Sunday, 17 June 2012

Scriabin 1: Towards the Flame

As Debussy was working his graceful musical revolution in France so Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was working something not too dissimilar in Russia.

Scriabin's development from Op.1 to Op.74 is one of the most interesting in music, changing him from an accomplished imitator into a total original. He began as a follower of Chopin, though with an added dash of Liszt. An ever-open ear took in Wagner and his ever-more-chromatic German followers, plus - even more tellingly - those French looseners of tonality, Debussy and Ravel. Such influences, however, fade into insignificance as Scriabin began ploughing his own furrow. He started to systematically undermine tonality by developing harmonies and synthetic scales derived from what he called 'the mystic chord' - a dissonant chord comprising six notes built on fourths:

As you listen through the opuses of Alexander Scriabin, proceeding chronologically, the trajectory becomes clear. Beginning as a harmonically-conventional composer writing late-Romantic piano music, his works gradually begin to import chromatic elements that destabilise the traditional triadic-based scheme of things, weakening the old tonic-dominant progressions until, in time, Classical-Romantic tonality becomes so weak that key signatures in Scriabin's pieces became surplus to requirements. Eventually the rupture with traditional tonality becomes complete. The 'mystic chord' and all that flows from it create an entirely new system of tonal progressions.

Scriabin's music doesn't sound like most peoples' idea of what Russian music should sound like yet this systematic exploration of made-up scales and their resultant harmonic novelties was something of a Russian speciality. Glinka had explored the whole-tone scale (later taken up famously by Debussy) and Rimsky-Korsakov claimed the credit for inventing the octatonic scale (later adopted so thoroughly by Messiaen). Scriabin, however, went much further than any of his compatriots in systematising such discoveries and making them his own. This helps give his music a quality that was completely new - a quality captured by the word 'Scriabinesque'. Many other composers were to write 'Scriabinesque' music in his wake; none before him.

If there is sometimes a similarity of sound between passages of Scriabin and passages of Debussy, especially in the piano music, this is probably because the scale derived from the mystic chord is quite close to Debussy's beloved whole tone scale. It's also doubtless because Scriabin, like Debussy, pioneered a new way of composing for the piano - flooding the keyboard with fresh sounds in a way we tend to think of as 'impressionistic'.

I'd like to provide you with three chronological surveys of Scriabin's music, giving you three separate approaches to the very pleasant task of hearing how Scriabin became an original composer. (I will place an asterisk next to my personal favourites). In later posts I'll look at the orchestral pieces (including the symphonies) and the larger-scale piano pieces (including the ten sonatas).

1. The miniature piano pieces

If you want proof that Scriabin began as a Chopin disciple then you need listen no further than to his first published piece, the Waltz in F minor, Op.1, written when he was just 13. Even here, however, there are a couple of chords that create clashes which seem (with the benefit of hindsight alone) to anticipate the composer to come. Purely in the spirit of Chopin, however, and with no anticipations of such things is the lovely Etude in C sharp minor, Op.2/1* - a piece (written a couple of years later) that, despite being a child's work, has won the affection of many a famous pianist and charmed the listeners who know it. The tune is one that, unusually for Scriabin, does sound like a Russian melody.

From the same set, and providing the first example of a Scriabin prelude - and Scriabin continued to inspired by the form(s) of Chopin's glorious Preludes, Op.28 throughout his life - comes the tender and just as beguiling Prelude in B major, Op.2/2*. The set is completed with the first taste of a Scriabin mazurka (that quintessential Chopin dance-form) - the Impromptu à la Mazur Op.2/3. A complete set of ten mazurkas followed, his Op.3. Though these are the work of a seventeen year-old, they are remarkably assured and far from inconsequential. If you like Chopin's mazurkas then you will like these too. Signs of the Scriabin to come are few and far between, except for the way he sometimes seems to fill the whole keyboard with sound. I'm particularly taken with the sixth and tenth numbers from the set - the latter one of Scriabin's most Tchaikovskyan utterances.

For a flavour of other early influences - clearly Liszt, and (maybe) Brahms in the passages of cross-rhythms - please try the Allegro appassionata in E flat minor, Op.4. There's plenty of brooding high-Romantic rhetoric here but also a sensuous, highly lyrical second subject that I suspect you will find as attractive as I do. The two Nocturnes, Op.5, however, fall firmly into the Chopinesque category. The second nocturne has an especially winning melody and a lovely ending. The first of the Impromptus a la Mazur, Op.7 is a lesser piece in mazurka style while its companion engages more interestingly in cross-rhythms (four against six).

These works are those of a fine young composing mind but with the Twelve Études, Op.8* we have made a great leap forward into adult mastery. Yes Scriabin still shows himself to be composing as a faithful disciple of Chopin (the title itself says as much) and there are few pieces that sound Scriabinesque (in the sense that most people mean) but this set is such a masterpiece that its landmark status must be registered. It really is worthy of Chopin himself. Favourites of mine are No.1 in C sharp minor (a luminous downpour of triplets), No.4 in B major (a tender entwining of five-note figures in one hand against three-note figures in the other that conjures up the image in my hand of lovers holding hands), the dashing No.5 in E major (with its glinting octaves), No.6 in A major (a captivating study in sixths that sways like reeds in a summer breeze), the vertiginous No.10 in D flat major, the Tchaikovsky-tinged No.11 in B flat minor (with its sorrowful tune) and, finally, No.12 in D sharp minor - that passionate echo of Chopin's great Revolutionary Study and always the most popular piece of the set. Also well worth listening out for is No.8 in A flat major, a nocturne-like number where a glimpse of Scriabin's coming sense of harmonic daring can be heard, ever so gently, and No.9 in G sharp minor - an heroic struggle, complete with trumpets and horses' hooves. The rest aren't bad either!

The Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand only, Op.9 (apparently composed after injuring his right shoulder blade) are also exceptionally fine pieces. Chopin is the guiding spirit behind the Prelude while the presence of Liszt might be felt in the Nocturne*. Both should win your heart through their warmth and melodic attractiveness. Of the Two Impromptus, Op.10, the first is the best and boasts a fine hymn-like second theme.

Along with the Op.8 Etudes, the Twenty Four Preludes, Op.11* comprise one of the great large-scale sets of Scriabin's early period and are, if anything, even finer. Those composed over several years, they are carefully arranged (like their inspiration, Chopin's Op.28), to be heard as a set, though individual numbers can be relished for their own sake - and often have been! Little here anticipates the later style of Scriabin but pretty much every piece is a little gem. Beginning with the tender delicacy of No.1 and the thoughtful beauty of  No.2 (with its lovely right-hand figure and interesting harmonies), we pass through the charming spinning wheel motions of No.3 and the bare, solemn No.4 (closer in spirit to the Scriabin of the future), to arrive at the romantic warmth of No.5. No.6 seems to betray the capricious inspiration of Schumann, while No.7 flutters by dreamily. No.8 is fine, delicate and very Chopin-like, while No.9 has a dignity that shines out through its rich textures and No.10 grows from pensive beginnings to a restrained yet heroic climax. NNo.11* is particularly lovely and one of the greatest treasures of the set. No.12*, with its halting phrases, is even dreamier and just as winning. No.13 continues in a peaceful vein before No.14 bursts in with brooding intensity. After this number's abruptly triumphal close, No.15* sounds like a series of tentative questions being asked in response. It establishes a fascinating mood. No.16 ('Misterioso') is a funereal march through a Lisztian landscape. No.17 is a rare dud and No.18 is hardly any more interesting. After this strange, sudden and unexpected dip, No.19 returns us to where we want to be, quality-wise, with a warm, richly-textured, Chopinesque number. No.20 is like a short, sharp wave of energy passing over us while No.21* is deliciously serene and intimate, with a right-hand melody floating on liquid, left-hand arpeggios. No.22 carries us from the same mood through agitation to a gentle if exhausted-sounding close, while No.23 flutters by on butterfly's wings. No.24, the closing prelude, provides a big close - stormy yet stirring.

More preludes and impromptus followed. Of the two Impromptus, Op.12 the second*in B flat minor is the greater; indeed, it is a deeply poetic piece with a truly magnificent climax. Of the Six Preludes, Op.13, the opening piece in C major is unusual in having a Bach-inspired religious aura and sounds not unlike the kind of character piece many Romantic composers (Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt among them) wrote to evoke churchy scenes. Scriabin does add some individual touches and this is a lovely specimen. A short butterfly-like caprice in A minor comes second, followed by a tranquil piece in G major that has something of the character of one of Liszt's Swiss-inspired numbers. Another butterfly-like caprice in E minor comes fourth (containing trills - harbingers of the future) followed by a light, charming Chopinesque number in D major. The final prelude in B minor is tempestuous in a way that recalls Schumann. The first and third pieces are my favourites from Op.13. Of the two Impromptus, Op.14, the first has the sort of tune that Tchaikovsky might have written for one of his charming piano miniatures though the tune is soon engulfed in an improvisatory-sounding flow which also characterises its extremely dreamy companion - a lovely reverie.

The Five Preludes, Op.15 are a less engaging gathering of pieces. The first is no great shakes, despite revolving around a short turning figure (a musical pun, for you there!) while the second is agitated (which is about all that you can say about it). The third creates a rich soundworld through deep bass notes and arpeggios that ripple across the keyboard bearing aloft its easy-on-the-ear melody. The fourth piece is gentle and attractive (and the best of the set) while the fifth is a dreamy sweet nothing.

The Five Preludes, Op.16* are Scriabin back on form. The first piece in B major is especially beautiful, using the keyboard in a way that suggests a melody reflected on gently rippling waters. What a captivating melody it has! The soundworld of early Debussy is close here. The second piece in G sharp minor has a charming, stuttering theme that begins modestly but soon blossoms into passion. No.3 is nocturne-like, unwinding an elegant melodic line against a repeating pattern in the accompaniment. No.4 simply presents a tune in three-bar phrases (highly unusual for Scriabin) with perfectly-judged chords for accompaniment. The tiny No.5 sounds rather as if Schumann's Prophet Bird had turned into a Prophet Butterfly.

The Seven Preludes, Op.17, another fine set, begin with a wistful waltz-like number before moving on to a piece with a Chopin-like melody and a powerful left-hand accompaniment. No.3* is another of Scriabin's reveries and I suspect will cast quite a spell over you. Scriabin's left-hand writing has been growing in strength as the years pass and by now it was quite capable of leading the right-hand in graceful duet, as in No.4. The fifth prelude of Op.17 is heroic in character, while No.6 tugs gently at the heart strings through a thorough-going use of suspensions - resulting in bitter-sweet harmonies that hint at the Scriabin to come. The set ends with an emotionally-wrought number.

A couple of public-sounding works are up next. First the Allegro de Concert, Op.18 - a piece written for virtuosos to play at concerts, so full of dash and drama. The second subject is a romantic and lyrical one which will hit the spot with most listeners. When we next catch up with the Scriabin piano miniatures we find him writing a one-off (for him), a polonaise. The Polonaise in B flat minor, Op.21. This certain has the swagger and glamour of that aristocratic dance but doesn't strike a warm response from me.

With the Four Preludes, Op.22 we have arrived in the world of Scriabin's full maturity. Or half arrived. No.1* in G sharp minor is a melancholy number of much beauty, timid yet passionate, ending on a half cadence. Scriabin's harmony is beginning its journey away from conventional tonality. With No.2 in C sharp minor, chromaticism begins to infiltrate every pour of the music. However, there's a flavour of the mazurka about the charming third number in B major while the closing number of the set in B minor is another charming piece in the old style.

With his style evolving, the Chopin influence fades - albeit gradually. With the masterly Nine Mazurkas, Op.25 (starting at 31.40) Scriabin revisits the dance form most closely associated with his great inspiration and makes it his own. You don't have to listen long to realise that Scriabin's growing intricacy - in terms not just of harmony and texture, but also of rhythm and melody - is taking the mazurka places it hasn't been to before.

After the nervous yet stormy number in F minor that opens the set, the piece in C major* that follows, dancing on air, proliferates its melodic strands most attractively. No.3 in E minor withdraws into melancholy, though it has some luminous key changes along the way. High spirits temporarily banish introspection in No.4 in E major, but darker moods flood back in with the fifth mazurka, the one in C sharp minor - and with them comes chromatic harmony. After such a searching piece, No.6 in F sharp major dances along with sweet wistfulness before rising to a triumphant close. No.7 in F sharp minor is a tense and intricate piece, a tension that is relieved by No.8* in B major - a charming piece with more lovely changes of harmony. The set ends with a mazurka in E flat minor where Scriabin is at his most characteristic.

Scriabin now enters the 20th century and does so with the Two Preludes, Op.27 of 1900. No.1 is a piece full of grieving phrases and shows the power of another chord Scriabin was very keen on:

That chord is put to a lot of use in this piece. The power of harmony was something Scriabin was already a master at harnessing, and here the effect is somewhat Wagnerian (Tristan specifically). The Wagner influence was making itself felt in the contemporaneous First Symphony too. However, it's with the second of these two pieces that Scriabin's harmony shows further evidence of the leap forward he was making at the time. As Debussy was to exorcise Wagner's influence by assimilating all that he needed from it and transforming it into something new, so did Scriabin.

This process can also be heard in the captivating opening piece* (in D flat major, but ending in C major) of the Four Preludes, Op.31. This sensuous number makes telling use of a chord Scriabin was to make much of - the Augmented eleventh:
Op.31 No.2 breaks the spell like a slammed door. It is an aggressive little piece, with punchy rhythms and some crunchy dissonances. No.3 is an agitated study-like affair, while the closing piece* ("in C major") is the set's most harmonically daring number. Its daringness allied to an attractive simplicity rather outs me in mind of Charles Ives. I like it a lot.

When we reach the next opus number there's a sign that we have reached another milestone on the advance of Scriabin towards being 'Scriabin'. There's a new, non-Chopinesque title - and it's going to be an important one for the composer: Two Poems, Op.32*. Oddly, despite that, the melody of the first poem is one of the most Chopinesque of Scriabin's for some time! This piece of nocturnal intimacy is followed by one that, like the second piece in the preceding opus, breaks the spell like a slammed door (or King Mark interrupting Tristan and Isolde). This companion poem is splendidly fierce and impassioned (no, that's not Bartok at the start!) and crammed with fully-packed chords.

This disruption of reverie by violence is beginning to become a recurring feature of Scriabin's music. We might all be relaxing to the soothing, sensual strains of the first two of the Four Preludes, Op.33 - the first* (lovely!) being the more soothing, the second* (even lovelier!) the more sensual - when, wham!, in comes the stormy (if tiny) third piece, followed by the first of the composer's menacing 'belligerent'/'war-like' miniatures.

The progress of Scriabin's ascent to Mount Scriabinesque was not without its delightful moments of backtracking. The Poème Tragique Op.34 is one of two pieces which show Scriabin's Lisztian side at its strongest. All begins with fervent high spirits, but - to the effect of shock and awe - tragedy invades and the music reels, briefly. However, all works out for the best and the fervent high spirits return, ending triumphantly. That's a very Lisztian ground-plan. With the Three Preludes, Op.35 we pass from the wind-swept Chopinism of the first piece, through the gloomy, transfigured Wagnerism of the second and onto the surprising Schumann-like japes of the third, this is one of the most variegated of all Scriabin's sets of piano miniatures. The Poème Satanique in C, Op.36 is the other work that shows a clear Lisztian influence, as Liszt was the great pioneer of the Mephistophelean in music. However, the use of 'the devil in music' - the tritone - which Liszt used in his devilry was also to be a key interval in Scriabin's late style (the 'mystic chord' contains two of them):

Therefore, the Poème Satanique shows further progress up the harmonic slopes. The ironic-sounding and the sensuous-sounding contend in this attractive piece, which is well worth getting to know.

The Four Preludes, Op.37 begin with a warm piece in the romantic style of Scriabin's younger years but follows it with a piece in the composer's favourite key F sharp major where, among the many rich chords, appears for the very first time the 'mystic chord' itself. Here, however, it is but a passing harmony. No.3* is pure Scriabin, a peaceful unfolding of a chromatic melody against warm chords with firm bass notes and little answering figures in the registers. Ah, but now we know not to succumb too wholeheartedly to such easeful sensuality as Scriabin might be about to spring one of his 'belligerent' pieces on us, as indeed he does with the final prelude of the set - a short, aggressive piece with pouncing rhythms and rich arpeggios. The Waltz in A flat major, Op.38 is surprisingly old-fashioned and has a little more pianistic stardust than might have been expected from the composer at this stage in his development. It's good fun. The Four Preludes, Op.39 get off to a confident start with a passionate piece in the old style before switching in No.2 to a radically different mood and harmonic world  - gloomy Wagner transfigured into gloomy Scriabin. No.3* is deliciously mysterious, a languid murmur full of the composer's cross-rhythms and boasting a beautiful melody. No.4 is, in contrast, loud and forceful with rich, sonorous, deep chords and strange harmonies.

Of the Two Mazurkas, Op.40 (from 1:00:20) the first in D flat major* is a gem - full of delicate poetry and passion, as well as possessing a fine melody. Its companion in F sharp major is exquisitely delicate. Sharing the confiding character of these pieces is the gorgeous Poème in D flat major, Op.41*, where one of the composer's most beautiful melodies is caught up an increasing intricate and passionate web of caressing figuration.

Maintaining the high standard of the early 40s, opus-wise, are the superb Eight Etudes, Op.42*. No.1 in D flat major is a study in cross-rhythms and creates a feeling of vertiginous soaring. No.2 in F sharp minor is also a study in cross-rhythms but here the melody is a wistful one and the figuration around it generates an anxious mood. No.3* in F sharp major is a magical study in trills. It has earned itself the nickname 'The Mosquito', though I suspect that might not have been the fluttering image Scriabin himself had in mind! No.4, also in F sharp major, is one of the composer's intimate, romantic numbers. As you might now be expecting, its dreamy spell is broken by No.5* in C sharp minor (‘Affanato’, meaning 'breathless'), a piece full of tense, agitated writing. Scriabin contrasts this, however, with a second melody that gives hope amidst the engulfing darkness. The climax is thrilling. This is one of the greatest of all Scriabin pieces.

No.6 in D flat major bears the marking ‘Esaltato’, meaning 'elated’ - a definite sign of things to come. Cross-rhythms swarm and the harmony swims deliriously without finding resolution (until the end of the piece!). After such a forward-looking piece, the genial No.7 in F minor shows Scriabin backsliding again (but how delightfully!) No.8 in E flat major, a final study in cross-rhythms, again conjures up the feeling of being borne aloft on the wind, like a leaf, in its main section, though the piece has a serious middle section of some harmonic adventure for contrast.

We are getting near to the late pieces now. The first* of the Two Poèmes, Op.44 opens with falling tritones, which continue to be a feature of the piece, giving it a mysterious quality. It is also written in the bass clef for both hands, further darkening the piece's sound. The melody is a beautiful, song-like one. No.2 is unusual in its use of ten-bar phrases and is one of the composer's war-like dances. Of the Three Pieces, Op.45, the first is a dreamy, lyrical Album-Leaf* of exquisite beauty, the second a tiny but harmonically-remarkable Poème fantasque (many tritones, lots of chromaticism) and the third a beautiful Prelude* full of appoggiaturas, unexpected harmonies and rapid flights towards the unknown. The last pair can be justly called 'Scriabinesque'. We have arrived at the 'Scriabinesque' - though the journey towards the full, final style is still far from complete. 

The Scherzo, Op.46 is a piece full of Scriabin-style fantasy and rich chords, with its ebullience (main section) and ardour (trio) suddenly and surprisingly clouded at its close. No recording of the Quasi valse, Op.47 is available for me to link to yet, but it is another piece where appoggiaturas and tritones bear the dance towards new regions of harmony. 

The Four Preludes, Op. 48 are a wholly characteristic set. They open with one of Scriabin's little bundles of aggressive energy (impetuous rhythms mingling with harsh dotted rhythms, sudden harmonic side-shifts), move on to a delicious amorous number* (a lovely melody intimately entangled in duet with delicate, melodically-shapely arpeggiated figuration, very dreamy) followed by an agitated piece with cross-rhythms (slightly sinister) before ending with a brash and brilliant number marked as 'festive'. The Three Pieces, Op.49 begin with a scampering Etude, before moving on to a 'brusque', 'irate' Prelude* full of imperious gestures and sumptuous chords and ending with a beautiful Rêverie*. The first chord of Rêverie shows how beautiful dissonance can be. It consists of five notes  - D, E flat, F, G, A.  The D (acting as an appoggiatura) then 'resolves' onto C, making it somewhat less dissonant (C, Eflat, F, G, A). The effect is bitter-sweet.   

The Four Pieces, Op.51 open with Fragilité*, a charming airborne piece with a tenor melody drifting romantically below lightly dancing triplet chords in the treble clef and above a quietly leaping bass. The following Prelude* bears the marking 'Lugubre' and the piece's mood fully reflects that marking. The piano pieces of Rachmaninov seem quite close here. The third piece, Poème ailé ('Poem of wings'), sends us airborne again in a light caprice. The set closes with a Danse languide. This is exactly what it says it is. The Three Pieces, Op.52 consist of the entrancing Poème* (where Scriabin sails close to Debussy), a fantasy-filled Enigme (which sounds to me, perhaps fancifully, as how Scriabin might have written Petrushka!) and another aptly-named Poème languide .

The works from around Op.38 to Op.52 have often been described as the works of Scriabin's 'transitional period'. They are some of his richest creations.

Before we enter the late period of Scriabin's piano miniatures, it is perhaps time to pause and reflect that there is a lot of music by Scriabin that doesn't sound 'Scriabinesque' in the sense that people seem to mean when they use such a word - meaning 'written in the composer's late manner'. Some listeners don't take to these late pieces (and their cosmic pretensions - which, in my view, are best ignored), with their strange harmonies and other quirks. Such listeners will have found, however, - especially if they've been following this survey! - that the vast bulk of Scriabin's works do not inhabit this late world. There is a feast of fabulous early and middle-period pieces for them to enjoy, without having to ever meet the 'mystic chord' and all its consequences. 

That said, it's time to meet the 'mystic chord' and all its consequences. The late period beckons.

The swaggering opening Prelude Four Pieces, Op.56 hovers between keys (A flat and E flat major) and moods (aggression and ardour) while the following Ironies* is a scherzo that hovers between sarcasm and tenderness. Nuances is regrettably short given how beautiful it is. It is followed by the mischievous fairy-music of the closing Etude. The first of the Two Pieces, Op.57*Désir, is a dreamy number that chromatically seeks to aspire towards its erotic goal. As it is only a desire, that goal is not reached and the music sinks back. Its companion, Caresse dansée, is a slow, listless dance that dreams its way through various keys, its phrase ever falling. Both are exquisite. As is the Feuillet d'Album Op.58, a mystical nocturne written without a key signature. The 'mystical chord' underpins its harmonies - just as a four-note chord derived from it (based on C, F sharp, B and E) underpinned the pair of Op.57. The air floats in from another planet, cool and strange. As it does in the beautiful Poème from the Two Pieces, Op.59*. The air here is mysterious but also fresh and sweet. The Prelude, however, is an extraordinary, bellicose piece full of Bartok's favourite fourths and makes for a dramatic contrast. 

The miniatures of the 60s opuses, far from being daunting, are uniformly a pleasure to hear. There is so much pleasure and charm (and genius) to be found in them that they really ought to be much better known. The Two Pieces, Op.63* are probably Scriabin's most Debussy-like set and are absolutely delightful. They are, of course, underpinned by Scriabin's new harmonic language. The grace and charm of them - the first entitled Masque, the second called Étrangeté - should win them many friends. The Three Etudes, Op.65* tackle in turn melodies played through in ninths (No.1), sevenths (No.2) and fifths (No.3). Some of the sounds we associate with Messiaen's are anticipated here as a result. This is a particularly beautiful set, full of shimmering light. The first, my favourite, is spectral and magical. The second is languid and delicious, with momentary flutterings. The third is an exciting tussle between aerial dance and aggressive energy. 

The first of the Two Preludes, Op.67 meditates with gentle obsessiveness over a short phrase and a set of vague harmonies. A fascinating, poetic piece. Its companion is a charming dance that shimmers before our (musical) eyes and is notable for its striking mobile left-hand. The effect of the latter was compared at the time to hundreds of multi-coloured night moths fluttering about in the semi-darkness. The Two Poèmes, Op.69* are another loveable pairing. The first piece is tender, dreamy and lyrical while its companion is a good-natured-sounding caprice that always makes me smile. 

The attractiveness of Scriabin's late miniatures continues as we encounter the final opuses. The opening piece, Fantastique,  of the Two Poèmes, Op.71is full of attractive bell sounds (worthy of Ravel and Debussy) and is as beautiful as can be. Its gorgeous companion, En rêvant, is an intimate piece full of lyricism and gently caressing trills. 

The famous Poème: Vers la Flamme, Op.72* has been called one of the most effective crescendos in music. It travels from murky mystery at the start with slow-moving, introspective harmonies, gathers pace as it moves ever higher in register, erupts into light with brilliant trills and resonant bell-sounds and finally reaches a triumphantly blazing conclusion. It's a magnificent piece.

The Deux danses, Op.73are subtle and rewarding pieces. It is initially hard to hear the first, Guirlandes ('Garlands'), as a dance at all, but repeated listening reveals it to be the sort of mystic dance that Debussy also wrote in his Danseuses de Delphes. I would be intrigued to see Flammes sombres ('Dark flames') choreographed as it would make a fascinating piece of ballet music. As the title suggests, this is music that murmurs and flickers. 

Well, here we are. The final set of miniatures has arrived - the Five Preludes, Op.74*. The titles of the five pieces give a very good idea of their individual characters - (1) Douloureu. Dechirant, (2) Tres lent. Contemplatif, (3) Allegro drammatico, (4) Lent. Vague. Indecis and (5) Fier. Belliqueux. The set as a whole captures many of the moods we've met before in various guises many times in this survey. The first piece is short but touching, while the second (my favourite) has a gentle funereal tread (sounding like low, distant bells) and sings a sad song around falling chromatic figures. After this hypnotic gem, the third prelude is dramatic in the tragic sense, while the fourth takes Scriabin's harmony as far towards atonality as it ever got, at least in the way it sounds to the listening ear. It remains beautiful, however dissonant it is. The final piece is a final proud, bellicose number, using more bell-sounds as it dances and swirls its way to its final half-cadence. 

Well, that's the first run-through done. It has been a very pleasant experience getting to know some of the pieces I didn't already know and reacquainting myself with those I did. Hopefully this survey will have given you a decent overview of Scriabin's development from Op.1 to Op.74. A deeper look at how we should think about Scriabin's achievement overall will have to wait for another day. There are various hot topics that hover around Scriabin that will be discussed in the later posts, which will discuss the larger-scale piano pieces (the sonatas & a couple of other pieces) and the orchestral works. Those will come over the next couple of weeks.

(P.S. The paintings in this post are by three of Russia's major symbolist painters, Mikhail Nesterov, Victor Borisov-Musatov and Mikhail Vrubel.)

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