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.  

Yet even though he failed to end the world, his music certainly inhabited a new world of musical thought, at once mysterious, romantic, alien, and ecstatic.  With piano works such as the “White Mass” and “Black Mass” Sonatas (Nos. 7 and 9), and fin di seicle orchestral opuses such as “The Divine Poem” (Symphony No.3) and “The Poem of Ecstasy” (Symphony No.4), Scriabin hoped to fuse music, poetry, and mysticism in a single art form.  After WWI, such notions became gauche and were largely abandoned, and Scriabin’s work was consigned to the very fringes of the repertoire (even such a great conductor as Sir Adrian Boult refused to conduct it, calling it “evil music”).  Not surprisingly the 60’s and 70’s gleefully rediscovered his music, as it no doubt fueled many an internal mysterium to those willing to open the “doors of perception.”  In recent years, Scriabin has become a cult figure, as well as a cornerstone of the early modernist movement, comparable to such figures as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern.  While his music conforms to no single dogma or theory, it certainly challenges the listener’s ideas of what music should be—or express—or make one feel. 

If starting to explore his cosmic, yet profoundly human, music,  start with the monumental (though surprisingly short) Poem of Ecstasy, often called his Symphony No. 4, though that seems a concession to convention that, in a work like this, is utterly beside the point.  In a single movement, but with distinct sections, the work opens in a sensual reverie of bird song and horn calls.  The languorous mood expands, threatening to become sinister as the music becomes more and more agitated.  Solo instruments break out of the dense background, including most notably an obbligato trumpet, which seems to offer a note of a caution—or panic—to this ecstatic madness.  Passion quickly overwhelms the orchestra,  leading to one of many climaxes which were almost unheard of in 19th century music.  This would be ‘obscene’ music, full of restless harmonies designed to unsettle its audience; ideally, they would leave as entirely different creatures, full of passion and truth, in Scriabin’s mind.  The Russian conductor Koussevitsky, a champion of Scriabin’s music, once joked that despite all the passion and ecstasy, the audience would applaud and go home to their normal lives the same as always.  Clearly Scriabin disagreed: art could transform life and bring about a new world order as the Theosophists envisioned.  The hazy, spiritual air that haunts the piece seems to speak of a new world, at first threatening, then gradually beautiful, until it reaches a glorious climax complete with bells both literal and evoked in the orchestra itself.  Listen closely to the last two minutes of the piece, which has been described as an orchestral orgasm—the closely thing to sex that has ever been transcribed for music.  Whether or not you take to this kind of display, it’s truly awe-inspiring music, full of a transcendence that might not change the world, but makes it hard to listen to anything else for at least a few hours. 

A step down from this work, a little more tame but still exciting and brilliant, is his  Symphony No.3 , or “The Divine Poem,his first transcendental orchestral work. Again, as a symphony it isn’t quite convincing, so just appreciate it as a sprawling, magnificent orchestral poem.  It opens with a stern brass “warning,” as if the orchestra is stating, “are you sure you want to embark on this path?”  This is answered by a seductive theme in the strings, which gathers sound and fury as the piece reaches the first of its many climaxes.  The sense of a spiritual battle is palpable, as the music struggles to reach a higher realm, but is beaten down by its own baser instincts—or maybe the indifference of society itself?  Not coincidentally, this movement is called “Struggles,” and is the most conflict-ridden part of the symphony.  “Delights” follows, which contains some of Scriabin’s most sensual, exotic sounds—similar to the Poem of Ecstasy, and then a final movement called “Divine Play,” which harkens back to the struggle of the second movement.  An intense spiritual drama takes center stage here, before the brass ‘warning’ returns as if to resolve, or temporarily dismiss, the prospect of spiritual bliss.  Many people understandably have little tolerance for such music, as it seems to veer wildly between extremes.  However, anyone who responds to Wagner, Rachmaninov, or Mahler will find much to appreciate, even if Scriabin has a distinct voice that never suggests a specific drama that can be put into words (or an easily recognizable story). 

For a really far-out Scriabin experience, go to the so-called Fifth Symphony, better known as Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.  Like The Poem of Ecstasy, this is in one sprawling movement, and seems to depict the beginning and the end of the world.  Interestingly, Scriabin wrote it for piano, chorus, orchestra and color organ(!).  He wanted his principles of music and light to be fully realized in this composition, so he designed a keyboard that would project light into the room corresponding to the harmonic scheme.  Sadly, his color organ reflected nineteen teens technology, so it merely threw a few light splotches on the wall during the premier—the cause for much merriment among the audience.  Imagine what a first-class planetarium could do to this music (and many attempts to realize his vision have been attempted).  As to the music itself, it opens from the depths, in total silence, until one becomes gradually aware of the presence of music.  Less ecstatic than the previous symphonies, it strikes a more enigmatic, mystical note: winds suggest the twinkling of stars in an endless abyss, while a trumpet call (related to the Ecstasy?) suggests man’s questioning voice, still dimly heard in the cosmos.  Toward the middle a piano enters and assumes an almost concerto-like role in the proceedings.  The piano part reflects some of his late, cryptic piano music—Sonatas 7 and 9 particularly.  The middle part of the work forms a kind of menacing scherzo, threatening the destruction of mind and body in the whirlwind of some cosmic apparition.  Towards the end of the work, true liberation comes with the introduction of a chorus and bells: however this is hardly the sexual bliss of the previous works.  It seems terrifying, truly sublime: the extinction of worlds rather than a mere individual.  The scale of the ending is almost impossible to convey on record, and makes more sense in the concert hall as the orchestra booms, the chorus howls, and the bells peal to shatter the heavens.  Consoling this work is not, yet it is a rare experience, much like hearing the eerie ‘music’ of Jupiter as recorded by the Voyager probe.  While we hesitate to call this music, it still has the power to make us think and imagine—and question our place in the world. 

For a look into the more conventional Scriabin, try his early Piano Concerto, which seems more akin to early Rachmaninov, though far less dramatic.  Indeed, this piece is gentle to the point of frailty, full of salon-like Romanticism, though it has its playful moments.  No heroics here, just beautiful melodies in a Chopinesque haze (though far better orchestrated than that composer’s concertos).  It sounds worlds away from The Poem of Ecstasy or his late piano sonatas, and yet there are similar touches and hallmarks of the great composer.  The same is true of his First and Second Symphonies, the former of which employs a chorus for a Beethoven-inspired finale.  Perhaps the more interesting of the two is the Second, which tries to be a formal symphony, but has moments of the ecstatic Scriabin in the making.  A slow movement full of rapturous bird song is a highlight, as is the heroic, bombastic finale, somewhat in the mould of Tchaikovsky’s 5th (Scriabin himself came to detest it, finding it cheap and vulgar and not at all what he intended).  

Of course, the true heart of Scriabin lies in his piano music: the scores of Preludes, the Chopinesque Mazurkas, and the highly original and sublime Piano Sonatas.  But more on these in a future post...