Scriabin Symphony no. 1, op. 26

performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti

or here, by the Radio Sinfonie Orchester Frankfurt under Eliahu Inbal, who (and which recording) I like muchly, especially in the final movement

We’ve finally gotten around to something other than Scriabin’s piano works. We did do his piano concerto, but aside from that it’s all been solo piano. This will fix that, as will a few pieces at the beginning of next year.
You might be able to tell from what we’ve addressed of his so far that I think of him primarily as a pianist, a composer of outrageously inventive, genius piano works: sonatas, etudes, waltzes, the concerto, mazurkas, kind of a Modern Chopin, sort of. But he wrote a significant amount of symphonic music, which we are finally touching on here, and we begin with his first symphony, a very large, ambitious work in six movements with a chorus and two vocal soloists in the finale. (As a note, it seems Vladimir Ashkenazy has recorded a cycle of Scriabin orchestral works which I hear is great; I love his recordings of the Scriabin sonatas, and it would not surprise me if his traversal of the orchestral work is also outstanding.)

The composer began work on the piece in 1900, in Moscow. He wrote that summer to Mitrofan Belyayev that he’d been working feverishly on it, having ultimately showed his sketches to Safonov, Lyadov, and finally Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. That’s quite a list of advisors. They apparently all agreed that some difficult or awkward pieces needed to be rewritten, and there was some discussion of the adjustment of writing for the choral or solo parts. (Most of this information comes from the Russian-language version of the Wikipedia article, as the English version is quite sparse.) The symphony was finally premiered in November (on the 11/24th) of 1900, almost 115 years ago to the day, under Lyadov’s baton, with the exception of the sixth movement, which he kind of protested, to frustration of the composer. The piece in its entirety was finally performed on March 16, 1901 at a concert dedicated to none other than Nikolai Rubinstein. The piece won the Glinka prize in 1900.

If you, like me, are accustomed to thinking of Scriabin as the wildly creative, a bit off-kilter synesthetic composer who was too afraid of some of his own pieces to play them, then the opening of the first movement may seem out of place. It’s delicate and colorful and builds in richness as more and more instruments enter. There’s no fire here, only a comforting warmth and lush color, like Wagner’s overture to Das Rheingold. Remember that.

However, the ‘agenda’ of the piece you might say, the artistic ideal, is much the same. It bears an early opus number, 26, putting it relatively close to the piano concerto and other solidly Romantic works Scriabin composed. One does still hear the individuality that Scriabin is known for, a unique voice that shows itself (certainly at least in the ambition of this first symphony). In speaking of the final movement, Wikipedia (in English) says, “The finale is a paean to the sovereignty of Art, a theme common in Scriabin’s works,” a sentiment shared more fully in the Russian version of the page:

Это сочинение — одно из первых произведений, в котором ярко выражена идея Скрябина, которую он выразил и во многих других его сочинениях, об искусстве, морально преображающем человека.

‘One of the first works where Scriabin expressed his idea about art transforming the moral person’… or something. So while it isn’t wildly and freely tonal and based on color and all the rest, it still represents an idea that the composer stuck with throughout his career. Clearly, however, the form these ideas would eventually take was quite different.

Also unique among first symphonies I can think of, it’s a surprisingly sprawling work, in six movements with a chorus and all of that. In describing it that way, it may remind one of Mahler 2, another enormous symphonic work of only about five years earlier. I wonder if the two of them had any thoughts on each other…

I’d read somewhere online (can’t recall where) about this piece being kind of a hybrid between a cantata and a symphony, with the outer movements making up the more cantata-like content, the first movement really being an introduction to the entire piece, like that overture to an opera. The inside movements perhaps make more of an actual symphony, although I don’t pick up on sonata-form anywhere, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The fourth movement is scherzo-like, and the fifth movement saves the ultimate climax for the true finale, serving, I guess, more to build tension and restate material and all of that than come to any actual finish. That’s for the longest, biggest, final movement. The first movement is serene and rich, but in its pristine, pleasant quietude, seems to lay out the framework and content for the entire work to draw from. There are flute and clarinet solos, beautiful strings. The melodies here are beyond memorable, which serves the rest of the piece well.

The first movement ends quietly and leads into the much stormier-sounding second movement, but it doesn’t jump off any deep ends. In contrast with his later works like Prometheus or whatever, this one doesn’t really go to any dark places. It’s a paean to art! There are some amazing brass passages here, and it’s this movement that starts to feel more like it’s part of a symphony, not an opera, like the first movement of a symphony, ending dramatically.

The third is a slow movement. (the “second” if we don’t count the first movement, if you want to look at it that way), marked lento. There are some shimmers of the glory of the final movement, and it reminds me a bit of the opening. It’s the biggest movement so far in the work, and it is sweetly tender. We get clarinet and flute solos as in the opening movement, and it unifies the piece in a way that feels not symphonic.

The fourth movement is by far the shortest, a quick, scherzo marked vivace, and while it isn’t boomingly loud or chaotic, it livens things up a bit. More flute in the trio section, and then the return to the scherzo.

The fifth movement is by far the most dramatic of them all up to this point, and maybe for me the most memorable so far, or even in total. There are incredible, sublime moments of beauty that I think would make most people think “Rachmaninoff;” it’s certainly in that style, really lush, almost to a fault, but gorgeous nonetheless. Our similar themes and instrumentation (strings, clarinet and flute solos here and there) show up now and then but there is some incredible tension built up with the brass at a few turns. This, of any, is the darkest spot in the symphony, the most unassured of a happy ending, before the enormous actual final movement, and it’s here that I really think of the work as being quintessentially Russian.

Listening to the piece as a whole, it does seem like quite an excision to the work to cut out this largest of the sections, arguably the destination to which this entire piece has been pointing, but the finale of the allegro fifth movement would make for an incredibly strong, solid ending. Scriabin wanted more I guess, so we finally get to the other half of the cantata.

It’s so… over-the-top, so rich, for me, that I find it hard to describe. We begin with flute and clarinet solos with familiar material, what’s beginning to represent the pure, unadulterated, heavenly in this work, and it’s very quickly that our soprano enters, followed by our tenor, and it goes from there.

Okay, maybe I’m just used to Mahler (how can you top Mahler? and even he went a little far in the eighth…) but I feel ultimately unconvinced of the symphony-ness of this work, or else of the need for soloists and a chorus to be present, one or the other will suffice. Just like the Taipei Philharmonic playing some double piano concerto recently; I felt the second piano in the work was… redundant, unnecessary, overly complicated, almost gimmicky. I won’t go so far as to say that with the vocal/choral parts of this work, because it is indeed extravagantly expressive, but when they enter, even after listening many times, it does not seem like an inevitability. It feels out of place. To me.

Mahler’s third is kind of a similar idea… (?) in that it’s a six-movement symphony with a big, (almost literally) heavenly finale, a coherent storyline throughout, that shows us the (or at least a) world before soaring above it. Scriabin’s work feels similar-ish, but the storyline, I feel, almost overrides the symphonic structure. When Mahler’s soloist enters in the fourth movement, when the chorus enters in the fifth, and then disappear for the orchestral finale, it seems like it could have happened no other way. But that is neither here nor there (this work and the Mahler would have been premiered within about a year of each other!)

The vocals in the final movement of the Philadelphia recording sound older or somehow less clear, while Inbal’s recording above seems pristine. I read somewhere that this is the least performed of Scriabin’s orchestral works. I’m not sure that can be empirically proven anywhere or any way, but it’s apparently neglected. To be honest, this piece is a little difficult for me to think or talk about. For as much content as there is, and the clear use of recurring themes, the only thing I feel I can say about it is that it’s gosh darn pretty. I’m not necessarily sure what exact development or growth is happening until the big final “aha” of the soloists and the chorus in the final movement. Because of this ‘larger-scale’ almost abstract, broad scope of the piece (quite different than say, Mahler 2), it feels almost religious in nature.

All in all, I feel the work is an outstandingly brave, ambitious one, especially for a first symphony. His later boldness, perhaps, came not as much from ambition with forces as it did content and harmony, form, etc. and we will indeed get around to some of those works, but it seems the foundations for his ‘art as religion’ and sacredness of expression and all that were there from the beginning; they’re just much more Romantic-sounding at this stage.

This was a difficult work to talk about for me. Apologies. See you next time.

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