Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1871-1915) was born in Moscow, Russia to a middle class family. Because his concert pianist mother died when he was a baby and his father traveled as a diplomat, the boy was raised by relatives, particularly a doting aunt who cultivated his love for Chopin, and his development as a composer and piano virtuoso. After serving in the Moscow Cadet Corps, Scriabin entered the Moscow Conservatory and studied piano with Vasily Safonov and composition with Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky. Graduating in 1892, he began a successful career as a concert pianist and composer. In 1894, Safonov introduced him to Mitrofan Belyayev, a major Russian music publisher who became Scriabin’s publisher, supporter, and manager. In 1897, Scriabin married Vera Isaakovitch, a pianist and admirer he met at the home of conservatory professor Paul Schloezer. A year later, he joined the Moscow Conservatory as a professor of piano.

By 1902, Scriabin had completed many works, mostly for piano and many influenced by Chopin. His Piano Concerto appeared in 1897, Reverie, his first orchestra-only work, in 1898, and two conservative symphonies in 1901 and 1902. A sign of the visionary Scriabin to come was the choral finale text of the First Symphony: “May your mighty and free spirit reign all-powerfully on earth; and humanity, lifted up by you, perform a noble deed. Come all nations of the world and let us sing praises to art!”

In 1903, Scriabin left the Conservatory, moved his family to Switzerland, and became a full-time composer. He also took up with Schloezer’s daughter, Tatiana, who became his muse, and—post divorce—his companion for the rest of his life. For several years, the couple lived in Italy, Switzerland, and Belgium, and went on Alexander’s performing tours, including to the United States. They returned to Russia in 1908 at the request of Sergei Koussevitzky, who had replaced the deceased Belyayev as Scriabin’s manager and publisher.

Scriabin evolved intellectually from reading people like Nietzsche, Kant, Schopenhauer, Wagner, and later Helena Blavatsky (aka Madame Blavatsky), a founder of Theosophy. As a composer, his music became more languorous, less rhythmic, with fewer traditionally shaped melodies. Roving harmonies and expanded diminished chords, including what became known as his “mystic chord,”1 stretched and made for flexible tonality. Scriabin was also a poet, and many of his musical works are linked to his poems. He even referred to his last three symphonies as “poems”: Divine Poem, Poem of Ecstasy, and Prometheus: Poem of Fire. Divine Poem, which Tatiana called a representation of “the evolution of the human spirit,” marked a major change in his orchestral music. After examining the score, a skeptical Taneyev said, “you’re the first composer who, instead of indicating the tempi in the score, writes praise of his own compositions: ‘Divine, grandiose, sublime.’” Over time, Scriabin came to consider music one facet of a larger commodity of the arts. According to friend, Oskar von Riesemann, “Music…offered his boundless imagination a much too narrow room for maneuver. [It] would…cease to exist as an independent form of expression…[and] form part of a…profounder creative process that would touch the roots of all existence.” In time, Scriabin became more egocentric and a mystic, not uncommon in Russia at the time. He came to consider himself a Messiah, and once referred to himself as God.

Symphony No. 4 (Poem of Ecstasy, 1908).2 In 1904 Scriabin began a long personal statement called Orgiastic Poem, whose title changed to Poem of Ecstasy in 1906. According to Faubion Bowers, its soul is “Scriabin…as Man-God the Creator…[who] undergoes a gamut of feelings from torment to ravishment…[ending] in ‘I am!’” The symphony—really a tone poem—did not follow or illustrate that poem but grew from it. It has been interpreted as a reflection of sex and the creative process. “I was swept up by an enormous wave of creativity. I gasp for breath…what bliss! I am creating divinely…” The complex work is in sonata form with three themes that can be heard as “desire or flight of the spirit” (flute), ego (trumpet), and a rising intervallic, more aggressive theme that comes to dominate the work (also trumpet). The development works through a variety of emotions, with extended harmonies often constructed on fourths rather than thirds—including the “mystic chord” from which the work is derived—and ends in a grand celebration.

After a conversation with Rimsky-Korsakov in 1907, Scriabin believed he was a synesthetic, capable of associating colors with musical notes and keys. (Rimsky was, but with keys only.) That factored into Prometheus (1910), which called for a clavier à lumières (Keyboard for Lights), a machine that would help audiences experience synesthetic sensations by projecting colors as the music played.3 He devoted his last years to the uncompleted Mysterium, a massive Messianic symphony to be performed near the Himalayas over several hours, combining all human senses into the “final manifestation of the human soul as it exists at present, the point of transition from the old to the new plane of existence [in which] our consciousness would disappear, and a world cataclysm would begin.”4

Scriabin was an important transitional figure between romantics like Wagner, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky and modernists like Schoenberg, Berg, and Stravinsky. He died young, but given that he had abandoned tonality and was experimenting with twelve-tone composing, there is no telling how music might have developed had he lived longer. 5 Scriabin was a major influence on Stravinsky and adored by writer Boris Pasternak, though an aging Rimsky-Korsakov had his doubts. He was also a popular composer, especially in Russia. Poem of Ecstasy was played on radio and television programs to celebrate the 1905 Revolution and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s 1960 appearance in Red Square. After Scriabin’s death, Rachmaninoff toured Russia playing his friend’s music. It was the first time Rachmaninoff performed music by another composer.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony, as well as trombonist and orchestra manager of Lowell House Opera, Commonwealth Opera, and MetroWest Opera. He is a regular reviewer forAmerican Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback Magazine. His fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

1 From C, this would be C, F#, Bb, E, A, D. 

2 A “companion piece” based on the same poem, Piano Sonata No. 5, appeared in 1907.

3 Such ideas were prevalent in Russia at the time. In Scriabin’s case, each note was related to a color and a concept, e.g., C = Red (Will); G=Orange (Creative Play); D = Yellow (Joy), etc. Several attempts at producing this effect were tried, none successfully that I am aware of.

4 Alexander Nemtin drew up a “completion” of Mysterium’s prelude, “Prefatory Action,” from sketches Scriabin had left behind. Kiril Kondrashin, Igor Golovchin, and Vladimir Ashkenazy have led performances.

5 The same can be said of Gustav Mahler.

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