• Alexander Scriabin

    Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was a Russian mystic Symbolist-a different kind of Symbolist than Debussy and his French compatriots. Russian Symbolists were drawn to the occult, esoteric religion and philosophy, and to mind-altering substances. They were even linked at the time to a criminal psychosis, described as being prone to extreme anxiety, egomania, and a childish amorality. Born into an aristocratic family in Moscow, Scriabin began piano lessons (with Rachmaninoff's teacher) as a child and, despite having relatively small hands for a pianist, graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with a Gold Medal in 1892. He made his concert debut in 1894, performing his own compositions, and became a professor of piano at the conservatory.

    He established his reputation as both a pianist and a composer, branching out and writing not only for his own instrument but also for symphony orchestra. His music grew increasingly grandiose, steeped in mysticism, and saturated with color: Scriabin associated certain keys with particular colors (as did Rimsky-Korsakov). He went so far as to devise a color-keyboard that projected light rather than sound. In 1904, Scriabin left Russia for a time, touring Europe and America and eventually settling in Paris, where all things Russian were fashionable-thanks to Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. He returned to Moscow in 1909 and died there, of blood poisoning, at age 43.
  • Notes on the Piece

    As Alexander Scriabin matured as a composer, he shed the influences of the German Romantics and embraced the aesthetics of the Russian Symbolists. This movement was first associated with literature, before spreading to the visual arts and music. It sought to use art as a gateway, a point of departure for the experience of other planes of existence beyond the material world. Much of what the Symbolists, and Scriabin, sought to do was impossible, but that was precisely the point.

    Along with Symbolism, Scriabin claimed at times to be a student of Buddhism, Theosophy, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and the occult.

    There was no common thread to his thought, except for his belief that the artist, as a microcosm, could somehow affect the macrocosm of the world at large. That belief evolved over time, as one of Scriabin's closest friends, poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, explained in a 1911 essay called "The Precepts of Symbolism."

    Ivanov argued that the path of the Symbolist artist traversed three phases: a thesis, an antithesis, and an unspecific third phase called the synthesis. These three phases define Scriabin's career. In the first phase, the thesis, the Symbolist artist sees art as the key to the mysteries and seeks to develop new techniques for unlocking their potential. For Scriabin, the search involved working with unusual scales, harmonies, and forms. He also experimented with synaesthesia, the blending of the senses, hoping to combine sound and sight in a hallucinogenic experience. In the second phase, the artist creates works that represent spiritual revelation. In the final phase, the synthesis, this representation of transcendence becomes its literal enactment, which Scriabin could not do.

    The Poem of Ecstasy, Scriabin's most famous work, belongs to the second phase. It concerns spiritual striving for another world-another level of perception in a different configuration of space and time. The Poem of Ecstasy is based on an actual poem, but Scriabin suppressed it from performances, preferring the experience of the music to be absolute, unmediated by words. Even so, the titles of the three sections of the score provide sufficient clues to understanding his aims: the soul in the orgy of love, realization of a fantastic dream, and the glory of one's own art.

    The soul, or ego, is represented heroically by a solo trumpet. The orgy of love is embodied by a series of half-pleasurable, half-painful chords derived from the whole-tone scale. The middle section of the score exploits a series of symmetrical chords that denote the suspension of time and space, as well as an agonized extension of the desire for ecstatic release. This desire could be described as sexual, except that Scriabin seeks to portray transcendence apart from the carnal human condition. (The Poem of Ecstasy refers to Richard Wagner's drama Tristan und Isolde, whose title characters seek to escape the material plane for the immaterial one.) The final section of the score offers, after 20 minutes of anguished dissonance, the revelation of C major. This key is a musical symbol of sorts for the ego fulfilling its quest for transcendence by transcending itself. The final words of the source poem confirm the feeling Scriabin wanted to express: "I," meaning the ego, "am Ecstasy."

    More extensive program notes are available here >

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