Greetings, music lovers! Dumbo has kindly lent me an installment of this great series to use any which way I like, so...
Is music capable of bringing us to ecstasy? ... I don't mean just the state of pure pleasure, but something that transcends our senses, something if not spiritual than certainly not of our normal everyday perception. Is music capable of sending us places that lies beyond other arts, into a purer state of being?
And even if musical is capable of this, how would you go about writing it? At least one composer attacked this issue head-on, with surprising results:
The face on the left belongs to Alexander Scriabin, a Russian composer during the last years of the old Empire, lionized during his lifetime as not merely a composer but a spiritual messiah, largely ignored after his death, resuscitated in recent years due to the genuinely bold and inventive ways that he twisted conventional music into knots. He was a pioneer and a failure, a man who wrote great music and never succeeded at the one thing he set out to do. Scriabin wanted to change the world. Just look at those eyes!
If you read a CD insert on Scriabin you might think that he was clinically insane: did he really think he was a God? Did he really try to end the world through music? His brief biography sounds like the stuff of monomania, but he was very much a product of his time...
Setting the Stage:
As a pianist, Scriabin's earliest compositions bear the strong imprint of Chopin. An injury to the nerves in his right hand nearly ended his career at the outset; during his recovery, he composed two works for the left hand alone, one of which is still in the repertoire. Notice how Scriabin tries to disguise the fact that it's for one hand by using a little unobtrusive counterpoint (more than one melody, simultaneously) during the lyrical section, and bombastic, passionate chords during the Sturm und Drang middle:
Even in his early years Scriabin was already thinking big. His first symphony ended with a Beethovinian chorus singing a "Hymn to Art", and his early notebooks are already filled with plans for a grant symbolic opera about Art itself. The symphony was a failure, and the operas never came to pass... But in the meantime Scriabin began to absorb philosophy, and eventually came into contact with two sets of influences that would change his trajectory as a composer.
The first was German in the form of philosophers like Fichte, Hegel, and especially Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer believed that music was not just special, but specifically different from the other arts to the degree that it reflects the world of pure Will. It is our most direct link to the 'real' that lies beyond our basic senses. Oh, and he fell under the spell of Nietzsche's Übermensch theory, too.
The second influence was Elena Blavatskaya - or as she's better known in the west, Madame Blavatsky - the late 19th century spiritualist who claimed to bring secret knowledge from Eastern mystics, and who co-founded the Theosophical Society in New York. Blavatskaya was a lightning rod of controversy during her day, but her early works - like The Keys to Theosophy - were popular with readers. In the West she popularized the idea that there are different 'planes' of existence, and that humans evolve both physically and spiritually. (Full disclosure: I think she's full of bunk.)
Scriabin's diaries show him absorbing and transforming these influences into a purely self-styled form of metaphysics, amateur and inconsistent at times, occasionally casting himself in the role of Prometheus, the bringer of fire (knowledge/art) to audiences. Through his music we would not just hear the sounds of ecstatic transcendence, we would experience it. Scriabin's music would be our vessel to higher states of consciousness.
Of course none of this would matter if his music didn't succeed as music, and fortunately it does. Listen to a few minutes from his Poem of Ecstasy (essentially his fourth symphony), a one-movement orchestral piece that leads us from an almost Debussian languish through states of agitation and finally to eventual triumph:
Pay special note to the ending (beginning around 7:20 in part 2 of the clip), where he sends the entire orchestra into a frenzy of the loudest music it's capable of producing. Scriabin wants us, during this climax, to stare directly into the sun, much like the cover of the symphony's printing (to the right). He is Prometheus, and he is guiding us upwards. Apparently the music gave Prokofiev a headache, which... if you know Prokofiev, is pretty funny.
But all of this was just prelude to what he eventually conceived as his Great Work, a seven-day concert at the foot of the Himalayas which would create a sensory overload so profound, and a spiritual communion so ecstatic, that the material world itself would dissolve away. He called it his Mysterium, and in the totality of its vision, bolder than anything ever conceived by Wagner, it would change the course of history.
There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours.Okay, so it was a bit too ambitious. Scriabin never got far in his plans, eventually downgrading to a "Prefatory Act" where he'd learn how to coordinate all these disparate parts, and then he couldn't complete his "Prefatory Act", and then... He died, young and with no small amount of bathos, from an infection after cutting a pimple while shaving.
His plans never came to fruition, and his surviving family was immediately in danger of poverty. A colleague and former classmate - Sergei Rachmaninoff - helped keep them afloat by organizing performances of Scriabin's piano music and donating them the receipts. By the time the Soviet era was in full swing, most of Scriabin's works were rarely, if ever, performed.
It's no surprise that Scriabin's mystical mish-mash didn't appeal to Soviet authorities, but after decades of neglect, both musicologists and performers began to rediscover his work and the unique properties on which it is constructed. If early Scriabin was a bit too derivative of Chopin, late Scriabin looks like nothing else in the history of music.
Some of those qualities aren't entirely unique to him, like his interest in synethesia. Scriabin "heard" colors, much like his elder Rimsky-Korsakov, but unlike his artistic ancestors he attempted to coordinate these with his composition thoroughly and consistently. These culminated in the 1910 symphonic work, Prometheus: Poem of Fire, in which he scored a stave for "rays of light", intending to coordinate the color inside the performance hall with the sounds coming from the orchestra. He lacked the technology to put this into effect, and even contemporary performances have trouble avoiding the kitsch factor, but Prometheus is still one of his best, most interesting works: lush, imaginative, and seductive. I highly recommend this great video essay about the music and the problems of performance:
Another reason that Scriabin's music is so unique has to do with some complicated issues of tonality. Most (not all) Western music is based on a fundamental relationship, or an interval, that we call the perfect fifth: because of its consonance and stability, it's not only the backbone of most (not all) harmonies, but it's also happens to be the distance between a home key and its 'dominant', or the harmony that most instinctively pulls us back home. If you're used to modern rock, it's the basis of the power chord. It's no exaggeration to say that we hear it everywhere. (If you want to know more Dumbo covered this in a previous diary.)
It took someone with goals as visionary as Scriabin's to rethink this entirely. Scriabin doesn't abandon tonality like the avant garde composers a generation later - he does something far stranger, essentially cobbling together his own tonal system from a mix of fourths and, most strikingly, tritones (the interval that medieval philosophers called "the devil in music" for its dissonant instability.) He keeps stacking interval on top of interval until the whole edifice nearly collapses - in fact, until he nearly achieves complete dodecaphony toward the end of his life.
Even his piano sounds different. Listen to the great Vladimir Horowitz describe, and perform, one of Scriabin's oddest compositions, "Vers la flamme". Horowitz focuses on the percussive touch, but listen to those gorgeous chords that open the piece, dark and foreboding, built from two tritones ("the devil") stacked upon one another. Under two simple melodic fragments, Scriabin builds increasingly complicated cross-rhythms until the piece (and its performer) nearly collapse at the end:
If any music is capable of bringing us to ecstasy, this is it.
Some Final Thoughts
If this has interested you in Scriabin in any way, I have a whole slate of suggestions. The best of his sonatas are first-rate and belong in any good repertoire of modern piano music, especially the 5th, his most accessible, the ethereal 7th, the quietly demonic 9th, and the frenzied 10th. His piano output otherwise consists of preludes, character pieces, and "poems", of which the best and most famous is the impossibly gorgeous op. 32 no. 1. His most often performed piece is likely his op. 8 no. 12 Etude, an early work of virtuoso Romantic passion.
For a sense of how far afield Scriabin was pushing in music, try his last set of preludes, op. 74. They are dry, difficult, and may even be unpleasant on your first listen. This is music from another plane of existence.
Due to historical circumstances - changing attitudes in politics, ideology, and aesthetics - the generation that followed Scriabin was not too interested in mysticism and his brand of inventive tonality. He left only a few minor disciples, not entirely uninteresting, but less ambitious and even more forgotten than he ever was.
There is one minor disciple of note, however, a young student of Scriabin's named Boris Pasternak. Before Pasternak went on to pursue his crazy dream of becoming a writer (yeah, good luck with that!) he studied composition under Scriabin and wrote in an idiom that closely resembles Scriabin's 'middle period':
Funny where life takes us.