Scriabin: Four Pieces, op. 51

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Oh, let’s not talk about this! This is a ghastly piece! […] I was in an appalling situation back then. This Prelude, and also the Marche funebre in the First Sonata formed in moments disheartenment… But only these two!

Scriabin, about the prelude of op. 51
from here

In the space between Scriabin’s fourth and fifth sonatas, he wrote oodles of piano music, and almost smack-dab between those two piano works is the third symphony, or The Divine Poem, but just about everything else is assortments of piano works: preludes, etudes, waltzes, poemes, morceaux, etc. This is a very interesting time in the composer’s output, but I haven’t the ability at this point to delve into that Petri dish of creativity and ingenuity, so we’ll have to do that another day.

For now, we’re addressing the works that sort of bookend that period, coming right after and right before the fourth and fifth sonatas, respectively. If you, like me, are already familiar with the late works, the fifth sonata in particular, then in listening to some of the work of this period, you’ll instantly hear familiar things.

In the post about op. 32, there were wafts of the fragrance of later things, like when you smell something you can’t quite identify, and then you get another whiff, and you know what it is, but not where it’s coming from. The rich, pungent sweet and yet sometimes acrid fragrance of Scriabin’s later piano works is getting yet more heady as we move into the later works of his ‘middle period.’ It’s like a gas that fills a room from an overhead vent until it permeates the entire space.

The quote at the top of the article references Scriabin’s own reaction to some of his works. It’s famously known that he refused to perform some of his late sonatas out of some kind of paralyzing, infectious dread of the dark places those works stem from, and I’ve always found it perplexing that he continued with their composition despite that.

Today’s collection of four pieces runs at about 7 minutes when played back-to-back, and are listed thusly:

  1. Fragilité
  2. Prélude
  3. Poëme ailé
  4. Danse languide

In the later music Scriabin wrote, there’s this intoxicating spirit (like gin), a woozy, sensual passion but at once countered and strengthened with a disturbing poetic darkness, like the kind of crazy that gives you a smile and a wink. It’s the luscious lyricism of a Chopin nocturne, the sensual at-ease-ness of an underground parlor thick with smoke and dim lighting, but only if Tim Burton directed it.

The fragilité is just that: it shows the more delicate side of Scriabin’s writing, a wink to Debussy from over the shoulder as Scriabin moves in his own direction. It’s swooning, sensual, rich parlor music, but with just a dash of bittersweetness. It begins and ends the way a ball rolls across the floor, reacting to uneven surfaces and eventually coming to a stop at some undetermined but generally expected location. It lasts about two minutes.

The prélude is instantly darker. It bears a fitting lugubre marking. It’s more outrightly mournful and somber. Perhaps it’s stereotypical imagery, but imagine all the folks in the parlor from fragilité gone and at home, and the bar owner playing the piano as he stares out a dusty window onto a rainy Paris evening. There’s a density in this expression, no longer light, but still flowing, heavy like smoke-laden air.

The third in our little collection of atmospheric sketches is the poëme ailé. It instantly gives the impression of being sunny and buoyant, but the music flows in a different way, like a waterfall chock full of ice cubes. It’s cool, refreshing and liquid, but still jagged, angular and textured.

The final danse languide is eery, but seems to be entirely okay with it. There are moments of perfect clarity, where something jumps through the smoke and rich atmosphere, seeming at times almost clumsy, but still full of that intoxicating fragrance of the composer’s ever-developing musical language. It ends suddenly and uneventfully.

What a wonderful little collection of expressions to kind of test drive the composer’s progressively more individual style of writing, as a listener! There’s nothing really challenging about this music, even if the harmonies and textures and pianistic vocabulary are entirely unique to Scriabin. Even the harshest of dissonances and most jagged of gestures are all bathed in a warm glow, a thick atmosphere that envelops the listener, and without any semblance of actual storytelling that you’d get from the structure of a sonata. These aren’t novels, they’re not even short stories. They’re small poems, as we saw earlier in the week, or even snapshots, small yet vivid gestures, like a writer scribbling his notes down on paper to make sure he doesn’t lose them as they fly by.

I’m extremely excited about tomorrow’s post, but to be honest, it’s a piece I was intimidated to write about because it represents so much; it’s a landmark in music history, a milestone in one of the greatest piano sonata cycles of the last few centuries, and I’m going to pretend like I can talk about it intelligently, so stay tuned for that.


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