Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): Sonata-Fantasy No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Op. 19 Andante-Presto
Scriabin: Etude No. 2 in F-sharp minor from Douze études, Op. 8
Scriabin: Etude No. 4 in B major from Douze études, Op. 8
Scriabin: Deux poèmes, Op. 32 F-sharp major D major
Scriabin: Sonata No. 10, Op. 70
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849): Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61
Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 55, No. 2
Chopin: Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1
Chopin: Barcarolle in F-sharp minor, Op. 60
Program Notes by Judith Eckelmeyer
The composers on this evening's program, Frédéric Chopin and Alexander Scriabin, represent two distinct but connected phases of the evolution of piano literature through the nineteenth century. Chopin's altogether unique and innovative style, so well known to the modern concert-goer and lover of piano music, broke from the established usage of the instrument to such an extent that even his famous contemporary, the great virus Franz Liszt, found himself forced to learn an unfamiliar technique to play Chopin's music So large was the impact of his music that is would be fair to say it influenced virtually all of his contemporaries as well as succeeding generations of pianists and composers of piano music who heard it.
Scriabin, born not quite twenty five years after Chopin's death, was surely one of those who grew up with the sounds of Chopin in his ears and at his fingers. A concert pianist of wide acclaim, he began his compositional career owing much to the style of his great Polish predecessor. Although his later works departed significantly from any traditional mold and even from Chopin's most adventurous style, in many ways this later evolution in Scriabin's musical thinking suggests Chopin's richness and inventiveness carried onto a new plane.
Scriabin was born on January 6, 1872; according to Hugh MacDonald's article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (vol. 17, page 370), "he later set much store by the significance of being born on Christmas Day, old style." His mother was an exceptional pianist and recitalist in St. Petersburg, but she died in 1873 of tuberculosis, well before she could effectively teach her son He studied, instead, with the aunt who raised him, and eventually (while attending military school in Moscow) began piano lesson with a Moscow Conservatory student. By 1886 his lessons were with Conservatory faculty, and he soon entered that institution to study theory, composition, and counterpoint (the latter two with Arensky) while completing his military academy diploma. In 1892 he graduated from the Conservatory in piano rather than composition.
During the following two years Scriabin published several small piano works. The first of his many concert tours took him to major cities in most of the countries of western Europe in 1895; when he returned to Moscow he married a young Conservatory graduate, the talented pianist Vera Issakovich, and became a professor of piano at the Conservatory. After a visit to Switzerland from 1904 to 1905 he returned to Moscow, separated from his wife, and left for Italy where he began what would be an extended cohabitation with his former student, Tatiana de Schloezer. (Tatiana's brother Boris would eventually write a distinctly personal biography of the composer, Scriabin: Artist and Mystic, translated by Nicolas Slonimsky, University of California Press, 1987.) Divorce was not easy to achieve in those days; even so, it appears that Scriabin forced Vera to divorce him in 1903. She nevertheless continued to perform Scriabin's works in public concert for many years.
In 1906 Scriabin was invited to New York by Russian conductor Modest Altschuler to participate in a concert of Russian music. This precipitated an extended concert tour in which Scriabin performed recitals in a number of cities, including Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit (but, evidently, not Cleveland; for interesting critical reviews of Scriabin's music and performances see Faubion Bowers, Scriabin: A Biography of the Russian Composer, 1871-1915, 2 vols., Kondansha International Ltd, 1969, II, 137ff). From the United States he went to Paris, where his second symphony and piano concerto were performed at Diaghilev's Russian concerts there. From this time to his death in 1915, Scriabin made numerous concert trips from his and Tatiana's residence in Lausanne to both Moscow and St. Petersburg; he also presented recitals in Berlin, Leipzig, and Holland in 1911 and 1912 and in London in 1914. During a tour to St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1915 Scriabin developed a staph infection which progressed to systemic blood poisoning, leading to his death on April 27th. Ironically, it was while Scriabin lay dying that the Tsar legalized the relationship between Scriabin and Tatiana, thus "legitimizing" her, as well as their three children with Scriabin's name.
Scriabin's Russian roots, his frequent tours of Europe, and, particularly, his familiar presence in Paris occurred throughout a period of vigorous cultural fomentation. Of the Russians, Rimsky-Korsakov and Boris Pasternak were influential upon and influenced by him. Later, he would experience the effulgent late Romanticism of Richard Strauss and Wagner on the one hand, contrasted with the new, evocative sounds of Debussy and Ravel and the emerging trends toward brutal dissonance from Schoenberg and Stravinsky on the other. Scriabin encountered the world of the Impressionist painters, The Fauves, and Symbolist writers. He also read avidly; Nietzsche's Also spruce Zarathustra, poems of Baudelaire, philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov, and ultimately, Helen Blavatsky's The Key to Theosophy and The Secret Doctrine. These latter two works were to affect his work profoundly.
Helena Petrovna Hahn was born in 1831 into the family of a Russian colonel. She was married at sixteen to Vice-Governor Blavatsky, twenty-four years her senior, and almost immediately left him to begin a remarkable life of adventure and virtually world-wide travel. While the details of her early career cannot be pursued here (a good summary is in Colin Wilson's The Occult, Vintage, 1973); her life took a significant new path from 1875, when she was introduced to a group studying hermetic lore. Mme. Blavatsky's earlier experiences with spiritualism and her new fascination with the Kabbalah, mystical writers such as Cornelius Agrippa, Pythagoras' works, and Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist scripture produced a flash of insight and inspiration. First, she and Henry Steel Olcott (who had led her to the study group) established a formal organization in New York to continue working with this hermetic lore and named it the Theosophical Society. Next, Mme. Blavatsky wrote the first of her intense books of mystical doctrine, blending Eastern and Western mysticism with her own theory of the evolution of the human race. Isis Unveiled was published in two volumes in 1877. Soon after, she and Olcott decided to infuse new enthusiasm into their society by studying the wisdom of India--in India. Subsequent journeys to Cairo, Nice, Paris, and London rounded out the period of greatest growth of the Theosophical Society under Olcott's and Mme. Blavatsky's leadership. However, her reputation as a spiritualist was seriously weakened in the 1880s by disclosures from her housekeepers that revealed the methods by which supernatural "communications" occurred. In the midst of this crisis of credibility and another trip to India and again through Europe to shore up her following, Mme. Blavatsky published two further lengthy studies, The Secret Doctrine in 1888 and The Key to Theoseophy in 1889. She died of Bright's disease in 1891.
Mme. Blavatsky's writings reinforced Scriabin's own egocentric and mystical ideas which had been in formulation since his mid-teen years. Fortified by her thoughts, he evolved a complex cosmology and theory of man's existence, all tied in with highly detailed relationships between colors, musical pitches, and states of mind. His system has been schematized by Glenn Watkins (Soundings, Schirmer Books, 1988, P. 165) as follows:
C Red G Orange-pink D Yellow A Green E Azure B Whitish-blue
F-sharp Bright blue D-flat Violet A-flat Purple E-flat Dark, steely blue B-flat Blue-gray F Dark red
It is informative to notice, as Watkins has also pointed out, that both Schoenberg (a painter as well as a composer) and artist Wassily Kandinsky entered the realm of synaestetic correspondences, the former with his expressionist self-portraits and his attempt to weld colored light to emotional content of Die glückliche Hand (1910-13), the latter with The Yellow Sound, a 1909 play with interpretive music by Thomas Hartmann.
In a nutshell, Scriabin's ideas are that all is one. Even he and God are one--his poems assert that he is God. Everything--good, evil, love, phenomenal matter--yearns to be joined; this can happen only in the destruction of everything, a return to nothingness. In Scriabin's philosophy, sexual release is the replication of this return to Nirvana; biographical accounts of his love affairs and the sensuousness of his poetry suggest that he practiced what he preached!
This once-only progression of all existence was represented in a series of increasingly large works: the third symphony, "le divin poème", Op. 43, 1903-4; Le poème de l'extase, Op. 54, 1907; and Prométhée (Le poème du feu), Op. 60. The Poem of Ecstasy, actually his fourth symphony, is accompanied by his own explanatory poetic text. Prométhée, the fifth symphony, is an enormous multi-media work which calls for orchestra, piano, organ, chorus, and "clavier à lumièr", and imaginary instrument which would project colored lights. These three symphonies led inevitably to a massive operatic war, Mysterium, which was to portray the ecstatic convulsion of the universe and its return to nothingness, but Scriabin died before finishing his theosophical magnum opus.
Much has been made of Scriabin's theoretical innovations which show up in Prométhée and the last four (six through ten) piano sonatas especially. The so-called "mystical" chord is the basis of many discussions of his late style. The pitches, working upward, are C, F-sharp, B-flat, E, A, and D. They are typically alluded to as a unique "quartile structure," that is, forming various examples of the interval of a fourth rather than the traditional chord structure with intervals of thirds (C, E, G, etc.). In 1968, however, Russian scholar V. Dernova (expanding Russian theorist B. Yavorsky's analysis of Scriabin's system), explained the late style on the basis of a "dual modality" created by "dominant chords with lowered fifths (e.g. C, E, G-flat...)", and the "function of the dominant chord with lowered fifth is to form the Tritone Link" (G, B, D-flat, F, the dominant-seventh with lowered fifth, re-spelled enharmonically so that it functions simultaneously in two keys separated by the distance of three whole steps). Dernova's explanation of this intriguing but complex new way of thinking of Scriabin's harmony is more completely available in English in Faubion Bowers, The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers (St. Martin's Press, 1973; the quotes above from p. 154). Suffice it to say that Scriabin's late works provide a rich field for theoretical study as well as provocative ideas for the theosophically inclined.
Scriabin's second piano sonata, which he called a Sonata-Fantasy, was written between 1892 and 1897. Within its two contrasting movements we hear fine examples of the composer's mature style and a representation of the technical demands stemming from his own virtuosity. The rhythmic complexities of triplets against two- or four-note groups link his style with Chopin's, but Scriabin also offsets his note groups to create layers of cross rhythms and inner melodic lines with a high degree of independence. The first movement, Andante, progresses from a dramatic opening figure to rolling sweeps across a great range of the keyboard, development of the triplet motif, and a climbing, passionate sweep toward the final cadence. Written-out key changes indicate moves to tonal centers C and later E; the movement ends sounding E major. The second movement, Presto, again begins in G-sharp minor. It takes the triplet motif of the first movement as its generating force, at first in the right hand, then (briefly) in the left with a more cantabile section for the right hand (in E-flat minor, enharmonic with D-sharp minor, the minor dominant of his tonic), and finally passing the motive from hand to hand against the smoother melody line, concluding in the original tonic.
In addition to more than four dozen preludes, Scriabin wrote twenty-four etudes for piano during most of his compositional career. The twelve etudes of Op. 8 were completed in 1894; they concentrate in unusual keys such as C-sharp major and its enharmonic key, D-flat major, D-sharp minor, B-flat minor (two works), and so on. The second of the set, in F-sharp minor, is marked "A capriccio, con forza." It is a study in rhythmic contrasts--five against three, irregular syncopations within groups of five in a beat, and, of course, the layering of melodic ideas in a hidden counterpoint. The fourth etude, in B major, is marked "piacevole"--peaceful--although not at a slow tempo. The legato and cantabile suggested in the title urge shimmering and sweeping effects enhanced by some chromaticism.
The Two Poems, Op. 32, are contrasting single movement fantasias written in 1903 (there are others, the last set being Op. 69, from 1913). The sensuous first, marked "Andante cantabile," is peppered with dynamic, articulation, and expressive markings, demanding fine control of inner melody lines, rubato, and phrasing. The second poem, "Allegro, Con elegant, Con fiduciary", is much more dramatic, built on triplets and driven passionately by rhythm, chromatic passing tones, and passages of urgent harmonies.
Scriabin's tenth sonata, Op. 70, written in 1913, represents a total aural break from the preceding works. It is one of the most technically demanding piano works in the repertoire and is one of the most artistically challenging. The performer is faced with a completely different organizational principal in the structure of the music, in both the theoretical sphere (as mentioned previously) and in the composer's manner of scoring: in numerous places there are not just two but three staves of music that are to be played simultaneously, along with detailed, subtle guidelines (given in French) indicate such attitudes as "very sweet and pure," "with a profound and veiled ardor," "luminously vibrant," "ravishingly and tenderly," "with a sudden joy," and "with a sorrowful voluptuousness." The sonata's single movement is subdivided by contrasting sonorities and events marked by metrical and tempo changes. The effect of much of the work is that of great shimmering light alternating with a sensuality created by wondrous rare harmonies and melodic progressions.
Progressing "backwards" to Chopin from Scriabin's last, very late sonata would seem to be anticlimactic. In fact, the distance between the two is remarkably small in many ways, as Chopin's Polonaise-Fantaisie [sic], Op. 61, proves. Written in 1845-6 and dedicated to Madame Veyret, the work is arguably one of the most visionary and complex of Chopin's output. It has excited commendations from Liszt through modern scholars because of its "orchestral" concept and structural ambiguity, not to mention its exceedingly chromatic harmonic progressions and constructions. Considerable discussion has been generated in analyzing "cells" of motives and interpretations of chords and key relationships. (One such extended discussion is in Paul Hamberger's "Mazurkas, Waltzes, Polonaises" in The Chopin Companion, ed. Alan Walker, W. W. Norton, 1966.) Perhaps the most effective approach to the work is to remember that, while rhythmic characteristics of the regal polonaise are distinctly present in the work, Chopin did also call it a fantasia. The dream-like opening is the guide to subsequent interrupted passages, wild swirls of invention, radical textures juxtaposed in an instant, and a sliding, phantasmagoric use of tonality.
The Nocturnes, Op. 55, No. 2, in E-flat major and Op. 78, No. 1, in C minor, return us to the more traditional realm of Chopin's music, with recognizable tonal centers and relatively regularized rhythms and meters. The E-flat nocturne is marked "Lento sostenuto" and features a lovely right-hand melody against a rolling accompaniment.
The C-minor nocturne is a memorable example of the genre that is as varied as the mazurka in Chopin's imagination. It begins with a slow, deliberate walking rhythm and melody on the back-beat of the measure, suggesting a tribute to the emotional lasu section of Liszt's or Brahms's Hungarian/gypsy rhapsodies. The middle section, suddenly in C major, seems more relaxed and uplifting; its wide, rich, harp-like chords span two and a half octaves at times and contain up to eleven notes each. As the section progresses, however, triplets begin to heighten the tension, driving to a return of the opening material which is by no means a calm remembrance, rather, the theme is now twice as fast and the triplet motion of the middle section intensifies the agitated conclusion.
The Barcarolle in F-sharp minor, is a one-of-a-kind work, immediately preceding the Polonaise-Fantaisie chronologically. It is marked by the recurring, rocking "triplet" pattern typical of such "water" works, and it is arranged in the three-part structure typical of many of Chopin's single movement pieces (the nocturnes, in particular). Lennox Berkeley, writing on the nocturnes, berceuse, and barcarolle (in The Chopin Companion, p. 186), remarks: "The coda is particularly memorable; it consists of fourteen bars over a tonic pedal, the first seven of which form a kind of pendant or epilogue to the main theme. They are extraordinarily rich and original in harmony. The remaining bars round off the piece with rapid and graceful figuration in the right hand."