Sunday, 17 June 2012

Scriabin 2: To Ecstasy and Beyond

Alexander Scriabin was certainly what Brits of a century ago might have called 'a rum cove'. His belief that he himself would become a god who could redeem humanity, chiefly by means of the piece he was working on as he died, Mysterium - which, incidentally, would involve hanging bells from clouds -, smacks of what we might charitably call a lack of modesty and, possibly, madness. Such juicy biographical details are fascinating to most people but, as a lover of Scriabin's music, I can't say they have much of an impact on the way I hear his wonderful music. I can hear no madness in it and all the undoubted egomania doesn't seem to translate into egomaniacal music (well, most of the time anyway!) His thoughts and writings may reek of such things, his music doesn't. So that's that!

On to the music then.

2. The orchestral works

Scriabin was essentially a composer of piano music but he wrote seven orchestral pieces, including five symphonies. These, as with the piano miniatures, help us trace a path through the composer's ever-fascinating growth into originality. His piano works may be his greatest legacy but the Poem of Ecstasy is held in such affection (indeed awe) by some listeners that the orchestral works are hardly secondary pieces. 

As we saw with the piano miniatures, Scriabin began as an accomplished disciple of Chopin and it is fitting that his first orchestral work was firmly in the style in Chopin - his increasing popular Piano Concerto in F sharp major, Op.20 (the Scriabin key) of 1896. To many people who know the piece it is quite staggering that it isn't already performed as often as the Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Rachmaninov concertos. It is emphatically not inferior to any of them.

Forget harmonic adventure here. Melody and beauty are Scriabin's chief concern in the Piano Concerto. The opening Allegro has a fund of attractive melody. The main one is introduced by the soloist before re-emerging, Rachmaninov-like, on strings. The scoring here is warm and there is some especially lovely horn writing. The piano is employed to sing and to decorate and plays a lot of pretty figuration along the way. In the development section a particularly winning passage sets the woodwinds singing blithely over a restful drone richly built on horns and embroidered by the pianist. If you like Rachmaninov you will love this movement. The lovely central Andante is a theme and variations. Its theme, introduced by the strings, is a beauty - fragile, noble and melancholy (and surprisingly, to my English ears, like Elgar). The variations range from a simple re-singing of the theme on solo clarinet with liquid decoration from the soloist (Variation I) to a fast, dancing variation with squeals of delight from strings and woodwinds (Variation II). Variation III is sombre, like a dead march, and dominated by the piano. The following variation retains a wistful air in its string melody, but the piano and woodwinds provide us with hope. The Finale is, I have to say, less satisfying. Except for the beautiful second subject its material is less attractive. That second subject is sung by the soloist over his own rippling accompaniment. Both tune and accompaniment are embedded in warm horn writing and soon gain a string counter-melody (a variant of the theme). There's a lot of appealing Chopinesque figuration in this movement which guarantees pleasure throughout - plus the second subject's climactic return is thrilling. 

His orchestral Rêverie, Op. 24 of 1998 is short in length but long on attractiveness. It is such a lovely piece and yet hardly anyone knows it. There's lovely post-Wagnerian writing here, at times veering engagingly towards Tchaikovsky (even Rimsky-Korsakov at one point) but at other times anticipating by a few years a certain passage from Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht (and it's not just the notes that are uncannily similar.) The woodwinds introduce the theme over tremolos and the strings proceed to sing in long melodic lines. There are some highly gratifyingly harmonies here.  

As Scriabin wrote well over a hundred miniatures he is sometimes seem as a miniaturist. He was, of course, far from just being a miniaturist. The first three symphonies are certainly far from miniature!

As the 20th century dawned (1900), young Scriabin wrote his First Symphony in E major, Op.26. If you followed my survey of the piano miniatures and know only his Poem of Ecstasy you might be in for a surprise here. In fact, if I had been played the entire 50-minute symphony without being informed in advance that I was about to listen to a symphony by Scriabin I am not at all sure that I would have guessed the identity of the composer. In fact, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done so. Yes, this is a late-Romantic symphony written firmly within that tradition. That is not a bad thing as Scriabin's First Symphony is, I hope you'll agree, a very attractive addition to that tradition. 

The Lento Prologue begins in a delicate Wagnerian enchanted forest over which dawn ascends with the warmest rays of melody. The two principle themes are both gorgeous - the first appearing initially on clarinet is a fresh, upward-reaching melody, while the second (first presented by woodwind alone) is more chromatic and Tristanesque. No wonder even some critics who are sniffy about Scriabin have been known to drool over this Prologue. It is exceedingly lovely, isn't it? The Allegro dramatico second movement plunges us into the world of passionate late-Romantic angst, post-Wagnerian in the luxuriant chromaticism of its language. It is a big, sonata form structure that could be summed up with the words 'moody but magnificent'. The dynamic first theme is stormy while the second subject is full of yearning - well, at least initially, as both themes partake of each others mood as the movement progresses. The ending is worthy of Tchaikovsky at his stormiest. The third movement Lento's long, expressive main theme grows from its tentative introduction on clarinet into a sumptuous vehicle for the expression of achingly romantic love music. A passage of 'forest murmurs' introduces a particularly lovely note as the main theme returns. The second subject is a happy Tchaikovskyan figure. This fabulous movement has so much to offer the listener who chooses to give it a hearing. Also deserving of wide popularity is the balletic Scherzo which follows. Again, unexpectedly, Scriabin turns Tchaikovskyan with a trio that could have come from The Nutcracker. Its theme is for piccolo and bells. Who'd have thought that! The fifth movement is another sonata form Allegro. Its main theme is strong and dramatic. I would say though that the second subject is rather anodyne and the weak link in the movement; however, given that the movement is such a successful piece of Romantic storming-and-stressing it can be forgiven. Scriabin's ambitious personality, partly manifested in the large scale of his first symphony, is made evident in what happens in the Finale. Mezzo and tenor soloists appear after the rather Dvorak-like opening bars and sing a Beethoven-inspired 'hymn to art' which sounds less like a hymn than a tender love duet from a Russian opera. His ambition goes even further than that though: A chorus then enters. The chorus sings antiphonally for a while before a choral fugue is launched. The expense of hiring solo singers and a chorus perhaps accounts for why such a delightful and accomplished Russian symphony should receive so few performances around the world. I can think of no other (good) reason.

The Second Symphony in C minor/major, Op.29 (composed in 1902, around the two of the Two Preludes, Op.27) is also a work of the composer's early maturity and is no less a late-Romantic symphony. To repeat myself: If I had been played the entire 50-minute symphony without being informed in advance that I was about to listen to a symphony by Scriabin I am not at all sure that I would have guessed the identity of the composer. Despite its lack of Scriabinesque traces, there is much to enjoy in the piece, even if it isn't as satisfying as the First Symphony. Even though it is much the same length as its predecessor it feels overly long to me. The first two movements in particular could have done with quite a bit of pruning. 

The opening movement consists of a lengthy Andante and an even longer Allegro. The Andante introduces two themes, both of which will return (in an example of cyclic form) in the Finale. A solo clarinet sounds the first - and more significant - of the themes, characterised by its use of the notes of the triad plus a falling scale fragment. The second theme, announced attractively in a rapturous violin solo, is lyrical, frequently leaping by a third or a sixth. The Andante makes both themes sound beautiful, draping them in lovely orchestral colours. The Allegro bursts in energetically with a rhythmically-springy main subject made from three short but detachable motifs. The fine theme is contrasted with the clarinet's second subject - a shapely melody, but one also possessing useful motifs too. Sonata form was ever to be Scriabin's way in large-scale works and his development section employs both subject vigorously. The main theme appears against itself in canon at the start of the recapitulation, effectively. The movement as a whole shows traces of Wagnerism (especially at its dramatic climaxes), just as his piano works of the time were also beginning to do. This influence is even more clearly heard in the slow movement where 'forest murmurs' and bird song meet Tristanesque harmony. The former gives rise to an especially beautiful chromatic melody which is the movement's main theme. This pastoral and romantic music flows expansively and winningly and floods the world with peace. The scoring could hardly be improved upon. The following Tempestuoso movement is, as you might expect from its marking, stormy, making hay with sequential figures and thunderous effects. Lyrical episodes briefly provide contrast. The brass then sound memories of earlier themes, preparing us for the martial Finale, where the triad-based theme of the whole symphony returns as a pomp-and-circumstance march. Its scampering string continuation is repeated interrupted by a solemn brass chorale. The second theme from the opening Andante also returns on woodwinds then strings with a spring in its step. The march passes by again, achieves peroration then yields to delicately dancing music. Wagnerian brass bring back solemnity and then the march (and a recapitulation) leads to a rousing and rowdy close. I have to say that I enjoy this closing movement immensely, though this is not a universally-shared sentiment - especially with devout Scriabinites. 

The Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op.43, "The Divine Poem" of 1902-04 doesn't mark as much a step towards the future as might have been expected from its sub-title or from the titles of its three movements - Luttes ("Struggles"), Voluptés ("Delights") and Jeu divin ("Divine Play"); indeed, it ought to be bracketed with its two predecessors rather than with its two single-movement successors. It is another 50-minute late-Romantic symphony and, again, somewhat protracted. What a feast for the ears it is though! 

The Lento Prologue begins with an immediate presentation of the symphony's main themes - a stern theme on brass representing 'Divine grandeur', a rising trumpet figure representing 'The Summoning of Man' and a quiet falling figure on strings and woodwinds representing 'Fear in the face of God'. (Yes, I know!) These themes mingle throughout and new themes grow out of them. Luttes, the longest movement, leaps gracefully into action with a theme for violins. The theme is developed and other thematic ideas mingle with it, including a delightful soaring figure, before the second subject appears (if such it be, it being rather hard to say) - a theme of some nobility.  Other ideas follow. There are many Wagnerian moments. The movement has drama for sure but also moments of delicious languor and some of majesty and is well worth wallowing in. The slow movement Voluptés is, as you would expect, full of romantic lyricism and passion and has a main theme of much beauty. Scriabin marks it 'sublime' (which is rather tempting fate!) and, if not quite that, it certainly is one that I suspect will be loved by almost all listeners. The movement moves between chromaticism and diatonic harmony (rather as Wagner was doing all those years before in Tannhauser) and has another of those 'forest' interludes that help make these earlier symphonies so attractive, though romantic goings-on are the focus even there. The main theme of Jeu divin (derived from the motifs of the Prologue) is marked 'with radiant joy' and is announced brightly by a solo trumpet with a perky response from the rest of the orchestra. A theme representing the 'Ego' follows on the strings and this is followed by a lovely, limpid phrase on flute which combines with the 'Ego' theme very beautifully. The movement is in sonata form, so expect a development section, a recapitulation and a big, big finish. 

When I first encountered the magnificent Le Poème de l'extase, Op.54 ('The Poem of Ecstasy') of 1905-08 (contemporary with the opus numbers that surround it - the late 'transitional' works) it felt to me like the love-child of Stravinsky's Firebird (still to be written) and Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It's more than that of course, but I can still see a bit of truth in that idea. The piece is a single-movement magic garden for orchestra in which human love "in the fullest sense" is celebrated, characteristically in large-scale works via the medium of sonata form (Prologue-Exposition-Development-Recapitulation-Coda), and in which several themes flower in ever-changing beds of context. With the Poem, however, we are entering again into Scriabin's late style. The old-fashioned sonata-form outline is deceptive in this respect. It is a skeleton largely (if far from completely) devoid of its old harmonic flesh. The old tonic-dominant-modulation-tonic harmonic scheme is abandoned and it is largely the play of themes that conforms to the old pattern. 

The mysterious Prologue features a haunting flute theme, marked by alternately wide and narrow intervals, and a chromatic clarinet theme, both entwined languidly. Only a trumpet offers any challenge to this lazy beauty. The Allegro starts with a delightful dancing theme - a firebird has entered the garden! A violin solo introduces the love-filled, chromatic second subject (Tristan extended) and Scriabin indulges it. Two new themes follow on solo trumpet, both assertive and dynamic. The first is sharply angled while the second (and more important) is a string of rising fourths (with a falling chromatic tale). All themes now present correct Scriabin can now allow them to co-mingle, become intoxicated and grow ecstatic. Trombones kick off the stormy development section where, with the aid of percussion, this process reaches a mighty climax. Such stresses eventually yield to the gentle themes of the Prologue. These usher in the recapitulation. The most thrilling is yet to come though - in the coda. This uses a 'victory theme' to screw up tension excitingly before ejaculating at a huge climax - a passage where a solo trumpet rises to glory, withdraws briefly then exults again in a luminously-scored diatonic blaze. A gentle afterglow (on several themes) then results in a re-girding of the loins, a lunge forwards and another explosion. The 'victory theme' comes again in majesty on eight horns, gloriously, accompanied by a panoply of percussion. An explosion of bells follows. The end? No. Scriabin holds off one last time before C major blazes in, conclusively. It's all very exciting - and completely justified. 

Like an enlarged Scriabin sonata, the tone-poem/symphony Prometheus: Poem of Fire, Op. 60 of 1910 is a single-movement work that also follows sonata form, albeit on a larger canvas in terms of duration (lasting about 25 minutes) and scoring (a very large orchestra with a fiendish concertante piano part) -  "follows sonata form", of course, in much the same way and with the same caveats as described a couple of paragraphs ago. We are in the world of the 'mystic chord' here, at the start of Scriabin's 'late period', with the work being grounded on a version of it comprising the notes A, D sharp, G, C sharp, F sharp and B.  

Prometheus is an often very impressive piece, though I confess that I find it five minutes too long for full satisfaction and the extravagantly brief use (twice) towards the close - for the purpose of climax-enhancing) - of a wordless chorus is too extravagant to sound totally effective. Those impressive stretches, however, contain much that is beautiful, the work being at its best (generally-speaking) in its most lyrical passages. 

A fog of harmony brings forth a basic theme on horns, as if emerging into visibility. This will appear fully-formed as the work's beautiful main theme a few minutes further on. Another great theme, however (the other theme!) must preoccupy us first - a lushly-harmonised subject for winds which sounds for all the world like Messiaen. Its every appearance brings magic along with it. Piano and strings dwell on its beauty before transforming it (almost beyond recognition) into the lively joyeux theme which kicks off the second phase of the exposition - a desire-filled mingling of themes and moods, alternately languid and excitable. The majestueux main theme is its goal - and, when reached, it's worth it! The development section takes up the second phase's mingling strategy. In this section Scriabin's scoring becomes even more exquisitely coloured, as if Debussy were mentoring him. The piano kicks up a storm and a climax results and from it - at length! - emerges...a waltz. This splendid, short-lived surprise prompts an exultant climax and a precisely ravishing aftermath. The recapitulation brings many more instances of such beauties and more exultation. It is an engrossing listen, with the Messiaen-like theme playing its part. Lively writing follows the first choral passage, along with a lyrical violin solo. The work ends in a blaze of Scriabin's beloved F sharp major.

As a symphonic cycle, the Scriabin symphonies just don't seem to get the attention they so obviously deserve so, if you share my enthusiasm for them, please spread the good news!

(P.S. The paintings in this post are by the Belgian symbolist Jean Delville.)

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