Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, op. 60

performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, Anatol Ugorski, piano

N0. 200

It’s been about two and a half years that I’ve been doing this, regularly but not always very professionally. I have some articles I’m not terribly pleased with, that were written prematurely, or forced, or not as informed as they could be, but some others that I’m really proud of, from the standpoint that I was able to convey perhaps not so much an academic or insightful view of the work as much as my passion for it and what about it gets me, why I love it.

And here we are. I thought, “let’s pick something significant for #200, like a piece that means a lot to me, something that holds a special place in my heart, like Chopin’s fourth ballade, Babbitt’s sixth string quartet, Mahler 9, Schubert 9, Schoenberg’s piano concerto, on and on and on, but it just so happened that no. 200 landed on Scriabin’s Poem of Fire, and I’m okay with that. He’s a dude whose piano works I spent significant time trying to understand, especially the later stuff (sonatas from #5 onward, the fifth being related to the other Scriabin work from this week), but this is a piece that I have come to view as effortlessly, freely, wildly, uniquely beautiful.

Also, it seems Scriabin loved poems. And weird mysticism and philosophical ideas.

I’ve had the chance to hear this piece twice, once with Hüseyin Sermet at the piano with the NTSO, and they incorporated the color organ (more about that later). More recently, I heard the work performed by the wonderful National Symphony Orchestra, and while they didn’t do the color show, they had the full chorus. We’ll talk about that effect later, but it was one of the most incredible pieces to hear live.

I’ll be honest, I found Tuesday’s piece to be really dense, difficult to follow, kind of challenging. It has its beauty, for sure, but kind of in a more chaotic, kaleidoscopic way, with so much going on in the work, and a trumpet solo here and there to focus on. Themes jump out and become apparent, for sure, but there’s so much music packed into a piece that isn’t very large.

This week’s piece, however, is about the same length, but seems far more focused, transparent, and while it’s highly dissonant throughout just about the entire piece, I feel it’s much easier on the ear. There is a piano part, and it’s the ‘in the front and center of the stage like a concerto’ piano, not ‘stuffed back in the rear with the percussion’ kind of piano. That being said, it isn’t a constantly-featured soloist.

And that color organ. You can read about it in this section of the Wikipedia article, but Scriabin, in all his feelings on art and philosophy and redemption and religion and whatever, felt the need to incorporate color, projections of different colors throughout the hall, filling it with the right shade to match what he saw when he heard the piece. It isn’t always done, but it is in the performance we’ll talk about below

There’s a certain… I hate to say fire to this piece, but it’s true. Wikipedia says that the piece only adheres to the Prometheus story ‘loosely’ if at all, but there’s a certain passion, a warmth in the work, an excitement. I would say ‘ominous’ but that carries the connotation of fright or terror. This would be maybe… more awe-inspiring. It’s rich, powerful, even a bit odd (for many ears), but there are things in the work that stick out, to me. Let’s look at a few.

The work begins quietly, and to me is an indication of how the piece continuously grows, like a fire. In the below links, I’ll be featuring specific moments from this video with Claudio Abbado conducting and Martha Argerich at the piano. Let’s take two moments from the beginning. After tremolo strings, and distant-sounding brass, a few woodwind solos, there are:

  • The moment where muted trumpets jump in. This feels like an important moment, similar in nature to the Poem of Ecstasy. There’s a soloist who’s unmuted.
  • Just moments later, the flute enters with a theme that will show up throughout the work. Pay attention to this. It’s got lots of forward motion, very suggestive.
  • Bam! The piano enters. This is typical of the moments where the piano features strongly: the orchestra leans in, builds up with tremolo strings, and then backs off. The piano throws (almost literal) splashes of sound and color into the mix.

But it’s not all fire and brimstone and awe-inspiring intensity. There are quiet, almost spiritual moments, like when a violin solo briefly appears before a quieter line from the piano.

There are of course more fiery moments, like this one instigated by the trombones. A trumpet solo follows, and then a quiet, almost playful solo from the piano. The entire piece feels so free, so organic, as if it’s just growing from nothing, swelling and developing, taking moments here and there to breathe and rest. I’m using the Abbado video because it’s of an actual performance, zooming in on performers and showing the colors.

Everything develops, flames ‘lick’ and grow, colors change, and from about this point on, it’s glorious. Up until the last few minutes of the piece, there’s been no choir, but after developing such rich sounds, color, harmonies, almost entirely free of traditional harmonies, as if it couldn’t get any more epic, the chorus joins, adding to the incredible warmth and passion of the piece, ending “with a resplendent F-sharp major triad, the only consonant sonority in the entire composition.” What a ride!

I don’t know that I would necessarily call it ‘tension’, but in music-theory terms, I suppose that’s what it is, unresolved tonal tension, a certain instability as to the key. Perhaps to the average ear it sounds, grating, unstable, eery, or Impressionist, modern, colorful and rich, depending on what you’re used to hearing, but finally, that ending, after being unencumbered by expectations of standard tonality for twenty minutes, that restless energy and growth is resolved in this bathed-in-sunlight, ‘resplendent’ major chord, with full orchestra, piano, organ, choir. It’s powerful and huge, but also delicate and warm.

Scriabin certainly had his interesting ideas about his music, as we talked about on Tuesday, especially with these higher opus numbers, and the inclusion of the color organ was another interesting idea that kind of… slanted in the direction of the mildly crazy, but whether you see it with the color show or not, in the concert hall, this piece is outstandingly moving, memorable, and beautiful. We’ve talked about symphonic poems or tone poems for almost two months now, but this is the first piece (with the exception maybe of a few from Sibelius) that I would really, honestly describe as poetic. There’s something perfect about it that I love, and while it may seem like an odd choice for number 200, there it is. It took a few listens, although not as many as it took to get my head around his late sonatas, which I’m really excited to get to. Eventually.

Also, as part of commemorating the 200th piece of music (and 400th article on the blog recently), I have started a few new projects. The first is already out and live. It’s a podcast! I announced it in this article here, where all the details can be found. We are on iTunes and PodBean, so check us out there. There’s another project that I’ve already started that won’t be announced until the beginning of next month, but it’s another one I’d thought of doing for quite sometime. It begins as soon as we are done with this series, so keep your eyes peeled for that! Thanks for reading , and stay tuned!

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