Scriabin Poeme De Lextase Analysis Essay

The Greek verb poiein, from which ‘poem’ and ‘poet’ are derived, means simply ‘to make’ or ‘to create’. However, it was not until the nineteenth century that these terms began to appear in connection with music. Tondichter, ‘tone-poet’, was the favoured epithet for Beethoven in Schindler’s 1840 biography, and Liszt’s first ‘symphonic poem’ appeared in 1848; Chausson’s Poème for violin and orchestra is dated 1896.

Scriabin’s first Poèmes for piano were composed in 1903, and the last three orchestral works are all Poèmes: the Third Symphony (1903–4) is entitled Le divin poème; Le poème de l’extase was composed in 1905–7, with verses bearing that title written in 1906; and Prométhée, le poème du feu, was composed in 1909–10. That Scriabin should have worked simultaneously on the music of Le poème de l’extase and on the verses for it shows the depth of his identification with the Symbolist movement, which flourished from the 1880s and which presupposed an intimate association of all the arts; in Russia, Symbolism acquired theurgic and apocalyptic associations, and for Scriabin music associated itself with colour (in Prometheus) and scent (in the projected Misteriya). The belief in a correspondence between music and words was reciprocal: the first of Andrei Bely’s literary Symphonies appeared in 1902. The designation Poème suggests an idea behind the music, but Scriabin’s early biographer Yevgeny Gunst warned against any conception of ‘programme music’, speaking rather of ‘a realization in sound of a certain experience’.

The Deux poèmes of Op 32 (1903) are counterparts, the first introverted and dreamily passionate, the second outgoing and challenging, reflecting Scriabin’s increasing concern with the concept of self-assertion—the archaic, solemn expression Ya yesm’ (‘I am’) occurs early in a notebook of 1904–5 and is symbolized in the beginning of Le divin poème. In these pieces, as is often the case, the markings are highly individual. The middle section of No 1 is marked with a coined word, inaferando, which Valentina Rubtsova suggests the composer derived from inafferrabile, meaning ‘lightly touching’ or ‘imperceptible’; Scriabin was famous for the delicacy and tonal subtlety of his piano playing. No 2 is headed Allegro, con eleganza, con fiducia, the final part meaning ‘with faith’—that is, faith in oneself.

Scriabin’s next poème to appear was the Poème tragique, Op 34. This work again strikes a heroic pose; the middle section presents an ‘angry, proud’ theme, introducing an element of foreboding. As Rubtsova points out in her Scriabin biography, the downward thematic contour of this section anticipates the ‘theme of protest’ in Le poème de l’extase, which is itself marked tragico.

In the Poème satanique, Op 36, Liszt’s influence on Scriabin is at its clearest; the sensual chromaticism of the Mephisto Waltz No 1 is evoked here. Later, speaking to his friend and associate Sabaneev, Scriabin characterized this work as ‘the apotheosis of insincerity. It is all hypocritical, false.’ The dolce appassionato of love is juxtaposed with a riso ironico, a powerful and recurrent ‘ironic laughter’. This mocking, quizzical attitude was explored later in Énigme (Op 52 No 2), Ironies (Op 56 No 2) and the Deux poèmes, Op 63. In the third statement of the luxuriant second idea, marked amoroso, Scriabin reverses the positions of principal and secondary voices, a tactic already adopted in Op 32 No 1 and later a favourite strategy. Here, a characteristic ‘above the clouds’ effect is achieved.

In the Poème, Op 41, the last of this group of works, restless chromatic movement produces the effect of ‘altered’ harmonies increasingly beloved by Scriabin, although at this stage a resolution to the tonic is always reached. The insistent rising sixths of the melodic line express the upward striving and transcendent attitude of mind which were also tending increasingly to characterize both Scriabin’s personality and his music.

In 1904, the Scriabins moved to Switzerland, living in Geneva and Vésenaz, near Lake Geneva. In this year the Piano Sonata No 4 (1901–3) was published, a work for which Scriabin later wrote an accompanying poem in French. It was also this year which saw the beginning of a close relationship between Scriabin (already married to the fine pianist Vera Isakovich) and Tatyana Schloezer, who was later to become the composer’s partner during the rest of his life. In 1905, the year in which Scriabin started work on Le poème de l’extase and got to know the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky, the composer’s permanent union with Tatyana Schloezer began. They moved to Bogliasco, a little south of Genoa, living in a little flat where trains frequently passed beneath the windows, filling the air with smoke and the shrieking of whistles. However, Scriabin wrote to his friend, pupil and patron Margarita Morozova: ‘I am finally situated in conditions which not only do not hinder me from concentrating and working, as was the case nearly all my life, but which calm the imagination and lend it wings.’ It was this year in which the next group of works on this album was composed.

The three poèmes in Opp 44 and 45 are in C major, but their characters differ widely. The Op 44 No 1 Poème is a reverie with a long-drawn-out melody, unusually (for Scriabin) in the baritone register, and a number of unstable whole-tone harmonies. Op 44 No 2 is as chromatic as its partner, in the manner of a waltz but with the rapid pairs of bass octaves and, further on, the swirling arpeggio figures later associated with bellicose moods (for example, the Preludes Op 59 No 2 and Op 74 No 5). The Feuillet d’album, Op 45 No 1, is a heartfelt love-song; the Poème fantasque, Op 45 No 2, is a quicksilver one-page essay of feline capriciousness. The Scherzo, Op 46, is a rapid chord study, a ‘winged’ composition with its upflights and leaps. After aspiring to D flat major it sinks to rest in a peaceful C major. Quasi valse, Op 47, is a chromatic, caressing dance mood (‘all music must be communicable in dance’, Scriabin told Sabaneev); the bass here frequently moves by tritones, a procedure which was to grow on Scriabin as time passed and which gives the music’s progress an equivocal and immaterial quality. Rêverie, Op 49 No 3, is a delicate miniature, introducing chromatic harmonies which Scriabin’s contemporaries characterized as ‘highly spiced’.

The Quatre morceaux of Op 51 all come from 1906. The exquisite sound of No 1, Fragilité, is produced by means of a favourite texture of Scriabin: there are two elements in the left hand, melody and accompaniment, and a third, chordal element above in the right. The fluttering, aspiring winged figures of the Poème ailé, No 3, are close to Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet (from Waldszenen). Schumann may have derived the notion of a ‘prophetic bird’ from seeing the ancient motif of sirin i alkonost, human-faced birds of Slavic mythology, on his trip to Russia in 1844. Schumann’s miniature was often performed by Anton Rubinstein. In the Danse languide, No 4, hovering uneasily between harmonies, we are in the emotional area evoked by Scriabin in his notebook of 1904–5: ‘The sweetness of a dream which lends wings to the spirit, the desire to create, languor, the thirst for something unknown.’

Of the Trois morceaux, Op 52, Nos 1 and 2 were written in 1907, and No 3 in 1905. In the Poème, Op 52 No 1, everything melts and slides; Énigme, Op 52 No 2, is the first piece to end without a resolution in the home key, and it had strong visual associations for Scriabin and Schloezer: ‘Some winged small being, not exactly a woman, not exactly an insect, but certainly of female gender; there is something spiny and wriggly about her, she is segmented in some way. And she is terribly mischievous, and in this mischief there is great coquetry’ (Sabaneev). The Poème languide, Op 52 No 3 (published in 1905 in the journal L’illustration), shows another aspect of the condition of languor which Scriabin considered to be the first stage of the creative process.

The morceaux of Opp 56 and 57 (1908) come from the other side of the ‘boundary’ formed by the Le poème de l’extase and the Piano Sonata No 5. The angularity of Ironies, Op 56 No 2, anticipates Prokofiev. As the title of Nuances, Op 56 No 3, indicates, its palette is subtle, with delightful harmonic side-slips. Désir, Op 57 No 1, is an archetypal page for Scriabin; before 1903 he had already written: ‘I am all desire, all impulse … it is my element.’ The Caresse dansée, Op 57 No 2, is another exquisite waltz mood.

In the Feuillet d’album, Op 58, from 1909, when work on Prometheus was beginning, harmonic movement is minimal, there is no resolution, no key signature, and we find ourselves in the world of Scriabin’s late music. In the Poème, Op 59 No 1, from 1910 or 1911, aspiring phrases give place to their (varied) inversions; the feeling is like that of contemplating reflections in a deep pool.

The Poème-nocturne, Op 61 (1911–12), is, along with the Poèmes tragique and satanique, a longer work than most in this genre. It shares much of the idiom of Prometheus. The Poème-nocturne evokes the evanescent images and indistinct sounds of a dream, or the state between waking and sleep. The Deux poèmes of Op 63 (1912) lead us into a fantastical, capering world of deception and flirtation, akin to that depicted by Konstantin Somov; the fausse douceur demanded of the pianist in Étrangeté, Op 63 No 2, recalls Scriabin’s remarks about the Poème satanique. The Deux poèmes, Op 69 (1913), evoke dreamy, aerial and capricious moods; the second, whose ‘wild arabesques’ struck the Times critic when Scriabin played it in London the following year (the piece was encored), recalls the mocking tone of Étrangeté.

Of the Deux poèmes, Op 71, also written in 1913, the first is marked Fantastique, posing ‘a tragic question’ (Sergei Pavchinsky), with swirling arpeggios, and with diminuendos which recall the dematerializing sounds of the Poème-nocturne. The second, En rêvant, avec une grande douceur, expresses with its arching, trilling phrases the upward striving of Scriabin’s world-view.

1914 was the last year in which Scriabin produced completed compositions (Opp 72–4); the time remaining to him before his death in April 1915 was taken up with planning the Preliminary Action (‘Acte préalable’), the project which was gradually replacing the indefinitely postponed Misteriya as the centre of his attention. Vers la flamme, Op 72, is perhaps the best known of Scriabin’s later compositions, with its extreme thematic economy, its vivid symbolism and its unbroken line of ascent. The ‘flame’ is that ‘ocean of fire’ which engulfs and remakes the universe in Scriabin’s mythology, and there may be reference also to the ‘fiery death’ invoked in Goethe’s Selige Sehnsucht (‘Blessed yearning’), with its exhortation: ‘Stirb und werde!’ (‘Die and become!’). This was a favourite poem of the composer’s friend, the philosopher-poet Vyacheslav Ivanov. Scriabin’s comment to Sabaneev was: ‘Look here, how everything blossoms little by little … from clouds to blinding light.’

Scriabin also commented on the Deux danses, Op 73, his penultimate opus, to Sabaneev. The first, Guirlandes, evoked for him ‘crystalline and at the same time iridescent figures which grew, formed groups and, refined and ethereal, delicate and “glassy”, burst and palpitated, in order to grow and arise anew … in them is sweetness to the point of pain’. Of Flammes sombres, which he associated with the Song-dance of the fallen, a Dantesque scene of degraded souls delighting in evil, occuring in the Preliminary Action, he remarked: ‘This is very mischievous music … this is the border of the path of black magic … here the eroticism is already unhealthy, a perversion, and afterwards an orgiastic dance … a dance over corpses.’ The horrifying verse of the Song-dance reads as if written by a twentieth-century war poet.

In the process of composing major works Scriabin always produced a series of smaller ones; these pieces, ranging from ‘black magic’ to cosmic aspiration, present a key to the composer’s inner world.

Simon Nicholls © 2015

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