performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy
(or for those of you to whom the above video is unavailable, another one here by Richter)
Life is fearfully expensive, and the climate is rotten. The air in the areas where we could find an apartment big enough for us at a reasonable price is frightful […] you cannot make any noise. You have to wear house slippers after 10 at night.
Scriabin, of life in Paris
We go out a little, having caught up on our sleep. We begin to look normal again. Sasha even has begun to compose – 5th Sonata!!! I cannot believe my ears. It is incredible! That sonata pours from him like a fountain. Everything you have heard up to now is as nothing. You cannot even tell it is a sonata. Nothing compares to it. He has played it through several times, and all he has to do is to write it down […].
The composer’s wife, Tatyana
Well here we are.
I’ve been waiting for this moment for years, the chance to express my enjoyment of and lack of insight about a piece I have come thoroughly to enjoy, and later to appreciate its significance of this work in the context of music history and the composer’s development.
I jammed the fourth and fifth sonatas together because I was so excited to get to the fifth that I didn’t want to have to wait until who knows how long to get back around to Scriabin, so we jammed it all in this week, and then tried to take snapshots of either side of that journey, a piece right after the fourth sonata and right before the fifth, kind of bookending that critical middle period in the composer’s career, when he was finding greater confidence in his personal language, developing it further, and also finding increasingly greater interest in mysticism, philosophy and other, shall we say, interesting ideas.
So on the one hand, this piece is part of that trajectory, one step in the giant, elegant, magnificent spiral staircase that led up to Scriabin’s eventual stunning greatness and creativity and eventual total absurdity. We’re at a midpoint now, sort of. I’ll draw your attention to another work of his that was completed right around this time, Le Poème de l’extase, op. 54, a piece where he dumps his religious and artistic ideas out onto the page as from buckets. While it’s an opus number later than this one, they were written pretty much concurrently, and a common feature of both of them is Scriabin’s ‘mystic chord’, or ‘Prometheus chord’, a chord (or collection of pitches sounded together) that the composer believed to have some kind of power, deriving from his interest in Theosophy. It’s considered a ‘synthetic chord’ in the sense that it can’t be given any traditional label among those that describe traditional harmonies (diminished/augmented major/minor whatever; for more information, read here.)
Okay, all that aside, let’s talk quickly about the elephant in the room. How many movements is this sonata in?
A single movement. As we discussed in previous articles, Scriabin seems to have been working toward a more compact, dense, restructured form for the sonata, the way that a diamond is just carbon reconfigured and compressed (way) down. Scriabin wrote two four-movement sonatas, and the same number of two-movement sonatas, but this is his first (the first?) single movement sonata. With a seemingly-single gesture, Scriabin dispenses with all the other business of multiple movements and says everything he needs to say in one uninhibited line of expression (Berg would later do the same with his op. 1, a piece I need desperately to revisit). This is genius… it’s absolute genius. While I am a sucker for a solid four-movement piece of music with a slow movement and scherzo and all the rest, what Scriabin has done with going right to the heart of the music while still working with a sonata structure is pure genius. Aaron Copland called Scriabin’s adherence to sonata form “one of the most extraordinary mistakes in all music,” from his book What to Listen for in Music. I would tend to disagree. As we shall see, it gives the music a narrative, a robust solid form with which to work while still not inhibiting the piece’s movement or expression in any way. It’s genius.
So that’s a lot of information about the background of the piece, and we’ve been considering this work in the context of the composer’s career and development as an artist, but on a much more human, down-to-earth level, there’s another way we can look at it.
As the quote at the top of the article mentions, Scriabin had been living in Paris, while his pregnant wife stayed in Lausanne. After dissatisfaction with Paris, he moved to be with his (actually second wife and former student) Tatyana Schloezer, mother of his child Julian Scriabin, who would later die at the age of only 11. This seems to have been a time when things were looking up for the composer. He was continually more ambitious with his works, and one can easily imagine that irascible starving artist persona the mustachioed pianist might have had in his own flat in Paris, without a (or at least the same) woman around to look after him, and the decision to move outside the city into Lausanne seemed to be a liberation, a clearing away of stress, of the constant hubbub of the city, the pressures of life and constant interruption, invasion of privacy and confining down into social norms like not playing the piano until all hours of the night or walking around without house slippers on past 10 pm.
Imagine all of those things that irk you, that file away at your being day by day, so that you’re worn down and eroded slowly, and maybe don’t even realize it. And then imagine suddenly having (or making) the circumstances to tear it all off like a Band-Aid and take control of the situation, change everything and wipe the slate clean.
That’s what I hear in this work, a glimmering, shining liberated unbridled joy, a sudden blast of fresh air, sunshine and buzzing excitement, and if you’ve followed along with any of the other posts from this week, you’ll see how that contrasts so greatly with the dense, intoxicating but also sometimes almost-suffocating richness of Scriabin’s writing, even on the smallest of scales. This had to be one of the happiest moments in the composer’s life, or at least simplest, one of resolved (or at least ignored) friction and strife. Part of this work’s charms, like any great piece of art, is that it can be enjoyed from a multiplicity of angles and approaches.
The piece opens with an explosive, crystalline, shimmering gesture of sound, a thunderous trill and swirl up to the high end of the piano, followed by silence, and then the misty mysteriousness of those piano sketches and poems rolls in, with an aromatic, afar-off sounding melody in the twinkling high range of the piano. This contrast, executed splendidly by Ashkenazy, embodies what this piece is all about. As I’ve stated, overall, the work is one of idyllic, blissful joy and uncharacteristic, unstoppable optimism, but in very contrasting ways. And we’re only at the introduction!
The sonata part itself is made up, obviously, of two themes. The first begins at bar 47. It’s spirited and exciting, like the exhilaration of running downhill full speed or jumping off a three story cliff into the cool water below; it has tinges of reckless abandon, but also a certain poeticism. The transitional theme is lush and full-bodied, with all sorts of pianistic detail, like what we just heard is morphing and changing shape and taking on a new form to bring the second subject to life.
It’s much cooler, like the second part of that introduction that followed the explosion of notes. The bass line has figures that ripple down like a harp across the range of the left hand, and the entire passage is lush, dense, but lyrical and intoxicating in its chromaticism. Obviously now that these two main ideas (and the content from the introduction), we are ready for the development section, but not before a small codetta, with punctuated flashes of intensity and power.
Okay, so like I said, for analysis stuff, go check out the Wiki. The long-ish chart gives little titles to each of the themes that Scriabin works with and tells us in Wagnerian-type analysis where each theme shows up, and how they intertwine and combine and conflict in the development and unfurl to reveal themselves in the recapitulation.
Suffice it to say, though, that with such incredibly vivid motifs, such richness of expression, mixing these things together, and deconstructing them and putting them back together, the process can only be stunning. Aside from the genius of composition, the layers of detail are amazing. Each motif, each idea, is made up of not just a theme like you’d have from Wagner, but an independent pianistic gesture, like a Tetris shape or a splash of color on a palate, and they hang in the air as Scriabin presents, takes apart and builds and rebuilds stories and worlds with them, a fascinating kaleidoscope of sounds and color.
However, don’t feel like you must be able to identify this structure at a glance, like knowing the name of everyone in a room when you first shake hands and introduce yourself. That will come, and if you’re too focused on the analysis part of it, you won’t be able to enjoy the event. Sit back and let the ethereal magic of this piece wash over you; its ornateness and richness of detail is hypnotizing, and after a few listens, you’ll begin to recognize gestures and phrasing, themes that show up in fits and starts, interrupted here and there, and that’s when all this analysis business will start to make sense. I include it all here to say that the piece isn’t just the ravings of a madman and a never-ending cascade of notes and noise. It has focus, meaning, expression, and it is breathtaking.
Sviatoslav Richter also commented somewhere that it was the most difficult thing he’d ever played. While others might prefer Richter or Horowitz or others’ interpretations of this piece, Ashkenazy’s Scriabin stole my heart long ago. Not only is the playing clear and passionate, the recording quality is pristine. A bit tinny, maybe, because Decca… but for any or all of those reasons, none of what Scriabin wrote in the score gets lost in the wash. It’s all represented, treated with the utmost care; what’s delicate and evanescent feels so, and what should resound and shake and terrify does so as well. Making sense of everything that’s in this work must take not just technical ability, but a very clear understanding of why all that detail is there, putting it all into focus, and when you get it, you see it as one of the most outstanding piano compositions there is, and it’s a work I’ve been waiting for years to write about. I hope this article does it some justice.
It was also the primary motivation behind this month’s series, and it’s placed at almost the center of the month. Stay tuned, though, because we’re done with Scriabin for now, sadly, but are moving on to a few notable (and new) figures of around the same time. See you then.