Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Scriabin 3: Trill the End of Time

Critics just cannot agree about Scriabin. I've read summaries of his achievements over the years that rank him as a revolutionary great, while a few place him as being essentially a reactionary throwback and others position him somewhere in between. Are his late works atonal, do they pioneer a brand new kind of tonality or are they merely an extension of the old tonality? The critics have strong views on the issue, but they are in opposition to each other. I've read rather too many that seem to prefer highlighting the faults of other critics than in positively outlining their own positions, such that they read like axe-grinding. I particularly enjoyed (if that's the right word) one critic whose writing on Scriabin was largely about how other critics had got Scriabin completely wrong who, with a complete lack of self-awareness, then dropped in a crack at other critics for writing pieces that read like axe-grinding. Sheesh!

Having ground my own axe there, I'd like to very briefly state where I stand. I think Scriabin is a great composer. I don't doubt that Scriabin thought of himself as a revolutionary. The fact that his music evolves over time so naturally and gradually that his later innovations flow seamlessly from his earlier music without any sudden jolts doesn't make his music sound particularly revolutionary - especially if you listen to a lot of it in chronological order! I do think, however, that he achieved something original in music, comparable to the gentle revolution brought about by Debussy, by following the Russian path of exploring new soundworlds based on synthetic scales and taking it much, much further, doing so in such an accomplished manner that the step taken feels completely justified. Did his music become atonal? No, however much it may sometimes sound atonal. Key signatures were abandoned but his later works still seem to linger around a particular key or keys, however tenuously and however far they might wander from it (or them). It's rather in the nature of the 'mystic chord' to sound sort-of-tonal. So is his music merely an extension of the old tonality rather than being a brand new tonality? Well, to risk fudging the answer, I'd say that the truth lies somewhere in between those two positions. The 'mystic chord' opened up a new world for Scriabin. It was an innovation, it broke up the tonic-dominant harmonic scheme, it generated harmonic progressions that were unheard before. It does give his late work the feel of being brand new. However, the occasional resemblances to Debussy or the extended tonality of early Berg (the Piano Sonata especially) point me towards thinking that Scriabin's new language is less like Schoenberg's twelve-tone revolution (which completely overthrew tonality) than it is the whole-tone scale innovations of Glinka and Debussy or the closely akin octatonic scale of Rimsky-Korsakov and early Stravinsky (and, later, Messiaen), albeit systematised in a way that brings something radical to it (as Messiaen was to do with the octatonic scale). So, it is new but its an an extension of (or a twist of, or a spicing up of) rather than an overthrow of tonality. 

Does his work help the (musical) revolutionary cause then, assisting other revolutionaries to bring about the overthrow of the old tonal regime? I'd say it plays a small part in that. Of those who followed Scriabin, few were as thoroughgoing as Roslavets, who did push the 'mystic chord' idea far closer to Schoenberg-style dodecaphony. Roslavets, however, was not anywhere near so influential. Most of the other Scriabinists took more of the perfume of his late style that its radical possibilities (from our own Cyril Scott to early Prokofiev and Miaskovsky). Messiaen was something of an heir to Scriabin though his brief - and vastly influential - attempts to systematise pitch, rhythm, intensity and note values seem to have been provoked much more by Schoenberg's system that to the example of Scriabin.

OK, that's more than enough theorising. Back to the music and a final chronological overview of Scriabin's evolution as a composer.

3. The large-scale piano pieces

The First Sonata in F minor, Op.6 was written in 1892, when Scriabin was aged 20. This is the period of the Lisztian Allegro apassionata, Op.4 and the Chopin-like Impromptus à la Mazur, Op.7. So we are talking about a bravura work from very near to the start of Scriabin's composing life, when he was wearing his influences on his sleeve. The piece is in four movements and opens with an Allegro con fuoco full of a young man's passionate feeling. As so much of Scriabin's large-scale music was to continue to do, this opening movement follows sonata form. The exposition presents a stormy first theme, a forlorn second subject and an optimistic closing theme. The development section concentrates on the troubled and fiery spirit of the first theme. The recapitulation does what a recapitulation should do and the coda sums up the movement's basic conflict. As with so much of Scriabin's early work, the accomplished nature of the writing and the quality of the invention is remarkable. He may have been an imitator here but, boy, what an imitator! The Adagio that follows conveys a strong feeling of sadness and is a beautiful piece of writing. The main theme is song-like and is presented simply to begin with. When it returns later in the movement Scriabin sets it against a restless bass line. Scriabin's bass lines were only to grow in importance. The third movement Presto is in rondo-sonata form and replaces sadness with anger. The agitated main theme is the rondo subject, whilst a more tender melody acts as the second subject and the melancholy second subject of the opening Allegro is brought back to in an instance of cyclic form. The finale is a slow movement marked Funèbre and clearly owes something to the most famous funeral march of all, that of Chopin's Second Piano Sonata. It is potently gloomy, though it does contain a consoling song 'from afar' at its heart - a touch of angelic sweetness amidst all the grief. There's aren't too many great Romantic piano sonatas, so it's a crying shame that a work of such power, passion and potential public appeal should go largely unheard. 

The Second Sonata (Fantasy-Sonata) in G sharp minor, Op.19 was begun in the same year that the first piano sonata was finished and if you here the two pieces played back to back you will hear very clearly that the closing notes of the first sonata seem to be echoed by the opening notes of the second sonata. Co-incidence, or deliberate? I suspect the latter. In the finale of Sonata No.1 this three-note figure has the feel of a 'fate motif'. Similarly that very similar opening figure of Sonata No.2 also seems to function as a 'fate motif' (not unlike the extremely famous 'fate knocking at the door' figure in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in some respects). The figure is embedded in the fateful main theme of the opening Andante but also infiltrates itself into the lyrical music that follows. Scriabin wrote a programme that might be helpful here: "The first section represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitation of the deep, deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming up after the first darkness of night. The second movement represents the vast expanse of ocean in stormy agitation." The work is indeed in two movements and was written over the space of five years, being completed in 1897 - a period covering a whole swathe of opus numbers from the composer's early maturity (Op.7-Op.22). Unlike the First Sonata, this sonata has never fallen out of popularity. The reason for this is that it is a truly superb piece of music and even better than its predecessor. The Andante is one of my favourite pieces of Scriabin and I hope you'll discover why when you hear it. Its impressionistic evocation of moonlight on the sea is captivating and its themes are exceptionally beautiful. The second movement Presto is a bravura movement in sonata form. One moment to listen out for here is when the second subject, previously heard in the minor, re-emerges in the major (towards the end of the development section).

The Piano Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor, Op.23 was begun in the year that the Second Sonata was finished and was completed by the following year (1898). It is contemporary with the lovely Rêverie for orchestra. The sonata returns to four movement form (for the last time) and begins with a movement marked Dramatico. It opens to a fine, heavy-hearted theme, shared between the hands, in the composer's 'manly' early style (with shades of Chopin) but is countered by the softer rhythms and melodic shapes of the 'feminine' second subject. Adhering again to sonata form, Scriabin works his themes in a convincing development section before an abridged recapitulation leads to a Wagnerian climax and a beautiful coda. The scherzo-like second movement Allegretto has one of the composer's significant bass lines which drives and accompanies its main theme. The trio section is delicate and elegantly-wrought. My favourite movement, however, is the Andante, which begins introspectively with a quiet theme of Schumann-like warmth and considerable beauty. This melody really does hit the spot. Though the second subject introduces a remarkable passage of chromaticism and brooding it does so in such a soft-spoken way that the meditative flow continues unabated and the song-like melody returns. The finale, introduced by a bridge passage build on the sonata's opening theme (cyclic form again) is a chromatic Presto con fuoco and many of its pages are certainly 'con fuoco' (fiery). There are lyrical passages though - including a climactic reprise of the Andante's great tune. I hear echoes of the infernal side of Liszt in parts of this movement (or should that be the 'Francesca da Rimini' side of Tchaikovsky?) The Third Sonata is a fine and fascinating work, even if it doesn't quite do it for me in the way that its predecessors did.

Before we come to the Fourth Sonata, we must pause to meet the superb Fantasie in B minor, Op.28 of 1900 - another major piano piece on a larger scale. Written a couple of years after the Third Sonata, the Fantasie is contemporary with the First Symphony. It has something of a symphonic quality to it. There are three fine themes - the first melancholy and heroic, the second tender ('feminine') and the third grand. Though I am fond of the second subject (one of Scriabin's lovely, intricate, intimate melodies) it is the thrilling third theme that most hits the spot for me. It has chromatic touches that render it 'Scriabinesque', though it also has something of a Rachmaninov-style 'big tune' about it. Though styled a 'fantasy' it follows sonata form, complete with development, recapitulation and a big-finish coda.

The Fourth Sonata in F sharp major, Op.30 came three years later (1903) and dates from after the Second Symphony. 1903 was a stunningly productive year for Scriabin, seeing the composition of a string of glorious miniatures - all the 'middle period' opuses from Op.31 right thorough to the 8 Etudes, Op.42. It should be no surprise then that it marks a significant shift in style away from the post-Chopin/post-Liszt Romanticism of its predecessors. It is in two movements, though the Prestissimo volando second movement follows on straight from the end of the Andante and later brings back the Andante's main theme at its moment of climactic ecstasy; thus, listeners might be forgiven for thinking that the sonata is in one movement. The Andante is one of its composer's loveliest sections. It is based on just one melody (though it has distinct phrases which are sometimes detached from each other) - a particular beautiful and wholly characteristic one - , and establishes a mood that is clearly intended to be erotic. The harmonies here are full of chromatic inflections, Scriabin makes enchanting use of trills (which are to become of great significance later in the cycle of piano sonatas) and, later, the melody is decorated with a delightful flow of shimmering semiquaver figuration. The second movement, in sonata form, then takes flight - the first, confident and rhythmically punchy, the second more lyrical but sharing is sense of elation - the elation climaxing with the return of the Andante's theme - a passage of especial exhilaration in an already-exhilarating movement. The Fourth Sonata in Scriabin's favourite and more fruitful key is a particular favourite of mine.

With the Fifth Sonata, Op.53 of 1907 we are firmly into the 'transition period' of Scriabin's musical life, when he has become fully Scriabinesque but hasn't moved fully over into the domain of the 'mystic chord'. The harmonies are frequently based on fourths and the work, while being vaguely centred around F sharp major, wanders far harmonically. The piece was written at the time of the Poem of Ecstasy and shares much of its spirit - moving from the low, dark rumble of its murky opening, through the delicate, languid melody of its introduction (which seems, as with that 'fate motif' figure I believe to be shared by the first and second sonatas, to deliberately echo the ecstatic theme of the Fourth Sonata) and onto the exuberant main theme of the Presto section (which darts about like a humming bird!) and its declamatory (challenging) and lyrical (languid) companions. Like all the remaining piano sonatas it in a single sonata form movement. Gloom, languor, grotesquery, mystery, ecstasy - all these emotions are evoked in the space of some eleven or twelve minutes-worth of exposition, development and recapitulation. The climax is an exciting glimpse of light, though the work ends (unlike the Poem of Ecstasy) veiled in murk again - though this time it is a brilliant murk! The Fifth Sonata remains Scriabin's most widely performed sonata.

Before moving on to the next sonata, another major large-scale piano piece must not be forgotten - the beautiful Poeme-Nocturne, Op.61 of 1911-12, a work contemporary with Prometheus and the Sixth and Seventh Sonatas. Again, the piece cannot said to be firmly rooted in any particular key, though it is, it can fairly be said, non-firmly rooted in D flat. It passes through stages of 'capriciousness', 'gloom', 'a confused murmur', 'voluptuous sleepiness', 'dreaminess', 'passion', more 'languor', 'charm', more 'passion'...and so on...Those markings of Scriabin's give a clear indication of what he was after, though sometimes it's hard for the listener to differentiate the moods quite so clearly - which is sometimes also the case in the late sonatas. The odd thing about this sensitive poetic movement of emotions expressed through music is that, being such a stickler for using sonata form, the same markings and moods come round all over again when the exposition is recapitulated! 

The Sixth Sonata, Op.62 of 1911-12 was actually finished after the Seventh Sonata but I will follow convention and consider it next. We are firmly in the period of 'late' Scriabin, the era of the 'mystic chord' - here a chord of G, C sharp, F, B, E, A flat and D. There's no key signature. The trills that began entering the sonatas as early as the Fourth and also played significant bit-parts in the Fifth - and were also heard in the Poeme-Nocturne - are heard again here, having become an essential aspect of the soundworld of Scriabin. (Their apotheosis is still to come). Scriabin, growing ever more mystical and occultist, felt that this mysterious sonata was a fearsomely dark and nightmarish one, corrupted by actual demonic forces, so much so that he would not play it in public. We travel from mystery, through a vague dream, and seem to seek fight, beset as we are with ominous premonitions of fear. Those fears are justified as all Hell is let loose and a battle between Good and Evil takes place which the forces of Evil appear to win. Well, that's the idea behind the piece. I have to say that it doesn't summon up any demons for me for all its talk (in the score) of "terror". Is that a failing on the part of Scriabin that his music doesn't convey anywhere near the scale of horror he is seeking to evoke/summon? I'll have to say 'yes' to that. I'd add a 'Ah, well. Never mind!' though. There are many striking and beautiful passages in the piece, though I will admit that it has never been a favourite of mine. It doesn't carry quite the same conviction as the best of the Scriabin sonatas.

The Seventh Sonata, Op.64 of 2011 is very closely related to the Sixth Sonata and bears the famous sub-title 'White Mass' and is widely said to be an exorcism to rid the composer's music of the rampant demons of the Sixth Sonata. The brutal forces are overcome by tender, ecstatic ones and the trills spread their benign influence throughout the piece. Bells-sounds, those other signifiers of late Scriabin, are another attractive feature of this sonata (single movement, in sonata form). Containing much that is beautiful, I find the White Mass more interesting and involving than its 'evil' twin. The fiercely dissonant climax of the struggle at the midway point of the piece, where bells toll furiously, is genuinely exciting and the ethereal ending is lovely. There are times, especially when the bell-chords return towards the close of the piece, where the soundworld of Messiaen seems close at hand (appropriately, if you pardon the pun, for such a messianic piece). 

The Eighth Sonata, Op.66 of 1912-13 inhabits a more veiled, more withdrawn soundworld than the sonatas that preceded it. Probably for that reason, though also perhaps because for being difficult to play without sounding like a virtuoso showpiece, the sonata has always rather languished in the shadows, performance-wise. Ah, there is another reason too. The piece lacks the kind of melodies that linger in the memory, relying more on gesture-like themes which are whirled into a gentle vortex, powered by his strange harmonies. Though the sonata ends with one of Scriabin's cosmic dances, the composer considered it a tragic sonata and never publicly performed it. All this is unfortunate as the sonata deserves to be far better known. There are many very beautiful things in this most enigmatic of Scriabin sonatas ('Enigmatic' is one of its nicknames!). The extraordinary opening sequence of chords is just the first remarkable thing and they are followed by some consummate part-writing in the beautiful, hypnotic introductory sections. Trills, of course, play a significant role again, especially when the main Allegro section gets going. The main theme of that  sonata form Allegro is punctuated by delicious, Debussyan showers of figuration. You will have to discover what else this fascinating sonata has to offer by listening to it!

The Ninth Sonata, Op.68 of 1912-13 bears the notorious nickname 'Black Mass'. There are no thematic connections to the White Mass Sonata though, which - as we saw - in the 'good twin' of the Sixth Sonata instead. Chronologically, the Ninth was written more at the time of the Sixth Sonata and pre-dated the Eighth Sonata (which is closer in some respects to the Tenth Sonata). That is not surprising when you hear the piece. I prefer it, though, to either of those sonatas. The peculiarly dissonant quality of the piece arises through its pervasive use of the minor ninth (that elongation beyond an octave of the most dissonant of all intervals, the minor second). Often in Scriabin such dissonances don't sound unpleasant to the ear and, especially once you are acclimatised to them, sound almost consonant. Here, however, do sound pretty dissonant - particularly at the work's thrilling climax. The opening of this piece is one of those moments where the occasional similarity of Scriabin's soundworld to that of Debussy really stands out. These vague chords, with their trails of airy, tumbling arpeggios, are soon interrupted by a mysterious, dark figure that sounds like a sinister echo of Beethoven's 'fate knocking at the door' figure. The sinister effect is heightened by the tritones rocking back and forth in the bass. After a repetition of these themes, trills enter stage right and begin to cast their strange, luminous spell, first as part of a swaying theme. There's a beautiful second subject of languid character, though here the languor again has a strikingly Debussyan character. The trills here and the fast flurries of high-register grace notes (which remind me of the sound of crickets chirping) create a magical nocturnal atmosphere. The tritones steal back in at the bottom of the texture as the trills proliferate and we pass into the development section of this single-movement sonata form piece. The rhythms get more intricate, the bass register assumes centre-stage more frequently, and the diabolical elements contend with limpid writing of hypnotic beauty. The reverie and the sinister elements are in contention here. Who wins out? Well, during the recapitulation the second subject loses it Debussyan purity and is distorted in a remarkable way. A diabolical march enters with thunderous bell-like chords for accompaniment - a striking moment. Trills flood in bearing light, but the movement swirls upwards with the all-conquering march growing ever wilder, dissonant and exciting. In the wake of this thrilling climax, the vague chords of the opening return and the piece ends. Unless you are superstitious, I doubt you will feel that the piece evokes a truly satanic presence. That climax is, however, wonderfully Hammer House of Horror. The Debussyan beauty and the dissonant thrills and spills of this gloriously proportioned sonata have always given it a special place in Scriabin's output. I place it with the Second and Fourth sonatas as being one of my four favourites, which just leaves...

The Tenth Sonata, Op.70 of 1913, another of my four favourites, has no official sub-title, though it has acquired a couple of nicknames - 'The Trill' and 'The Insects'. The reason for the first nickname will be self-explanatory to anyone who hears the sonata. It is the apotheosis of the trill. It's a striking coincidence (if coincidence it be) that Scriabin's final piano sonata makes the spiritually cleaning power of the trill such an essential feature much as Beethoven's final sonata, Op.111, very deliberately crowned its final movement with a string of magical trills. The second nickname arises from Scriabin's description of the piece as a "sonata of insects...born from the sun; they are the sun's kisses." The magical nocturnal passages in the Black Mass sonata seem to be being re-imagined - with added crickets! - as if a new dawn. This really is a beautiful work, with another rather Debussyan introduction - a highly attractive and unusual melody, echoed quietly in the higher registers (by insects?) then replayed with gorgeous harmonies. This whole passage is delicious. It ends in trills. The Allegro section bursts in enthusiastically. Trills cover the continuation of its main theme. The second subject is full of trills and shimmering tremolos. Sonata form processes are followed, thematically-(not harmonically-)speaking and there's a development section that rises to a luminous, trill-saturated climax that always makes my day whenever I hear it. The recapitulation recolours some of its material and then launches into another of Scriabin's cosmic dances before the sonata returns to where it began. Late Scriabin is full of such delights - as you will know if you listened to the late miniatures. 

Ah, Scriabin. What a composer!

(P.S. the paintings in this post are by the Italian symbolist painter, Gaetano Previati). 

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