Promethee, le poeme du feu (1910)

By Royal S. Brown, Fanfare

Written for the concert Music and Visual Imagination, performed on Nov 11, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The bulk of the work by Alexander Scriabin, who was born in Moscow on January 6, 1872, and died there on April 27, 1915, is for piano solo. Not surprisingly, the influence of Chopin and Liszt looms over the composer-pianist’s early compositions, which include three piano sonatas and a large number of short works. Even here, however, the listener can sense, particularly in the richness of Scriabin’s chord structures, doors opening onto new territory. By the turn of the century, Scriabin seems to have passed through those doors with his Fourth Piano Sonata, Op. 30 (1901). Here, the patterns of tension and resolution characteristic of conventional, tonal harmony begin to be replaced a more unified harmonic sound in which both thematic motifs and chordal structures expand and contract out of a single, original chord with only tenuous ties to tonality. And after writing two more or less conventional symphonies, Scriabin produced, in 1903-04, the first of his three “Poem” symphonies, the so-called “Divine Poem,” which calls for massive orchestral forces and which continues to define a new harmonic and structural language for music.

Unlike a composer such as Arnold Schoenberg, however, who was born only two years after him, Scriabin did not create his revolution out of purely musical or even purely aesthetic consiDerations. By the dawn of the new century, Scriabin was firmly ensconced in a kind of mysticism that was wholly characteristic both of various philosophies, such as Theosophy, and of the particular brand of literary Symbolism flourishing in Russia at the time. In a world increasingly dominated by industrialism and materialism, Scriabin sought a liberation from the time and space of the present that would ultimately allow him and others oneness with the cosmos, its rhythms and its mysteries. And the means via which Scriabin hoped to accomplish this was music. The composer, who early on was influenced by the theories of Nietzsche, saw himself as nothing less than a god who, via his art, would not just reveal the cosmos to his listeners but in fact allow them access to it. Part of Scriabin’s aesthetic and philosophical strategy in doing this involved the nineteenth-century theory of synesthesia, which proposed equivalencies between the various sensorial elements-smells, colors and sounds in particular-that the work of art can mobilize. Rather than creating a quasi-Wagnerian synthesis of the arts, Scriabin hoped instead to present, by adding smell machines and color “keyboards” to almost every type of musical timbre imaginable, a quasi-comprehensive but non-theatrical spectacle of sensations. Out of this dazzling multiplicity would emerge the cosmic unity envisaged by Scriabin’s particular philosophies and theologies.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the subject of the composer’s final “poem” for symphony orchestra, Prometheus, “The Poem of Fire,” is the Titan who stole the fire of the gods and brought it to humankind after Zeus had refused its use to mortals. Composed between 1909 and 1910 and marking the outset of the third and final phase of Scriabin’s musical career, Prometheus, which runs only around twenty minutes, is part symphonic poem, part piano concerto, and part symphony which, like the final five piano sonatas, is in a single movement. For the “Poem of Fire,” Scriabin actually included an “instrument,” indicated as tastiera per luce (keyboard for lights) in the score, that would “play,” usually two at a time, colors corresponding to various tones: CT was violet, A was green, etc. In fact, Scriabin possessed only a very primitive model of such an instrument, a device made by his friend Alexander Mozer, a professor of electrical engineering, and attempts to include this facet of the score in performance have been rare. The symphony mobilizes a vast array of instrumental timbres, including, beyond the normal instruments of the symphony orchestra (plus a beefed-up brass section), solo piano and organ. Later in the score a mixed chorus joins the orchestra, vocalizing different vowel sounds that also, for Scriabin, had color equivalents. As the harmonic basis for the score, Scriabin, imagining no difference between harmony and melody, devised his so-called “mystic chord,” a broadly spaced chord configured as A-DT-G-CT-FT-B. Played pianissimo by the winds and tremolo strings over a hushed bass-drum and timpani roll to open the symphony, this chord represents the cosmos out of which everything takes form, just as almost every musical structure, horizontal or vertical, in the work can be traced back to this chord. Moving in and out of the expanding and contracting timbres and harmonies, the solo piano frequently offers almost playful figures, suggesting the presence of man dancing to the rhythms of the cosmos. At those moments when the piano plays fragments of the mystic chord, one has an almost palpable musical translation of the theft of fire. At the end, the symphony, having built up to a massive climax, closes, after a glorious restatement of the opening motif, on an unexpected FT-major chord, perhaps suggesting the triumphant presence of the human within the cosmos.