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.
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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.
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
More extensive program notes are available here >
Gino Francesconi, Director of the Carnegie Hall Archives and Rose Museum, describes A Golden Age of Music at Carnegie Hall
Jeremy Geffen discusses The Poem of Ecstasy and the eccentric character—who claimed the gift of synesthesia and believed himself to be the center of a cult—who composed it.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra | Robert Spano, Music Director and Conductor | Telarc
See Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra perform Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy at Carnegie Hall on November 5.
View a full list of events that are part of A Golden Age of Music >