Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Music of Flame: The Orchestral Music of Alexander Scriabin

Imagine this, if you will: a gorgeous, pre-Raphaelite temple (to no particular god) set amidst the sublime landscape of the Himalayas.  You arrive for the performance of a lifetime—namely, Alexander Scriabin’s magnum opus, Mysterium, a work for orchestra, chorus, soloists, dancers, odors, colors, and perhaps the earth itself, which is to last an entire week.  At the conclusion of the work, the audience, along with the performers and the composer himself will die—ascending to the heavens in a state of cosmic bliss. In other words, the end of the world.  A kitschy bit of 21st century avant-garde postmodern performance art? was a work Scriabin conceived around 1909 and worked on feverishly until his death in 1915.  Scriabin began life as a virtuoso-composer in the mold of Chopin or Liszt, writing conventionally perfumed piano music in traditional forms—Preludes, Mazurkas, Etudes.  After an apprentice period which also saw the composition of two symphonies and a piano concerto, Scriabin immersed himself in the writings of Nietszche and conceived more grandiose ambitions for his music.  This only intensified once he became a member of the Theosophical Society and sought to embody the beliefs of Madame Blavatsky in art.  His piano music all-but departed from tonality, and he invented what he termed the “chord of the pleorma” (later called the “mystic chord”) which became the basis for many late compositions.  [read more about it here:].  Indeed, his middle and late music seemed to be as much about sight and smell as music itself, and he developed an elaborate system of colors correlating to each musical note (a system that other contemporaries, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, also espoused).  By the turn of the century, Scriabin seemed poised to be the messiah of a new branch of composition that would change music—and indeed, the world—forever.  But it was not to be: he tragically died of a lip infection at the tragically young age of 43, before many of his ideas could reach fruition.