For the Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), music formed a mystical passageway to a transcendent level of consciousness.
In the final years of his short life, Scriabin, a virtuoso pianist, moved beyond the early influences of Chopin and Liszt to a series of boundary-pushing symphonic works which, in the words of the conductor Marin Alsop, “break down the traditional tonal structure and experiment with new methods of organizing sound.”
For Scriabin, who experienced synesthesia, the circle of fifths became a vivid color wheel. He attempted to illustrate this in literal terms in the tone poem, Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, with the invention of a “color organ.” His final, unrealized work, Mysterium, would have pushed Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”) to its limits. Scriabin envisioned a composition, to be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas, which would last a week, blend music, scent, dance, and light, and result in “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald a new world.”
Influenced by mysticism, Theosophy, and the theories of Nietzsche, Scriabin believed that the highest calling of humanity was to escape the physical world and enter a vast “oneness” with the cosmos. The composer expressed these ideas with provocative statements such as, “I am a moment illuminating eternity…I am affirmation…I am ecstasy,” and “I am God! I am nothing, I’m play, I am freedom, I am life. I am the boundary, I am the peak.”
Set against this backdrop is Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy, composed between 1905 and 1908. Cast in a single movement lasting twenty minutes, Scriabin occasionally referred to the work as his Fourth Symphony. Its vast orchestral forces (which include eight horns, five trumpets, two harps, an expanded percussion section, and organ) unite in the blazing, tension-fused final moments, in which prolonged dominant harmony is pushed to an excruciating near breaking point. This heightened climax is the natural outgrowth of the piece’s continuous and delirious sense of timelessness and suspended harmony. Resolutions are evaded with the use of the whole tone scale and Scriabin’s iconic “mystic chord,” a tonality which carried divine significance for the composer. Thematic cells emerge and dissipate on a sea of shifting colors. Filled with longing and desire, this is music in which spiritual, creative, and erotic energies are fused. “When you listen to Ecstasy,” Scriabin told his friend, Ivan Lipaev, “look straight into the eye of the sun!”
The Poem of Ecstasy, as well as Scriabin’s Fifth Piano Sonata, were inspired by a poem written by the composer. Among the poem’s over 300 lines are these words:
Winged by the thirst for life,
On the heights of negation.
There in the rays of his dream Arises a magic world
Of marvelous images and feelings.
The Spirit playing.
The Spirit longing.
The Spirit with fancy creating all, Surrenders himself to the bliss of love. …
I call you to life, mysterious forces! Drowned in the obscure depths
Of the creative spirit, timid
Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity! …
Scriabin included the following program note at the 1909 Moscow premiere:
Poem of Ecstasy is the joy of liberated action. The Cosmos, i.e., Spirit, is eternal Creation without External Motivation, a Divine Play with Worlds. The Creative Spirit, i.e., the Universe at Play, is not conscious of the absoluteness of its creativeness, having subordinated itself to a Finality and made creativity a means toward an end. The stronger the pulse-beat of life and the more rapid the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that is consubstantial with creativity, immanent within itself, and that its life is a play. When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall then arrive.
Five Great Recordings
- Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy (Le Poème de l’extase), Op. 54, Riccardo Muti, The Philadelphia Orchestra Amazon
- Evgeniy Svetlanov and The USSR Symphony Orchestra
- Leif Segerstam and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
- Neeme Järvi and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
- Giuseppe Sinopoli and the New York Philharmonic
Featured Image: “Pandora” (c. 1914), Odilon Redon