Scriabin: Le Poème de l’extase, Op. 54

performed by the Chicago Symphony orchestra under Pierre Boulez

The Poem of Ecstasy is the Joy of Liberated Action. The Cosmos, i.e., Spirit, is Eternal Creation without External Motivation, a Divine Play of 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 it is consubstantial with creativity itself. 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 arrive.

This one is a toughie. It has to be one of the most difficult scores I’ve ever read. The above are the Scriabin-approved program notes (cited in the Wikipedia article on the piece, originally quoted in the Chicago Symphony’s program notes by Phillip Huscher). It’s a complicated piece. For the short version, it’s a piece that has its roots in Scriabin’s artistic, philosophical and religious ideas about art. For the slightly longer version, keep reading.

I wish we’d been able to discuss a few more Scriabin works before getting around to this one, but I suppose it’s as good a way to go about it as any. Scriabin got weird. Wikipedia mentions the time in which this work was written, “when Scriabin was actively involved with the Theosophical Society.” The citation is from Evgeni Kostitsyn’s (program?) notes found here, state that “Scriabin’s contribution to the Theosophical Society is more considerable than any made by other composers,” but this statement contradicts another I read somewhere that Scriabin at this time was ‘neither an atheist nor a theosophist.’

I shall not bore anyone (including myself) with discussions or readings of philosophy or others’ poetry, but suffice it to say, the composer began to have interesting ideas about the power of music and what it (or his) could accomplish. The fifth piano sonata, which we shall eventually get to, is the opus number before this one, and closely related to the work.

Marin Alsop’s contribution to NPR’s Deceptive Cadence has a wonderful little write-up about this work. She states:

For Scriabin, music was much more than just notes and sound. Even in a Russia where mysticism, religious or occult in nature, was all-consuming, Scriabin stood out with his unique belief system — a mix of Hinduism, theosophy and Nietzsche. He began to see himself as a messianic figure and proclaimed that “the purpose of music is revelation.”

She also says that “Many people thought Scriabin was completely mad, but most acknowledged his genius.” True. And he kind of was, or became so. Shortly before his death, he began working on a piece he called Mysterium, a work he was convinced would cause the end of the (or a) world, “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald a new world.” Something about the piece being performed on Mt. Everest and containing all forms of art. Yeah. That’s a little bit unrelated to the work at hand, but one can see this piece (or rather, I see it) as the beginning of a move in that direction.

At the very least, it was art as Scriabin’s religion, life-changing, self-affirming, with which he wrote a 300-line poem to accompany the work. The Philharmonia’s program notes for the work outline a progression of the human striving after the idea, self-discovery, with this poem of Scriabin’s as an accompaniment to be read alongside the work, ostensibly by the listener, not sung or narrated.

The composer called it his ‘symphony no. 4’, but it isn’t really. It’s in one large movement, with a few broad sections and some major themes, one by a flute at the beginning, and the central part heavily featuring a solo trumpet. It strongly features Scriabin’s own ‘mystic chord’ as below:


It was a sound he believed has special powers, or something, and the piece also makes use of whole tones, giving it a broad, spacious “tonal ambiguity” that makes the entire piece sound like it wanders.

The section about the content of the piece itself on Wikipedia, as well as most other program notes, outline three major sections, the third of which features brass (and the solo trumpet) and has three themes of its own. Reading the score, which I talk more about below, makes these general sections much clearer, but we can outline them as a slower, chromatic, more ‘languid’ theme; a more agitated, restless one; and finally the brassy theme, which I feel is the real focus of the piece. Triplet figures and trills feature heavily throughout the entire work, and it’s so ornate that the score is hard to follow. It also comes to two major climaxes, with a final “apotheosis” in C major at the end. Both of these climaxes feature the third theme, with heavy brass and trills, which make it seem like the real focal point of the whole work, but things come and go in the piece, and it can be a bit of a mess unless you take a few good listens and some looks at the score…

I was able to check out a study score (is that what those small ones are called? Pocket scores!) from the performing arts library, and it is almost as if this work is entirely unencumbered by such things as tonality and even meter. The piece alternates between a few time signatures, 3/2 being one of them, but so much happens in this work, with so much else simultaneously, that it’s really difficult to follow, and I find myself just kind of giving into the music, lying back and taking in whatever I happen to notice. It’s a very passive, almost detached way of listening, but it’s the only way I can take in the work as a whole, as if from a bit of a distance.

I hear in it many similar concepts as the Debussy piece of last week, but in a much more turbulent, complex way. The word ‘muddled’ is a bit too negative, but it seems like Scriabin has lots more ideas, of art, of poetry, of life, religion, philosophy, and that he wants to communicate them all in this piece; there’s an urgency of communication that is almost tiring, but if you can kind of relax a bit (because Scriabin didn’t) and take whatever you can get as the piece washes over you, the main points float to the top and become quite apparent. I find myself wondering then, why all the overwhelming complexity and ornateness if it’s so difficult to ascertain. I will say, then, that I enjoyed Boulez’s reading of the work for the qualities he tends to bring out in most of his recordings: an almost cold, surgical clarity, meaning that all these details could be heard, unlike some of the other recordings I listened to where I saw things in the score that I 100% could not hear in the performances. This kind of work is right up Boulez’s alley, and I would highly recommend his performance with the Chicago Symphony.

There’s another piece from Scriabin this week, an equally glorious, fascinating, opulent work, but to me, one far easier to follow, and as a result, with a result that’s far more effective, especially live. See you then.




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