Yevgeny Sudbin

Essays

Scriabin Liner Notes
Oh how easy it is to become possessed by Scriabin, one of the most enigmatic and controversial artistic personalities of all time. Once one is bitten and the venom, in the form of his sound world, enters the body and soul, the effects become all-encompassing, even life-threatening! Not only emotionally - as one's desperate quest for answers only results in more questions - but also physically, the reactions can be severe. Scriabin was not only the first to introduce madness into music; he also managed to synthesize it into an infectious virus that is entirely music-borne and affects the psyche in a highly irrational way. Thus 'mystical experiences' have been reported by listeners. One London critic described: 'In my own case, on two occasions, I have seen radiant flashes of blinding coloured lights during performances of Scriabin's music... It was totally different from the "thrill" of sensation or "tears" of pleasure, those emotions more commonly associated with conventional music... This experience convinces me that Scriabin's music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood.' Others describe having visions of waves of light, golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of fire during performances, even without the help of LSD. In all seriousness, however: if the effects are as radical on the receiving end, they are certainly no less intense on the performer's part.

When I first became involved with Scriabin's music, Scriabin eclipsed everything in my life. The passion and curiosity for the music and the persona seemed self-nourishing and even destructive in its nature, almost like a type of lust, and wouldn't subside. Even if I wasn't always swimming in 'violet oceans', the penetrating cosmic sounds that imploded space and time and the often erotic sub-contexts, ignited every cell in my body. As with all over-reactions, it is crucial what is left after the initial sensations cool off - that residue will either condense into enduring reverence or evaporate like smoke.

What is it about Scriabin that makes his venom so poisonous? Apart from being a composer-pianist, poet, solipsist, semi-, neo- and theophilosopher, musical thaumaturge and mystagogue - and those were only his part-time jobs - he was, above all, a visionary way ahead of his time. (At times a little delusional, perhaps, but this has never stopped greatness from budding.) In fact, to judge by some of his later poems, which frequently accompanied his compositions, he may have been ahead of the whole of humanity:

I am come to tell you the secret of life
The secret of death
The secret of heaven and earth.

If you think this is too intense, try this:
I am God!
I am nothing, I'm play, I am freedom, I am life.
I am the boundary, I am the peak.


Parallels have often been drawn between Christ and Scriabin, and, amusingly, Scriabin himself did little to discourage people from doing so. He liked elucidating his dreams while standing on chairs, as if floating in the air. Some have also made much of the fact that, like Christ, Scriabin was born on Christmas Day (1871, Julian calendar), and died at Easter (1915). He once attempted to walk on the waters of Lake Geneva; when failing this, he made do with preaching to the fishermen from a boat. Scriabin's friends described his manner of walking as if he was 'flying': he would hop, race, skip and jump. In fact, he even carried out 'flying experiments' with his wife, attempting to transport his body through the air. Once when approaching a bridge, he exclaimed that he could fling himself over the railing and stay 'suspended in the air... unharmed'. (Only one person asked him for a demonstration.) As a result, Scriabin came up with the concept of vzlyot (flight or upsurge) that can often be found in his music (e.g. the opening of his Fifth Sonata).

While Scriabin may have envisioned himself as a kind of Messiah bequesting spiritual liberation, his objective was to show how mankind can will itself to become God. The way to achieve this was through art, as, for Scriabin, art was above everything and everyone. Many of his philosophical musings were built on theosophy, whereby the experience of God is attained through spiritual ecstasy. Previously influenced by Nietzsche's Übermensch concept, Scriabin arrived at theosophy almost intuitively and combined it with a dash of mysticism. While some composers explored mysticism and symbolism in their works (like Strauss in Death and Transfiguration or Schoenberg in Transfigured Night), Scriabin was the first actually to invoke mysticism rather than portray it. In fact, the closest parallels can be drawn to the poet William Blake or the painter Nicholas Roerich.

Scriabin was also the first to introduce sex into his music, and quite explicitly too. While acknowledging Brahms' romanticism and Wagner's gardens of worldly temptations, Scriabin went several steps further, when he wrote music entitled Desire, Danced Caress, Sensual Delights and, above all, the Poem of Ecstasy. Some of the passages from the accompanying poem leave little to the imagination and are too explicit to mention (as is indeed the music, but even censorship has a limit).

The Soviets could smell greatness from a mile away but, in order to make Scriabin compatible with their brainwashed, uptight socio-realistic propaganda, they had no choice but to obscure and caricature him, and quite perversely so. In complete disregard of the sexual and mystical contexts, Scriabin was made into a revolutionary, cosmonautic mascot. 'A triumphant synthesis of the meaning of art and revolution', the magazine Soviet Music summarized, and when the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin performed the first flight into space, it was, quite inappropriately, the Poem of Ecstasy that was broadcast into the 'ether'. This process found its ideological raison d'être in Lenin's dictum: 'If we have before us a truly great artist, then he must represent in his works certain essential aspects of the Revolution even in cases where he does not clearly understand and openly avoids it.'

Yet the Western perception of Scriabin hasn't been flawless either, and therein lies the irony: while the Soviets were 'ordered' to misunderstand Scriabin, much of the audience in the West did so voluntarily. It could not be helped; the meanings behind his music often crossed over into madness. This, combined with the music's euphoric nature, often led to freakish opinions resulting in his audience appearing no less mad than the music. There was also controversy regarding Scriabin's person. Reminiscences by four different persons disagree on such trivial matters as the colour of his eyes (they were hazel). Even reports about Scriabin's apparent reluctance of sitting on the grass for fear of chigger bites or his refusal to wear a hat deserve some suspicion since there are several photographs of him lounging happily on the lawn and, even worse, one where he wears a hat! He was said always to carry a comb, spending ages brushing his hair and moustache to look flawless. Yet there is a formal portrait in which his hair, and general appearance, is a rat's nest. There have also been several attempts to explore the possibility of homosexuality as an answer to some questions. Typically, this only questioned more answers: while Robert Craft described Scriabin as 'emotionally hermaphrodite', Henry-Louis de la Grange concluded that Scriabin had an 'inverted impotence complex'.

During his student years, Scriabin perceived himself solely as a pianist, but even so, by the time he was fourteen, he was composing some of his most introspective works. One later became his calling-card in the West, the Étude in C sharp minor, Op.2 No.1 (1886). This miniature lasts less than three minutes but compresses the emotional depths of a century. The simple, ascending melody is supported by sonorous chords and is occasionally enveloped in polyphonic voices. It has so many of the qualities that prevailed in Russian art: it's searching, nostalgic and expansive. The Étude in D sharp minor, Op.8 No.12 (1894), together with the one in C sharp minor, became a trademark of Horowitz, who later hatched into one of Scriabin's greatest advocates, along with Sofronitsky and Richter. This étude is rhapsodic in character, never aggressive, with a contrasting, intimately seductive middle-section. The whole piece is based around a series of cadences, repeated over and over again. This creates a feeling of closely spaced multiple climaxes that, ideally, should become stronger each time they happen - even if the performer is male.

Cadences are something that Scriabin refused to employ in his later works, thus leaving the listener unsatisfied. The whole concept of suppressing the climaxes becomes a matter of postponing, instead of achieving a release - a much more powerful experience, according to Scriabin. His Fifth Sonata, for instance, doesn't really have any 'clean' chords, i.e. chords without some sort of an augmented or diminished note attached to them. This creates an illusion of the piece floating in the air, unresolved. Hence the entire work becomes one giant build-up on the verge of a climax lasting around 12 minutes.

While studying at the Moscow Conservatory, Scriabin composed ten little musical treasures, the Mazurkas, Op.3 (1888-89). They show Scriabin's most poetic and innocently charming qualities - a rare combination and one seldom encountered in his later works. Rarely performed, they have misleadingly been labelled 'faded valentines' and less interesting imitations of Chopin's more 'authentic' creations. While Scriabin's deep admiration for the Polish master was incontrovertible, the Mazurkas speak in Scriabin's own most intimate and adventurous language, using the typical mazurka dance-elements as its matrix. While their harmonic structure is straightforward, the unexpected changes of key and the occasional sprinkle of chromaticism exhale exotic scents.

Scriabin was also the first Russian composer who used sonata form to create true masterworks. Despite previous attempts by Tchaikovsky or Balakirev, the model simply didn't exist within the Russian tradition. As Asafiev noticed, the ten sonatas are 'the high point in the evolution of the Russian sonata'. They also trace Scriabin's musical, spiritual and philosophical progression from a 19th-century Russian composer of graceful morceaux to a mystical avant-gardist. With the First Sonata composed at 21 and the Tenth two years before his death, they are the thread that joins together his entire output.

Abandoning the Romanticism of his First Sonata, in the second - his Sonata-Fantaisie in G sharp minor, Op.19 - Scriabin enters the realms of Impressionism. Despite its short duration, no other piece took him as long to compose: 1892-97. The work is inspired by three different seas: the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Scriabin writes: 'The first section represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitations of the deep, deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming after the first darkness of night. The second movement, Presto, represents the vast expanse of ocean stormily agitated.'

Incidentally, E major is the same key that Rimsky-Korsakov used to emphasize the colour of his seascapes. While Rimsky-Korsakov was a sound/colour synæsthete - someone who could see colours from sounds - Scriabin didn't actually have this peculiarity. Instead, he used a system based on Newton's Optics, lined up with the circle of fifths. Later in life, Scriabin became increasingly fixated with transmuting light into sound and, palindromically, sound into light, believing that the ancient Greek gods communicated by discharging flashes of lights. He was the first composer to attempt reproducing light rather than imitating it, as if to have a chat with the gods.

I cannot recall any other work that has the same effect on me. Firstly, it portrays the sea more vividly than the real thing, manipulating your senses: you can actually smell the sea air, taste the salt water and often feel the fresh breeze change directions. Secondly, and most importantly, it evokes a primordial emotion that captures this metaphysical experience on another plane altogether - maybe similar to the emotion experienced by our distant progenitors. Rarely do the two qualities come together as genuinely as they do in this piece.

Moving on from reproduction into plain sex, Sonata No.5, Op.53, was written in 1907 and is often referred to as a glorious afterthought to his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54 (1905-08). In fact, the sonata is headed with an extract from the poem, which accompanied the symphonic work:

I summon you to life, hidden longings!
You, sunken in the sombre depths of creative spirit,
You timid embryos of life,
To you bring I daring!


The basic idea behind the symphonic poem was to permit the freedom of unconstrained action to suffuse the entire world and dissolve it into ecstasy. Just like the poem itself, some of Scriabin's score markings for both the orchestral piece and the sonata provide a memorable, naughty read: accarezzevole (caressingly), très parfumé (very perfumed) and avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic). The key word in the sonata, however, is the final estàtico (ecstatically), which signals self-assertion. Scriabin triumphs in 'light and ecstasy'. 'I am' would be the corresponding passage in the poem, only reached after the full range of emotions and experiences has been exhausted: luscious stimulation followed by soothing languor, doubt, 'the maggot of satiety... the bite of hyenas... sting of serpent', intoxication, burning kisses, love-making and finally, the all-encompassing experience of ecstasy. (Scriabin wrote: 'the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act. I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation...') The Fifth Sonata, regrettably, is only a do-it-yourself version of all this.

In contrast to the Second Sonata, the delirious Fifth was his quickest composition - it only took him six days. Richter thought it was the most difficult piece in the entire piano repertoire. Although nominally in F sharp major, this one-movement sonata proudly announces a new, atonal era in Scriabin's development, as it cuts the moorings to tonality. From this moment, there are no more compulsory modulations; cadences vanish and the elements that constitute the sonata form become more diffuse. Unusual clusters of chords based on tritones and diminished sevenths begin to appear, foreboding Scriabin's 'Mystic Chord' that he developed and used extensively later, particularly in Prometheus and his Messe noire sonata. From this point, Scriabin's harmony becomes impossible to comprehend under traditional tonal rules; melody and harmony become one indivisible whole. For 60 years musicologists tried to break the code behind his harmonic system and only in 1968 did the Soviet musicologist Dernova manage. Sort of. The reason the code was unbreakable was mainly because the chords were thought to relate to some kind of a tonal centre. But the key was to view the chords themselves as independent, self-sustaining tonal centres with their own implied or expressed simultaneous 'tonics'.

Scriabin's chords have a sound similar to Debussy's post-Wagnerian 'enhanced' dominant seventh chords and even share characteristics with the typical 'terminal' chord in jazz and ragtime which was starting to blossom around the same time (c.1900). The actual 'Mystic Chord' can be broken up into six notes to produce simultaneously harmonies, chords and melodies in a serialist manner - a term not coined until 1947. Scriabin did exactly that in Poème, Op.59 No.1 (1910), before Schoenberg came up with his twelve-tone technique, one of the main differences being that Scriabin didn't use his system as rigidly. It's obvious, however: had Scriabin lived a little longer, the twelve-tone technique that sparked a whole new movement could easily have been conceived under his pen, instead of Schoenberg's.

Apart from its architectonic properties, another perplexing quality of a Scriabin chord is the sheer variety of moods it can induce, depending on the context: in the Fifth Sonata the same chord can sound icy, cosmic and even frightening (bar 23) or warm, hopeful and nostalgic (bar 183). The warmth radiating from this particular chord - the 'warmest' place in the piece - feels like a heated blanket gently enfolding the cold universe. This is where, for me, Scriabin wins over serialism where any potential variety of moods is mostly a by-product of randomness within the limits of the simplistic rules applied.

The sweet melancholy, found in Nuances (from Four Pieces, Op.56), is preciously rare in Scriabin's late period. In fact this is the last work without a shadow of mysticism: a work that isn't afraid to show sincere, human emotion, without Satan barging in.

Satan is very much present all over the Ninth Sonata, Op.68 (1913), nicknamed Messe noire (Black Mass). It was conceived during an extraordinary period in the history of Russia, full of political turmoil foreboding the October Revolution of 1917. Uncertainty and fears about the future were reflected in the confused spiritual state of the people from the start of the century. The rituals implied in this piece vividly reflect acts of devil worship, sadism, necrophilia, cannibalism and all the other perverse, blasphemous ceremonies that were thriving all over Russia. There is no direct evidence that Scriabin was actively involved in any of the hardcore rites, even if he insisted that he was 'practising sorcery' whenever playing this sonata. But some of his friends certainly did: the painter Nikolai Sperling drank human blood and ate human flesh in order to achieve mystical experiences. Even Leo Tolstoy indulged in occasional anti-social boozing: a cocktail made of vodka, gunpowder and congealed blood was one of his preferred beverages.

While Scriabin's Seventh Sonata exorcizes the demons, the Ninth summons them back into living hell. The figuration in the first four bars of the Ninth slithers downward in a chromatic movement, leaving quite a revolting aftertaste. This figuration is the nucleus of the sonata, an omen of everything foul and vexatious that is or isn't known to man. The downward arpeggios, based on Scriabin's 'Mystic Chord', envelop the theme like a throbbing, liquid glob. Occasionally, a sequence of upward movement is attempted, towards the light, but it never quite succeeds and is immediately interrupted by the detached, ferociously ominous call of a second figuration consisting of repeated notes. This call is often echoed in other registers, erupting into howls of burning trills which resemble creatures from hell, crawling out and announcing the arrival of Satan.

The beguilingly seductive theme of the second subject emerges like the distant song of a siren. Scriabin particularly loved it and described it as 'dormant or dreaming saintliness'. (There is, as usual, no distinction in Scriabin's perception between divine and sensual passions, as demonstrated when he marks the score avec une langueur naissante, 'with nascent languor'.) The theme later develops into a 'sweetness that gradually turns more caressing and poisonous' (according to the score marking). It's enveloped within the same arpeggiated glob and, again, interrupted by more squirming creatures, which become increasingly active (rhythmical) and eventually latch themselves onto the second subject. The most horrifying moment however is when the second subject makes its final appearance in Alla Marcia: by then it is clear that the siren is the Devil. The piece is 'spitting on all that is holy or sacred' and Scriabin called it 'nightmarish visions of wickedness'. I can't think of a sicker piece, or one that evokes as much terror.

As with most self-destructive transcendentalists, it all ends in tears. As the summit of his life work and the culmination of his visions, Scriabin was preparing the final salvation of mankind: not through atonement of sins (as had been attempted before) but by consecration through art. This was to be achieved by synthesizing all the human senses through one orgiastic performance of his final piece: Mysterium. The performance was planned to last seven days in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, beginning with bells suspended from the clouds. They would shatter the universe with their lethal vibrations, after which humanity was to be replaced by better, 'nobler beings'. He never completed the piece. Just as he was preparing some texts about death, death arrived. A pimple formed on his lip, which became infected, and Scriabin died of septicæmia before he could fulfill his final calling. Although to my mind he did, but maybe not in the way he had in mind: the moment his music became part of my life, a better being emerged.

The Valse in A flat major, Op.38 (1903), is a fugacious memory of a distant past, reminiscent of that dreamy, glorious period in Scriabin's development, when both Mephistophelian and godly spirits co-existed in a balanced, mercurial and audacious ambiance. This piece is a magic box. Opened slowly, the intensifying, blinding light emitting from inside sets the universe ablaze just to vanish again at the end, leaving but a luscious trace.

© Yevgeny Sudbin 2007
Posted: Feb-8-2010
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