performed by Gregory Hustis, horn; Steven Harlos, piano
Here’s something you might not have heard.
We’ve featured Scriabin and his work on the blog before, and it’s almost all been for piano (or with orchestra; this is amazing; and his actual piano concerto [already more than three years ago!]), with the exception of his first symphony and his Poem of Ecstasy. Despite his penning of symphonies and purely orchestral work, he is known primarily for his large, varied, genius output of solo piano works: ten numbered sonatas, along with so many other forms that bring Chopin to mind, like etudes, preludes, mazurkas, nocturnes… in fact, his entire output is summarized on this Wiki page with two categories, orchestral works, and piano works, with the exception of two lonely pieces, both romances. There’s one for horn, and one for voice. Scriabin left us no violin sonatas, no string quartets, no piano trios, no violin concertos (although if you want to hear something very like what a Scriabin violin concerto might sound like, go check out the two from Roslavets!).
The Romance for Horn and Piano dates from 1890, says that Wikipedia list, and is, it seems, the only chamber work for piano and any other instrument (besides that romance for voice, of which I know nothing, but it’s okay because it’s not what we’re talking about today). How, then, could we do this series and not include this little outlier in Scriabin’s output, especially considering its sheer, simple beauty.
Now, there’s no wild synesthetic color theory going on here, no Theosophy, no world-ending agenda. The work dates from early in the composer’s career, and was never published in his lifetime. G. Henle Verlag publishes the sheet music for the work, and on their page for the piece, they say:
As the work was not published during the composer’s lifetime, the autograph is the sole source for our edition. It was prepared in collaboration with the Moscow Scriabin scholar Valentina Rubcova.
In fact, in the preface for that score (which you can preview from the site), they mention “a movement for string quartet (part of a work written jointly with several other composers)”, so there’s that. In any case, it’s an early work, perhaps on the surface not showing much relation to his later, obviously more famous stuff.
But seriously: stop everything you are doing, either right now, or later in the day (as in today) and listen to this piece. It’s only two minutes. I know you have that much time, and if you don’t, there’s a problem.
It might be attributing a noble, mature motive to what is likely some degree of inexperience or youth as a composer to say that the brevity of the work is related at all to the composer’s later Poemes and sketches, but its simple, straightforward beauty is like a sketch made with a single stroke, drawn with a pencil that never leaves the page. There aren’t fine details like the reflection of the artist in the pupil of the subject, maybe nothing more than a silhouette, but it captures something both fleeting and essential, captivating and pure.
What can we hear of Scriabin’s more mature work in this piece? The piano part is rich and colorful, adding texture and expressiveness to the solo horn. The work is melancholy, lyrical and expressive, full of atmosphere, even as brief as it is. There’s only really one figure used throughout the work, marked by a triplet in the second beat, followed by a static note held by the horn, but something about it is simple, nostalgic even; perhaps it’s something that would have seemed silly to the composer if you’d brought the score to him in his later years (although not that late; he died so young), a trifle he couldn’t be bothered with, or maybe was embarrassed by. If so, it would certainly not be for any glaring fault in this piece, but that it doesn’t compare at all with the later work for seriousness. Scriabin’s philosophical, spiritual, and psychological ideas became of far greater importance to him later in his life, but we have here an unassuming gem, a little work of beauty. Why he chose the horn and not the violin, or cello, or clarinet, we do not know. What we can be glad for is that this minuscule work was found and published, and that such beauty can be conveyed in the time it takes to pop a bag of popcorn, or brush your teeth.
Soap box point here: that’s why music is so amazing. People talk about ‘the soundtrack to your life’ and ‘what music do you play when you’re (something-ing)?’ Maybe it’s music that gets you pumped at the gym or something affected and dismal on a rainy day, but if you haven’t entirely come to love classical music yet, it’s small pieces like this that illustrate the point that you don’t need to sit down with a score and take notes or stare at a ceiling or sit in a dark room by yourself (all of which are also wonderful options!) to enjoy classical music, let it enrich even the most mundane things in life. We have such wonderful access to so much music now from so many places, so go find some stuff to enjoy, and maybe it’s little tiny morsels like this that can brighten your day, turn a mood around, make a mundane thing memorable.
Stay tuned. There’s more good music on the way.