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8.570412 - SCRIABIN, A.: Piano Music - Poemes / Waltzes / Dances (Wang Xia Yin)

Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915)
Piano Music


Vers la flamme (Toward the Flame), the title of one of Scriabin’s last compositions could be that of this whole collection, in which we witness a creative persona rising almost from its beginnings to its extinction. The first two items come from among Scriabin’s earliest surviving compositions, a group of three valses he wrote when he was fourteen, at that age closely modelling himself on Chopin. Never mind that Chopin had been dead for nearly forty years; what had been Chopin’s milieu in aristocratic Paris, with the piano at the centre of drawing-room culture as an instrument of seduction and display, was also, and still, Scriabin’s in Moscow. Six years after these waltzes were composed, the one in F minor was among several pieces accepted for publication by the prestigious firm of Jurgenson, and, being the earliest so selected, it was distinguished as the composer’s Op. 1.

Scriabin composed his single Polonaise several years later, when he was 25, about to be married, and a client of the patron-publisher Mitrofan Belyayev. Chopin, though, remained his idol. The Fantaisie in B minor, Op. 28, came only two years later, in 1900, but this is a different world. To be sure, the difference is partly one of genre: unlike the dance pieces, with their simply contrasting middle sections, the Fantaisie has the more developed form of a sonata first movement, but there is a difference, too, of style, of ethos. In its gestures of melodic rapture and its harmonic richness, the work abandons Chopinesque poise for abandonment. When all seems to be winding down, after the elaborated return, with canonic echoes, of the gorgeous melody that functions as second subject, the music moves through Wagnerian sequences into an extended coda.

Three years later again, with his Deux Poèmes, Op. 32, Scriabin introduced a new genre and title. Recently his life had changed: he had left his wife, his four children, and Russia for a new admirer, Tatyana Schloezer, and western Europe. Musically he was at home in his own harmonic realm, where chords previously regarded as passing or decorative had become central, and no longer seeking to go anywhere else. The two poems show his alternatives to normal harmonic movement: the first, in F sharp major, remains dreamily with the same chords and impulses, having a second subject marked inferando (elusive), while the short second, in D major, is dynamised by pulsation, above which it keeps repeating a characteristic ecstatic lift.

In the same epoch-making year of 1903, Scriabin produced his Fourth Sonata and several other works, including the Poème tragique, the Poème satanique, the A flat Valse, and the Op. 41 Poème. The Poème tragique is tragic only in the sense that grand events are going on; it opens, to quote the explicit markings that were entering Scriabin’s music at this time, festivamente (festively) and fastoso (lavishly), and is set exuberantly in B flat major.

Rather similarly, the next poem is not altogether satanic. The piece vividly and vigorously opposes two short strains apparently meant to represent the devil laughing at love. According to the composer himself, however: “Everything in it is hypocritical and false”. And we might want to bear that in mind when listening to other pieces here, that the imagery of bombast and ecstasy—or, as in this poem, mockery and sweetness—may be ironic, that the composer may be fingering a collection of masks.

In the Valse in A flat major, Op. 38, they are old ones, as he makes this single return to a genre of his youth. This is not a waltz for waltzing, the rhythm being obscured by figuration and opulent harmony. It is a waltz seen through frosted glass, or, as Scriabin put it, a “dream-vision” of a waltz. Completing this sequence of pieces from 1903, the unjustly neglected Poème in D flat, Op. 41, offers melody sounding above and through ripples, with an agitato middle section.

Now we move ahead again, to 1907, and to the first pieces Scriabin composed at a new home in Switzerland. The first of this Op. 52 set is another Poème, remarkable for how its floating, drifting events necessitate a change of time signature with almost each new measure. Its first phrase is voilé (veiled); several times later the marking is avec langueur (with languor). Suspended among exquisite dissonances and bell sounds, the music has no goal in sight, and the final C major chord seems barely relevant. At the end of the compact Enigme, with its capricious main music and voluptueux middle section, there is no such sop to normality, nor is there in the Poème languide, just twelve measures long.

The Feuillet d’album (Albumleaf), Op. 58, is not much longer, and still more static. Another three or four years have passed; Scriabin is back in Russia (though not back with his family). This extraordinary small piece could be a postscript to his last big score, Prometheus; the harmony is now marooned in almost stationary pools and circlings, and there are no standard chords. Instead, after a two-measure gesture halfway through that is repeated, we arrive at an instance of what has become known as Scriabin’s “mystic chord,” a six-note sonority that, here sustained, seems to be filled with haze and possibility.

One possibility to emerge from that mysterious resonance was Vers la flamme, which Scriabin composed early in 1914, when he was planning a great enactment of music, dance, ceremony, colour, and perfume, Mysterium, whose effect he hoped would be cosmic. Moving from slow, sombre footfalls to intense exhilaration, Vers la flamme was a statement of intent. Harmonies all through relate to the composer’s preferred six-note sound, with its prominently projected tritones, and a falling semitone ominously signals now and again above textures that grow in complexity as they spread up the keyboard. Where chords first break up into arpeggiations, Scriabin marks the music avec une émotion naissante (with a dawning emotion); when the halfsteps down come back, after a phase of acceleration, the marking is éclatant, lumineux (sparkling, luminous). Intensification goes on to a point beyond which it cannot continue, and there the music cuts off.

This might be the story of Scriabin’s life. Little more than a year was now left to him, and in that time, besides making sketches toward his Mysterium, he completed just two more sets of piano pieces: the Deux Danses, Op. 73, and Five Preludes, Op. 74. The dances may perhaps suggest what he was imagining for the Mysterium: an exacerbated sensuousness, virtually static, in Guirlandes (Garlands), marked avec une grâce languissante (with a languishing grace), and all of that with bursts of manic energy in Flammes sombres (Dark Flames). Both pieces end on what is effectively the same chord (a third lower in Flammes sombres), a harmony similar to those that had been increasingly infusing Scriabin’s music—the sound he had been searching for, and had found.

Xiayin Wang

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