. 5 as an influence, I feel that an even more obvious model is Schumann’s Sonata, Op. 14, which is also in F minor, as Schumann utilizes a descending fifth motive in each movement of that work, and is a work that Scriabin was very likely to have been familiar with. The final movement, a self-indulgent Funeral March, is directly connected to the hand injury he suffered, which Scriabin describes in a notebook entry from 1891:
Twenty years old: the injury to my hand has developed. The most important event in my life. Fate sends me forth on my mission. The obstacle to the achievement of the goal so highly desired: fame, glory. An obstacle, in the words of the doctors, that is insurmountable. The first serious failure in my life. The first serious meditation: the beginning of analysis. Doubts about the impossibility of getting well, but the gloomiest state of mind. The first meditation on the value of life, on religion, on God. A continuing strong belief in Him (Jehovah rather than Christ, it seems). Ardent, heartfelt prayer, visits to the church…Cried out against fate, and against God. Composition of my first sonata with a funeral march.
The Presto 3rd movement features the F-G-Ab three-note motive hammered away in the bass, signifying in Scriabin’s words: “defiant cries, and supplications before God and fate.” This movement leads directly into the lugubrious Funeral March finale. Scriabin himself performed this work in its entirety only once in his lifetime. This is a significant point, as later on in his life, Scriabin was to perform his sonatas on numerous occasions, regardless of whether they were early, middle, or late period works; aside from the 6th sonata, which will be discussed later.
The 2nd Sonata, in a slow-fast two-movement construction, was completed five years later. Much lighter in texture and character than the 1st sonata, this is a graceful, gorgeously prismatic work based upon, “the influence of the sea…the first movement represents the quiet of the southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitations of the deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming after the first darkness of night. The second movement, presto, represents the vast expanse of ocean stormily agitated.” The triplet left hand figuration in mm 13-15 of the first movement seems to suggest the gentle undulations of lapping waves which later transform into the turbulent right hand triplets in the presto 2nd movement.
One can group the 3rd, 4th and 5th sonatas together because they share many qualities. All are in the key of F#. In the 3rd sonata, the struggle between F# major and minor (with ultimately the minor key prevailing) defines the work; while in the 4th and 5th sonatas the key of F# major lends a brightness and warmth to both pieces. All three sonatas have rather lengthy programmatic prose that Scriabin attached to each piece, and finally, the three sonatas also share a common compositional process which starts with the 3rd sonata.
Dubbed “Etats d’Ame”, or “Soul States”, the dramatic and ferocious 3rd Sonata in four movements is, according to the biographer, Sabaneeff “where the real Scriabin shows his face…clear, powerful and all his own.” The prose that Scriabin attached to describe the work, as you can see, goes through each movement:
I: The free, untamed Soul plunges passionately into an abyss of suffering and strife.
II: The Soul, weary of suffering, finds illusory and transient respite. It forgets itself in song, in flowers. But this vitiated and uneasy Soul invariably penetrates the false veil of fragrant harmonies and radiant rhythms.
III: The Soul floats on a tender and melancholy sea of feeling. Love, sorrow, secret desires, inexpressible thoughts are wraithlike charms.
IV: The elements unleash themselves. The Soul struggles within their vortex of fury. Suddenly, the voice of the Man-God rises up within the Soul’s depths. The song of victory resounds triumphantly. But it is weak, still…When all is within its grasp, it sinks back, broken, falling into a new abyss of nothingness.
Clearly Scriabin’s evoking of the “Man-God” is heavily influenced from Nietzche. It should be mentioned that Scriabin was influenced at this time by the writings of both Nietzche and Shopenhauer. As mentioned before, Scriabin in the 3rd, 4th and 5th sonatas employs a similar compositional technique. Here, in the 3rd Sonata the gorgeous, languid melody from the 3rd movement, which he describes as “the stars singing”—is brought back in the fourth movement at its climax, transmogrified into the triumphant hymn of the Man-God.
This process is even more pronounced in the 4th Sonata, a two-movement work (although the first leads directly into the second) where once again the opening motive, which Scriabin described as “the striving upward toward ideal creative power” is restated in the ecstatic coda, augmented with vehement repeated chords. Scriabin attached a fiery, passionate poem which describes the contemplation of a distant star, the journey towards it, and the eventual plunging headfirst into it. This is mirrored quite accurately in the music:
In a light mist, transparent vapor
Lost afar and yet distinct
A star gleams softly.
How beautiful! The bluish mystery
Of her glow
Beckons me, cradles me.
O Bring me to thee, far distant star!
Bathe me in trembling rays
Sharp desire, voluptuous and crazed yet sweet
Endlessly with no other goal than longing
I would desire.
But no! I vault in joyous leap
Freely I take wing
Mad dance, godlike play!
Intoxicating, shining one!
It is toward thee, adored star
My flight guides me
Toward thee, created freely for me
To serve the end
My flight of liberation!
In this play
In moments I forget thee
In the maelstrom that carries me
I veer from thy glimmering rays
In the insanity of desire
O distant goal
But ever thou shinest
As I forever desire thee!
Thou expandest, Star!
Now thou art a Sun
Flamboyant Sun! Sun of Triumph!
Approaching thee by my desire for thee
I lave myself in they changing waves
O joyous god
I swallow thee
Sea of light
I engulf Thee!
The 5th Sonata was composed in a feverish burst of creative activity immediately after the completion of his Symphonic Poem of Ecstasy. It echoes the orgiastic, prismatic, and highly perfumed sound-world Scriabin evoked in the Poem, and in fact, as an introduction to this sonata, Scriabin attached a portion from the text of the Poem of Ecstasy:
I summon you to life, secret yearnings!
You who have been drowned in the dark depths
Of the creative spirit, you timorous
Embryos of life, it is to you that I bring daring
Cast in a single movement mold, we find once again as in the 3rd and 4th Sonatas, the climax of the piece has the transmogrification of the languid theme re-cast with triumphant chordal accompaniment, here even more vehement than in either the 3rd or 4th sonatas. The similarity between the languid themes in all three sonatas is quite striking, most notably the spanning of a perfect fourth initially.
Harmonically the 3rd, 4th, and 5th sonatas show an almost seamless process, weakening the importance of the tonic chord as a tonal center as Scriabin relies more and more on the dominant ninth chord with a flattened 5th. Incomplete whole-tone scales are also becoming more and more frequently employed and the move away from traditional triadic harmony in favor of quartal harmony is well underway.
In discussing these final sonatas, a complete harmonic analysis is clearly beyond the scope of this summation, however one should attempt to briefly clarify several harmonic issues and show how these new developments are incorporated in his late works: the so-called “mystic chord” is actually one of many Scriabin used in which a whole-tone dominant chord is suspended over a tonic root. Scriabin uses this chord not only in the vertical sense, but in the horizontal sense as well. Although neither whole tone nor octatonic, the mystic chord contains elements of both—to clarify, a whole tone scale is just that, a scale that contains no semi-tones. An octatonic scale is generated by alternating whole tones and semitones (C-C#-D-E-F#-G-A-A#, and C-D-D#-F-F#-G#-A-B). When arranged horizontally, the mystic chord has, as stated before, elements of both. Scriabin never slavishly adheres to either a whole-tone or octatonic scale in his late works; but manipulates the octatonic scale by adding a whole-tone scale with it. As a result, the separation between ‘harmony’ and ‘melody’ becomes extremely blurred, as these two elements begin to merge and become interchangeable. Scriabin was fond of saying that “melody is harmony unfurled”, and I would also say that the corollary to that axiom is also true in the late works.
An interesting side-note to this harmonic evolution, is how Scriabin also evolves his written expression markings in the score itself. In the first two sonatas, the markings are entirely in Italian, and rather chaste with run of the mill marking such as meno mosso, marcato, rubato, etc. With the 3rd, 4th, and 5th sonatas, the Italian begins to border on the bizarre, as he peppers the score with markings such as con voglio, quietissimo, focusamente, con stravaganza, and my personal favourite: accarezzevole. Such terms I refer to as Scritalian, for lack of a better word. In several pieces, most notably the Divine Poem, he uses both Italian and French terms, but then suddenly, from Op. 60 onwards, he switches almost exclusively to French. There are no writings in Scriabin’s own words that I have come across to explain this change in notation, but it’s almost as if he had to adapt and shift his entire aesthetic to accommodate this new harmonic system, and I find it not at all coincidental that these changes occurred on parallel tracks.
Which now leads us to the final five sonatas in Scriabin’s output. With his new harmonic system firmly in place, Scriabin now treats the sonata form as a self-contained solipsistic entity contained within a single movement. As in a traditional classical sonata form first movement, characters (or subjects) are introduced, these characters are manipulated and developed, a clear recapitulation occurs which then leads to, in Scriabin’s case, some sort of vertiginous coda in which all the characters are put through even more radical manipulation. This often occurs in the form of extreme acceleration and truncation of the characters, along with a rhythmic thrust suggestive of a final orgiastic dance. Eaglefield Hull, a noted Scriabinist, describes these codas as “Skyrabinic dances of cosmic atoms, mounting with ever-increasing palpitation into a veritable molecular vertigo.” The endings of these sonatas are perplexing in that they don’t really end in the traditional sense. Rather, they seem to expire, as if exhausted from the previous exertion. Usually the sonatas close in a flutter of trills (as in the 6th, 7th and 8th do), or restate the opening (as in the 9th and 10th). Aaron Copland went as far as to call these last five sonatas, “one of the most extraordinary mistakes in music…the quality of his thematic material was truly individual, truly inspired. But Scriabin…had the fantastic idea of attempting to put this really new body of feeling into the straight-jacket of the old classical sonata form, recapitulation and all.” One could argue, however, that by putting his esoteric harmony into such tight constraints, Scriabin was able to bring some semblance of order and structure to these works without sacrificing the mystical message he so fervently sought. Another unique facet to these last five sonatas is the pervasive use of trills. Trills for Scriabin, were not simply ornamental, or even coloristic compositional devices. Their importance to his aesthetic ran much deeper. To Scriabin, trills were, “palpitations…vibrations from the universe.” Trills also signify light, as we shall see in the 10th sonata later on.
The 6th Sonata was completed in 1911. Scriabin, who premiered virtually all of his works, specifically did not premiere the 6th Sonata. Moreover, he never did perform it publicly, claiming to be terrified of this creation. When describing it, he employed words such as “nightmarish…fuliginous…murky…dark and hidden…unclean…mischievous.” Indications in the score take on lavish and bizarre proportions; phrases such as “mysteriously whispering”, “the dream takes shape”, and “the surging terror mixes with the delirious dance” charge the score with strong programmatic overtones. “When he [Scriabin] played excerpts for friends, he would stare off in the distance away from the piano, as if watching effluvium rise from the floor and walls around him. He seemed frightened and sometimes shuddered. Its mood directly inherits the inchoate, incomprehensible, unformed chaos of the dark beginning—the Void.”
The 7th Sonata, in direct opposition to the 6th, Scriabin adored. He performed it liberally, satisfied that he had finally purged his music of all human elements and composed a work of highest mysticism. The work was dubbed “White Mass” by Scriabin himself, and features dazzling pianistic textures depicting “fountains of fire”, “mystic clouds”, and “trumpets of archangels”—very heady stuff, indeed. Yet despite this dichotomy in Scriabin’s feelings between the two sonatas, I paired them together because they share many common traits in harmony, figuration and form. Both works strictly follow the allegro movement sonata form, both have massive climaxes before the recapitulation, and both have extensive codas which test the outer limits of the piano’s range, and in addition, the similarities between the 2nd subjects of these sonatas is telling. The five notes from the 2nd subject in the 6th sonata are pervasively used throughout the piece, as are the four notes in the 2nd subject from the 7th sonata. However, while in the 7th sonata, this four note harmony, two minor thirds separated by a fourth, gives a more open, bright sound; in contrast the five note motive employed in the 6th sonata is darker, closed, and more dense, the chord sounds much harsher because of the minor second. Perhaps this is why he felt so strongly that the 6th was weighted more in favour of evil than good.
Although chronologically listed as the 8th Sonata, it was actually the final one completed, in 1913, because he had difficulty finishing one particular section. The longest of the final five, it features an extensive introduction with exceedingly complex counterpoint, something Scriabin was extremely proud of. The 8th Sonata is a piece depicting nature in terms of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. One can hear the earth in the solidity of the opening chords, air in the cascading double notes, water in the undulating left hand figuration (which if you recall is very similar to the left hand figuration in the 2nd sonata), and fire in the arpeggiated figurations and trills. A double development leads to a vertiginous coda where all the elements combine in a final molecular dance.
Undoubtedly the most famous of the final five sonatas is the demonic 9th Sonata, popularly known as the “Black Mass” (although the title was not given by Scriabin himself). An opening prelude, marked “as if recounting a legend” leads into a rhythmic cell, in triplets, that eventually poisons and ultimately dominates the piece. Although there is a 2nd subject, there is no recapitulation in a formal sense, instead “one senses a continuous structure of ever increasing elaboration and tension”, lending a compactness to this piece unlike the 10th sonata, which sound much more expansive in contrast.
If the 9th Sonata deals in darkness, the 10th unequivocally deals with light. Dubbed the “Trill Sonata”, the 10th Sonata is a luminous work—Scriabin is quoted as saying, “my 10th Sonata is a sonata of insects. Insects are born from the sun…they are the sun’s kisses”. The profusion of trills, along with the thirds and open fifths lends a brightness and incandescence to this glorious piece, a piece that also expresses the vastness of nature. Perhaps under the influence of having composed this piece during the summer in Aleskin, a small town on the banks of the Oka River, this work “emerges with crystal clarity full of quiet and peace and”, according to Scriabin himself, “expresses the impression of a great forest.” The opening prelude’s theme is a simple sequence of two thirds, one major, one minor, which is then answered by a chromatic figure and a rolled ninth chord that would almost seem to suggest a bird-call. This then leads to a five-note motive that becomes engulfed by a trill and is immediately followed by a heraldic rising 5th figure—also enhanced by a trill, repeated three times. These elements are all incorporated in the development, with the trills having been expanded into massive tremolo figures between the hands. Unlike the 9th sonata, whose development leads directly to the coda, the 10th sonata reaches a shattering climax in the development before then having a clear recapitulation of the original material and them embarks upon the skittish, frenetic coda, and like the 9th sonata, recounts the opening prelude in truncated form, before ending, quite remarkably in a IV-I cadence in C major.
Scriabin once proudly boasted that, “only my music expressed the inexpressible”. With these ten sonatas, a whole new dimension of colours, textures, and expression is conjured forth with breathtaking skill. Scriabin’s final works tantalizingly hint at what new worlds he would possibly conquer—merging all the art forms in a true Gesamtkunstwerk; and sadly we can only ponder what might have been in his all too brief life, but rejoice in all the glorious music that poured from his scorching brain.
- Koji Attwood
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Scriabin, Alexander. Ten Sonatas for Piano. Edited by Harold Sheldon. New York: MCA House, 1949.
Swan, Alfred J. Scriabin. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.