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Scriabin’s Eighth Sonata: the composer’s last word on sonata form. By Simon Nicholls


The Eighth Sonata, the longest of Scriabin’s one-movement sonatas, was the last of the cycle of ten to be finished. It differs greatly from the other late sonatas in its extensive, apparently discursive form and generally more subdued expressive register, yet it has always fascinated players and listeners. The present study attempts to show that the linked qualities of symmetry and repetition which mark out the Eighth are a logical culmination of Scriabin’s developing and original treatment of sonata form from his earliest works; to suggest why he placed it in the position he did, instead of at the end of the cycle; and to investigate the deep logic of the form of the work. The sonata lacks the numerous subjective performance directions of the other late works, with a few important exceptions, but Scriabin made some significant comments about it. The content of the work is investigated with reference to those comments. Valentina Rubtsova has stated that the last sonatas were regarded by the composer as preliminary studies for the Mystery.[1] Concepts in Scriabin’s libretto for the Preliminary Action, the ‘preparation’ for the Mystery, and relevant earlier writings are also drawn into comparison. Commentaries from 1915 to 2016 are drawn into the discussion, as well as twentieth-century literary, scientific-philosophical and musical references.

A version of this article was published, in Russian translation, in A. N. Skryabin i sovremennost’: zhizn’ posle zhizni (Skryabin and the present day: life after life), edited by Alexander Serafimovich Skryabin, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the A. N. Skryabin Foundation, Moscow. The Centre for Humanitarian Initiatives, Moscow–St. Petersburg, 2016.

The development of form in Scriabin

Scriabin’s engagement with sonata form was life-long: one of his earliest existing manuscripts is the Sonate-Fantaisie in G sharp minor, finished in August 1886 at the age of fifteen. Its form anticipates to some extent the pattern of the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas: it begins with a slow introduction whose recapitulation (fragmentary in this case, a mere hint) frames a fast movement. Between this youthful work and the Eighth Sonata, the last of Scriabin’s ten sonatas to be finished despite its numbering, stand not only the other nine sonatas and the five symphonic works of the canon, but also an incomplete sonata movement in C sharp minor begun in September 1887 and a sonata in E flat minor dating from 1887–1889. The first movement of the latter work, expanded and corrected, became the Allegro appassionato op. 4 in 1882, and the Allegro appassionato is not the only extended movement by Skryabin in sonata form which lacks the title Sonata: further examples are the Fantaisie op 28 and the Poème-Nocturne op. 61.

Scriabin has been criticised for holding to the traditional form throughout the transformation of his musical language: Sabaneyev referred to the ‘schematicism’ of his later works, and the German critic Carl Dahlhaus accused him of taking over the traditional form ‘gehorsam und unkritisch’ [obediently and uncritically].[2] But from the beginning there were original elements in Scriabin’s handling of form. The fragmentary recall of the slow introduction in the G sharp minor Sonate-Fantaisie, forming the ‘frame’ or ‘bracket’ which becomes so important to Scriabin later, has been mentioned. In the First Sonata, op. 6, completed in 1892, the form is modified and interrupted to expressive purpose, to express Scriabin’s despair at the hand injury he thought was going to be permanent: in the finale, exactly where our expectation is that the second subject will return triumphantly in the home key, the movement we have taken to be the finale breaks off, a fragment of the second subject is heard in the minor and a remorseless funeral march ensues. This ‘meaningful contradiction […] of what we have been led to expect’ was defined by Hans Keller as constituting ‘the language of music’, the method by which ‘musical understanding’ is communicated, and Keller’s simplest example of it was the interrupted cadence.[3] Here Scriabin achieves a harrowing emotional effect by working on the level of formal expectations. From this point on Scriabin is able to use the modification of form as an expressive element in his music.

The treatment of form in Scriabin’s earlier symphonies is also highly original. Of the six movements in the First Symphony, the first and last frame a conventional four-movement structure: Allegro drammatico, Lento, Vivace, Allegro. The recapitulation in the finale of ideas from the first movement provides an element of symmetry to the framing, and the addition to the finale of words, which are heard over the first movement’s ideas and the second movement’s exalted theme, marked at its first appearance Più,[4] reveals that the first movement’s enchanted world and the exaltation of the ‘Più’ theme are to be attributed to the influence of Art, and of Music in particular, the  ‘wondrous image of the Divine’ (words from the choral movement).

In the Third Symphony (Divine Poem) the sonata form of the first movement is extended by a second development section following the recapitulation (b. 745, number 43 in the Belaieff score). This second development section also provides another example of an element of symmetry in the movement, in addition to the normal correspondence of exposition and recapitulation.

It is in the later music of Scriabin that we are most conscious of his careful calculations concerning form, though this was most probably his method throughout life. During the composition of the Poem of Ecstasy he wrote to his life-partner Tat’yana Schloezer:

For the thousandth time I am pondering the plan of my composition. […] Up till now everything is only schemes and more schemes! […] For the enormous structure that I wish to raise a perfect harmony of the sections and a firm basis are necessary.[5]

During the composition of the Seventh Sonata he said to Sabaneyev: ‘It is necessary that a form like a sphere, perfect as a crystal, be obtained.’[6]

In these quotations the importance of proportion and symmetry is very marked. Scriabin was to move closer and closer to this ideal.

In writing of Scriabin’s later music, both the Russian writer of the Soviet period Sergei Pavchinsky and, it seems independently, the German writer Gottfried Eberle have proposed a form on two layers, whereby the conventional sonata form is overlaid with another tendency.[7] In the Fifth Sonata, as in the Poem of Ecstasy to which it is closely related, the overlaid tendency is an upward spiral, processes of elation and languor alternating and rising in intensity (and in tonality) until the final ecstatic peroration. In this sonata, too, we have a ‘frame’, and a unique one: the opening ‘upflight’ which corresponds to Scriabin’s ‘motto’: ‘I call you to life, hidden strivings!’ and which recurs periodically at formal divisions and at the end. The repetitions at ever-higher pitches of the ‘slow introduction’ material and of the ‘upflight’ undergo at times ingenious transformation (b. 247–270).

An uninterrupted rise to an ecstatic conclusion, irrespective of the formal process, is achieved in the Seventh Sonata by means of another transformation: a heightened and re-scored recapitulation. The amplified sonority and re-arranged layers of the return to the beginning ensure that, far from showing a drop in tension, this moment is one of the most thrilling in the work. The recapitulation of the Ninth Sonata is equally startling, with the doubling of the speed of the opening figuration and the hugely amplified instrumental writing. In the American expression, ‘all Hell breaks loose’ at this point. Scriabin does not adopt the method of Chopin in the B minor piano sonata (op. 58) and the cello sonata (op. 65), of avoiding a drop in tension by eliding the beginning of the recapitulation, so that the music does not settle until the second subject: the clarity of his formal periods is too important to him.

The Eighth Sonata presents the player and the listener with a fascinating enigma: no such dramatic ascent as in the Seventh Sonata, no such cruel climax as in the Ninth (alla Marcia), and yet the work is immediately compelling, hypnotic even. This is the longest of all the one-movement sonatas, and the form of the Eighth is at first puzzling to the listener and perhaps to the player studying the work, owing to the many repetitions of the material and the lack of obvious climactic points. E. P. Meskhishvili wrote of an element of ‘mosaic construction’.[8] But the sonata represents the culmination of the process of an original, modificatory treatment of sonata form which Scriabin seems to have had in his mind from early on, as well as the transformation of harmonic language. To Elena Gnesina, at the age of eighteen, he said:

I imagine […] some sort of music, not at all like what is being created now. In it will be, as it were, the same elements as in the music of the present time – melody, harmony,  but all this will somehow be completely different![9]

This statement is complemented by a remark in a letter to Natalya Sekerina written from Samara in 1893:

I am making calculations in relation to musical forms, and here is the sort of thing: this morning I was reading a splendid work on the flora of our planet and of the relation of tropical forms to the forms of other latitudes. […] Taking the forms of our contemporary music as the forms of the middle latitudes in relation to the musical equator, I am making a comparison of these forms to the ideal ones (that is, to the most developed and the broadest) and am comparing it to the other, already discovered relation between tropical forms and those of the middle latitudes.[10]

In other words, however complex and luxuriant in proportion the form becomes, it will obey certain basic principles, just as the bewildering luxuriance of tropical plants may obscure their inner structural relationship with those of the zone covered by the middle latitudes. If the Eighth Sonata is the final one in Scriabin’s oeuvre, it is only reasonable that we should expect its form to be the most ‘ideal’ – the most developed and the broadest – but that we should seek its basic formal tendencies, with whatever they may be overlaid, in the sonata principle (the classical sonata form corresponding to the ‘middle latitudes’). First, though, a few speculations as to why the Eighth Sonata, composed last (and intended to be the last sonata Scriabin would write – he was intending to turn thereafter to the Preliminary Action and then to the Mystery) is known not as the Tenth but as the Eighth – why Scriabin placed it in this position.

Numbering of the late sonatas

It is clear that Scriabin made choices concerning the numbering of his last five sonatas. The Sixth was written after the Seventh (both 1911-12, Kashiry –Beatenberg and Moscow), and though numbers Eight, Nine and Ten were worked on more or less simultaneously and may be regarded as a trilogy, the Ninth was started first (Beatenberg, Autumn 1911), not being finished till summer 1913 in Moscow; the Tenth was worked on in Moscow in the winter of 1912–13 and finished before the Eighth, at the latest in early June, and the Eighth was begun in winter 1912/13 and finished in early summer 1913. The three sonatas were sent simultaneously to the publisher.[11]

If we follow the numbers 5–7 and 9–10 we find a simple alternation of light and dark. But the Eighth Sonata does not fit into this pattern, and is harder to categorise in this way: Pavchinsky found in it ‘something mysterious and nocturnal’;[12] for the early American biographer Alfred J. Swan it was ‘bright and exuberant, […] a divine azure vault, the happiest and most careless of inspirations.’[13] The numerical symbolism of H.P. Blavatsky, whose Secret Doctrine was Scriabin’s constant reading, may give us a clue to Scriabin’s choice of numbering, and to the symbolism of the sonatas – remembering especially the remark of V.V. Rubtsova that the late piano sonatas were conceived as ‘preliminary studies’ for the Мystery.[14]  Seven, for Blavatsky the ‘Septenary’, was fundamental to the cosmic cycle, ‘the seven earths and the seven races’.[15] It is natural for it to be associated with the sonata which, according to Scriabin, was ‘completely close to the Mystery’[16]­ – the Mystery which was to sum up the cosmic cycle which was, according to Scriabin’s thinking, coming to an end. The number eight is associated by Blavatsky with ‘the eternal and spiral motion of cycles’, and she associates the numeral 8 with the symbol ∞ of infinity. (We may note that the first of two sketches by Scriabin included in the 1919 publication of his writings, Russkie propilei, is based on such a figure).[17] Scriabin stated that the Eighth Sonata was ‘by mood […] close to the Seventh […] only it is more all in a dance’ (an important clue for the interpreter, not always realised in performance).[18] Once again, we may think of the concept of the revolving cosmic cycle, and the typical circular dances of Scriabin, both associated with the Mystery.[19]  Nine, Blavatsky states, symbolises ‘our earth animated by a bad or evil spirit’[20] (cf. Scriabin’s remark to Sabaneyev:  ‘It is entirely mischievous, this Ninth sonata, in it is some kind of evil spirit’ [Sabaneyev’s emphases].[21]) Ten, according to Blavatsky, ‘brings all […] to unity, and ends the Pythagorean table.’ For Scriabin the Tenth Sonata, the last in the canon, was ‘genuine dissolution in nature. This is also the Mystery’.[22] Tamara Levaya writes of the Tenth as the ‘companion and antipode’ of the Ninth and as representing a concept of the Mystery of a character ‘of full mutual inter-dissolution with Nature and the Cosmos.’[23] Thus the last four sonatas are arranged as two pairs: Seven and Eight are closely linked by their philosophical subject matter but differ greatly in approach, whereas Nine and Ten are antipodes. The negative pole, represented by the Ninth, is enclosed by the ‘mysterial’ sonatas.

Harmony, Thematic Material and Content of the Eighth Sonata

The Eighth Sonata may be said to contain the widest range of harmonic vocabulary of any of the late sonatas, from the distantly extra-tonal[24] opening to the radiant Promethean harmony of bars 46­–56, which culminate on a straightforward seventh chord on A. Scriabin spoke of the ‘thematic counterpoints in the introduction of the Eighth Sonata’ as showing ‘complete reconciliation’.[25] This opening certainly shows Scriabin’s extra-tonal style at its farthest reach, apart from some passages in the preludes op. 74 and the sketches for the Preliminary Action. In this style, where harmony and melody are one and the harmonic relations are complex and oblique, we do not feel, as in the music of Bach which Scriabin evoked as a comparison, a strong directionality, but rather a dynamic stasis. This music expresses Scriabin’s concept of all-unity; all the thematic elements of the sonata are completely reconciled in a near-frictionless combination.[26]

The article by Evgenyi Mikhailov already cited characterises this introduction with the expression: ‘a state of “non-separation before creation”’.[27] This expression recalls the ‘concreteness in unity’ which Scriabin illustrated musically for the philosopher Fokht in the third of their conversations in 1910, and which Fokht recounted much later in a typescript not published until 1994.[28] Earlier still, in the notebook of 1905–1906, Scriabin wrote:

The universe is a unity, the connection of the processes co-existing in it. In its unity it is free. It exists in itself and through itself. It is (has within it) the possibility of everything, and everything.[29]

This introduction, with all the thematic potentialities combined in balanced stillness, is a musical analogue of the concept Scriabin set down in his notebook – at a time when his own musical language was developing towards being able to express this state.

The character of the thematic material also needs examination: the nature of the themes, as well as the form, determines the character of the work, and both have to be in harmony with each other.[30]

Four themes are stated in the introduction. The first (mus.ex.1a) consists of two elements: one rising in a zigzag and the other falling chromatically.


This theme has close connections with the theme of self-assertion in the Poem of Ecstasy and the fugue theme of the final chorus in the First Symphony Slava iskusstvu [‘Glory to Art’] (1b, 1c), both of which show similar features;[31] slow and abstracted here, it appears in the last part of the exposition and, following Scriabin’s description below, I give it the name ‘theme of dissolution’.



The second (mus. ex. 2a), which appears while the first is being completed, is the only theme which shows a completed arching gesture expressing a romantic pathos. It reappears (mus. ex. 2b) marked ‘Tragique’, one of only three French performance directions in the work; we may label it the tragic theme.


The third theme (mus.ex.3a), rising through a diminished tenth (Scriabin’s enharmonic spelling of a major ninth), Pavchinsky labelled ‘the motive of languor’. It is stated three times, acquiring a new extension at both repetitions. At the third appearance it grows a tail which repeats itself and becomes important in the development section.


The outline of this repeated tail (3c) gives rise to the theme which appears in its fullest form at the end of the exposition (3d) and leads to the development – I give this theme the name ‘connecting theme’ because of this function.



The fourth (mus. ex. 4a) is the simplest – a rising second. Like the rising semitone of Vers la flamme op. 72, it has the quality of a primal impulse. Stated three times in the introduction, it grows into the principal theme of the Allegro agitato (mus. ex. 4b), with which the cascading fourths which are a feature of the Eighth Sonata are associated.[32] They constitute, not a simple descent, but a double curve, representing a hint of a whirlwind or eddy. It is tempting, and may be helpful in interpretation, to attach to them a phrase from Scriabin’s notebook of 1904–1905, ‘the trembling of life’.[33]


With the exception of the tragic theme (ex.2b) which appears in the position of the second subject, the themes in Sonata No. 8 are unusually abstract and shorn of personal expressive value. This is certainly as intentional as the contrast between lyrical theme and aphoristic motif in the Sixth Sonata. The repeated ‘tail’ of theme 3 (mus. ex. 3c) and the up-and-down of the connecting theme 3d, closely related to it, call to mind the movement of branches in the wind or plants in the water. The first phrase of the principal theme of the allegro agitato (ex. 4b), developed from the primal motif of a rising second stated in the introduction (4a), describes a perfect fifth – in outline it is essentially a Naturthema. The detail of this first phrase, set in triads, like the prestissimo volando theme of the Fourth Sonata, gives us the exhilaration of arising life:[34] two pulsing rising seconds, and a third rise which rests for a moment on a syncopated raised fourth before arriving at the fifth. The corresponding phrase at bar 32-34, significantly, ends with a semitone drop (marked ‘a’), again syncopated (4c): an anticipation of the downward curve of the ‘tragic theme’, as if the beginning of life contained the seeds of its ending.

The forceful, fully expressed form of the ‘tragic theme’ appears at bar 88, marked ‘Tragique’, in the position of second subject. Of this passage Scriabin remarked:

‘But here I have a change of mood in the course of one phrase […].Tragic… but out of it is born such dissolution…suddenly…’[35]

Scriabin’s second subjects were highly significant from the beginning: we may think of the uplift of the second subject in the First Sonata or the consolation of the second subject in the Fantaisie. Later, perhaps under the influence of the gendering of themes in the writing of A. B. Marx,[36] they came strongly to represent a feminine principle: the second subject in the Sixth Sonata is the only lyrical theme in a work whose ideas are markedly laconic. In the Ninth sonata the second theme represents a ‘slumbering sanctuary’, in Scriabin’s own words.[37] Both these themes undergo transformation, as does the second subject of the Tenth, which reappears as a blazing vision of the sun. In the Eighth the role of the second subject undergoes further modification: rather than being acted upon, as in the earlier sonatas, it has pivotal significance in the musical narrative.

Stefanie Huei-Ling Seah, following a hint from Faubion Bowers on the associations in the Russian language to the word ‘tragic’, suggests that in this moment ‘the major tenth ascent may be understood as being heroic prior to the despair of the semitone descent from the G apex to the G flat […]’[38] This suggestion we may associate with the remarks of Valentina Rubtsova on the Poème tragique, op. 34, which she associates with the ‘self-assertion’ of the Poème op. 32 no. 2. The descending phrases of the middle section of the Poème tragique she connects with the ‘theme of protest’ in the Poem of Ecstasy; this section, with its downward-leaping phrases from the trombones, is marked tragico.[39] In other words, this is a matter of a heroic protest: in a scenario familiar from the Poem of Ecstasy, the will has met with an obstacle to its progress. But here the following events are very different from the struggle which ensues in the Poem of Ecstasy: to repeat the quotation  from  Scriabin  himself,  ‘from  it  is  born  such  dissolution …immediately’.[40] Struggle is not Scriabin’s preoccupation in this piece, though we may find elements of opposition in the development section. The two sections of enchanted tranquillity (Meno vivo, b.173-185 and 242–263), surrounded by agitated moods, bring to mind a stanza from the Preliminary Action:

Only through the foam of sensuality is it possible to penetrate
Into that secret realm where the treasures of the soul are
Where, having grown sick of the predilections of the agitated soul
The holy one is blissful in radiant stillness. [41]

Viktor Del’son suggested that the Sixth and Eighth Sonatas shared features of

strongly abstracted expressions of the elemental forces of nature, a reflection of the world surrounding us as one of the manifestations of the cosmos, of the All. [42]

Pavchinsky associated the ‘tragic theme’ in its situation amongst the other more abstract themes with the idea of

[…] a hero amid the agitated night before a thunderstorm, with its gusts of wind and threatening indistinct sounds carried towards us.[43]

But, bearing in mind the early evidence of Gunst that

[…] the music of Scriabin, being the embodiment of a certain experience, […] never by any means contains within itself any kind of hint of programmicity in the generally accepted meaning of this word […][44]

it may be preferred to look at the content of the exposition in the Eighth Sonata in a more abstract way, as the emergence of life, beginning agitatedly (b.21­–25), gaining momentum and reaching its aim of joy at b. 46 (joyeux); the chain of intervals in the theme of dissolution is extended to a full octave at b. 52–55. (Mus. ex. 5; Pavchinsky gave this passage the name ‘theme of upflight’.)


At bar 88 the stage of consciousness and protest is reached[45] and the final stage of dissolution or dematerialisation, like that which ends the Preliminary Action,[46] ensues with one of Scriabin’s finest passages of twittering and flight, the themes 1, 3 and 2 without its rising first member all being present (b. 96–117). All this may be regarded as forming a final group in the exposition, and it is theme 2 in its shortened aspect which has the last word, here as at the conclusion of the sonata. (Presenting only the downward element of theme 2, omitting what Seah calls its ‘heroic’ aspect, robs it of its pathos. Scriabin knew the value of adding or subtracting a few notes at the beginning of a theme: the Poème-Nocturne’s first theme lacked its anacrusis in manuscript, as well as in the list of ‘themes for sonatas’ compiled by Scriabin,[47] but now that anacrusis seems utterly indispensable to the enigmatic character of the music. The ‘theme of will’ in the Poem of Ecstasy is first stated early in the work without its first three rising notes.) The pattern of events in the exposition is repeated in the recapitulation, while the coda may be said to concentrate on the stage of dematerialisation, which happens twice in quick succession ­– corresponding, perhaps, to Blavatsky’s theory of repeated cycles of existence and to Scriabin’s theory that time would speed up as the Mystery approached.[48]

Scriabin, time and the formal plan of the Eighth Sonata

Scriabin expressed to Sabaneev his belief that music could ‘enchant time’.[49] He expressed himself similarly concerning the Prelude op. 74 no. 2, which shows a repeating, circular form, ‘as if it sounds for ever’. [50]  The Two Dances, op. 73, show the same tendency, which may have started with the Fifth Sonata ­– but perhaps even earlier, with the ‘framed’ structure of the youthful Sonata-Fantasy. The literary Poem of Ecstasy,[51] as well as Scriabin’s belief in repeated manvataras,[52] systematises this circular or spiralling principle, as does the symphonic poem. The sensation of listening to, for example, a Beethoven symphony, or to the first movement of Chopin’s B minor sonata (cited above), is a linear one of great purposefulness, and Chopin’s formal innovation (also described above) increases this linearity. Scriabin’s view of time and space, though, was a very different one; he regarded the present moment as a border between two non-existent worlds: the past, which has gone, and the present which has not yet come.[53]

A part of Scriabin’s ideas of time may have been influenced by the writing of Henri Bergson. Bergson’s Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience first appeared in 1889. We do not possess evidence that Scriabin read this book, though we do know that he studied a paper by Bergson given at the Geneva Congress of Philosophy in 1904. Boris Pasternak recounts in Safe Conduct the importance of Bergson amongst students at Moscow University in the early years of the century.[54]

Bergson’s Essai contains a famous account of the way that humans mentally ‘construct’ the passage of time:

nous projetons le temps dans l’espace, nous exprimons la durée en étendue, et la succession prend pour nous la forme d’une ligne continue ou d’une chaine […].[55] We project time into space, we express duration in length, and succession takes on for us the form of a continuous line or of a chain…

Bergson’s passage refers to the way we perceive a succession of notes as a coherent melody. The same process applies in apprehending the form of a piece of music. The English novelist E. M. Forster wrote about literary form in visual-geometrical terms, similar to those used by Scriabin; and he had this to say about musical form:

Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?  […] this new thing is the symphony as a whole […].[56]

It is through memory that we perceive form,[57] and memory is conditioned by time. The form itself, though, is perceivable as a static entity. It is this static aspect, ‘outside time and space’, to which Scriabin moves ever more closely, both in his musical language[58] and in the formal process.[59]

Although he worked at the piano while composing, Scriabin disapproved of improvisation: ‘This is not art, because it cannot be formed […]’[60] Here we may turn to another literary figure, T. S. Eliot, for illustration and clarification:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. […]Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach the stillness […].
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. […][61]

Scriabin’s ‘pattern’ has been accounted for in different ways, most notably by Pavchinsky [62] and the French writer Manfred Kelkel.[63] Both draw attention to the high degree of symmetry in Scriabin’s design; Kelkel writes:

Toute la 8ème sonate est structurée des débuts aux extrêmes (Introduction – Coda) comme un miroir à doubles facettes […][64] The whole eighth sonata is structured from the beginning to the extremities (Introduction–Coda) like a mirror with double facets…

Of the outermost element, the thematic correspondence of the slow introduction with the accelerating, dancing coda, Pavchinsky writes:

the most extended arc of the form on the second level [see above] is represented by the co-relation of introduction and coda, where the variation of the fundamental theme translates the images of the introduction from their ‘languorous’ reflection and enigmatic character into the sphere of flight and of pantheistic dissolution.[65]

The correspondence of exposition and reprise, normal in a sonata, needs no comment. It is in the development section that opinions vary. And it is important to stress that it may not be possible to arrive at a single conclusive answer. Musical functions remain fluid and multivalent, susceptible to varying interpretations – each of which may have something to contribute.

Pavchinsky, whose analysis both of harmony and form is based on traditional functions, finds within the development section two sections (b.174–213 and 242­–291[66]) which are in the relationship of exposition and reprise ­– a ‘sonata without a development’[67] within a sonata. Kelkel, basing his analysis on the metrotectonics of Georgii Konyus, proposes three sections: b.118–173, 174–263, 264–319.[68] My own analysis is based on the experience of learning to play this enormous continuous movement, looking within it for meaningful correspondences between sections which aid memory, comprehension and orientation. Taking the hint from Pavchinsky’s reference to an arch, I propose that what Pavchinsky calls the second level of the form ­–  the background level ­– is a principle of symmetry approaching that of a great  arch. We have established that the outmost layer is formed by the introduction (1–21) and the coda (429–499), which are themselves in the relation of exposition and transformed recapitulation. The coda is itself symmetrically built: b. 429-448 are concerned with the ‘theme of tragedy’ and 449–464 with the ‘theme of dissolution’. These two sections are repeated in b.465–482 (transposed up an augmented fourth) and 483–494 (at the original tonality, but with the two upper voices reversed in position.) The last five bars restate the ‘theme of tragedy’ without its upward-leaping member, as at the end of the exposition (114–118) and of the recapitulation (408–416). Once again the repetition is threefold. The second layer in the arch is formed by the exposition and recapitulation (22–121, 320–428) and the third by sections 2 and 4 of the development (158–213, 226–291). (Diagram 1).


Diagram 2 shows the structure of the development. There are five sections. The first is symmetrical in itself: an eighteen-bar structure built on the first theme followed by the ‘theme of tragedy’ is repeated one tone lower. The second and fourth sections match and form a symmetrical pair around a twelve-bar connection.; section 4 is transposed up a minor third from section 2. 2i is built from the tragic theme in combination with theme 3 and the connecting-theme. In 4i these elements are joined by the ‘trembling of life’, making this one of the most complex contrapuntal textures in the work. 2ii and 4ii (Meno vivo) are based on theme 4 combined with a calmer version of the descending fourths, (in quintuplets and single notes). 4ii is extended via a three-fold repetition of the end of the theme. 2iii and 4iii (Tragique. Molto più vivo)  are built on the ‘theme of tragedy’ and the connecting-theme.

The connecting sections, 3 and 5 (in dance-flight mode) start very similarly. 5i and ii are again a minor third higher than 3i and ii.  In 3ii and iii the ‘twittering’ alternates with ‘calls’ (the three rising notes of the ‘theme of tragedy’) and with the falling fourths from the ‘trembling of life’. 5ii and iii reproduce the music of dissolution near the end of the exposition (from b.96), which will be heard again from b. 394 near the end of the recapitulation. 3ii and iii hint at this music. 5 iv and v give the ‘theme of upflight’ from b. 52–56 plus a triple call (the rising fourth is enharmonically the same as the opening interval of the piece, the first two notes of the ‘theme of dissolution’) and four bars of  invocational rhythm reminiscent of the connection-theme. This passage, perhaps the most dramatic, ushers in the recapitulation which, starting pianissimo, is very far from the climactic ones in the Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Sonatas – here is a real drop in tension.

ans_dia2_eng266 2 (3)

The ‘triple’ principle in the Sonata has been mentioned. To bring together examples of this element: theme 3 is stated twice three times  (plus twice more) in the introduction; the two entries of the rising second (ex. 4a) in bars 5 and 13­–14 are echoed at the beginning of the Allegro agitato, and the full theme 4, starting with another rising second, follows immediately. At the section marked Tragique there are three falling phrases in b. 92–95 before dissolution sets in. The repetitions of the falling tail of the ‘theme of tragedy’ in the sections marked Tragique. Molto più vivo are, like those of the ‘motive of languor’ in the introduction, twice three and then two more. These set off a section of ‘flight’ each time. Section 4ii is extended to give a triple repetition of the end of theme 4, which sets off the second of the Tragique. Molto più vivo sections.

These triple repetitions, and the high level of repetition of themes and sections in the sonata, help to establish the hypnotic atmosphere of the work which has been mentioned, as do the repetitions on a smaller scale in the Prelude op. 74 no. 2, and the triple repetitions are solemn and ‘magical’ no less than in Mozart’s Magic Flute. The design of the Eighth Sonata, while far from mechanical in its geometry, has reached the highest pitch of symmetry, and as we travel through the symmetries we  feel we have lost touch with chronological, linear time, and have entered a realm where, to paraphrase Scriabin, ‘time has been enchanted’. ‘All is always now.’

[1] V. V. Rubtsova, Preface to edition of sonata no. 8. Munich. 2007.  G. Henle. p. [III].

[2] Carl Dahlhaus, “Struktur und Expression bei Alexander Skrjabin” (1972). In Carl Dahlhaus: Schönberg und andere, gesammelte Aufsätze über Musik. Mainz, Schott, 1978, p. 231.

[3] Hans Keller, Music, Closed Societies and Football. London, Toccata Press, 1974/86, p. 136–138.

[4] Più, ‘more’, is Skryabin’s marking, glossed in the new Russian complete edition as Più mosso. It is arguable, though, that this marking means the performance should be more intense in all aspects – simply ‘more’.

[5] A. V. Kashperov (compiler, ed. and commentary), A. N. Skryabin. Pis’ma [letters]. Moscow, Muzyka, 1965/2003. Letter no 381, p. 343.

[6] L. L. Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Skryabine [Reminiscences of Skryabin] (1925). Moscow, Klassika XXI, 2003, p. 122.

[7] S. E. Pavchinsky, Sonatnaya forma proizvedenii Skryabina [The sonata form of works by Skryabin]. Moscow, Muzyka, 1979, p. 6–7. Gottfried Eberle, “Ich erschaffe dich als vielfältige Einheit”, Alexandr Skrjabin und die Skrjabinisten, Musik-Konzepte 32/33. Munich, 1983, edition text+kritik, p. 43.

[8] E. P. Meskhishvili, Fortepiannie sonaty Skryabina [the piano sonatas of Skryabin]. Moscow, Sovetskii kompozitor, 1981, p.172. Quoted by E. Mikhailov, “Vos’maya sonata A. N. Skryabin: popytka analiza” [Skryabin’s Sonata no. 8: attempt at an analysis], Uchenye zapiski, 8/1. Moscow, Skryabin Museum, 2016, p. 75 n. 14.

[9] Elena Gnesina, Ya privykla zhit’ dolgo… [I am used to living a long time…]. Moscow, Kompozitor, 2008, p. 55.

[10] Kashperov, Pis’ma, letter no. 22, p.68. The ‘middle’ latitudes are between 50 and 60 degrees north and south.

[11] V. Del’son, Fortep’yannye sonaty Skryabina [Skryabin’s piano sonatas]. Moscow, Muzgiz, 1961, p.40–44. Daniel Bosshard, Thematisch-chronologisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Alexander Skrjabin. Ardez, Ediziun Trais Giats, 2002, p. 154–159, 162. V. V. Rubtsova, prefaces to editions of sonatas nos. 8–10. Munich, G. Henle, 2007, 2010, 2011.

[12] S. Pavchinsky, “O krupnykh fortepiannykh proizvedeniyakh Skryabina pozdnego perioda” [On Skryabin’s large-scale piano works of the late period] in S. Pavchinsky, ed. and compiler, A. N. Skryabin. Sbornik statei [anthology of articles]. Moscow, Sovetskii kompozitor, 1973, p. 449.

[13] Alfred J. Swan, Scriabin. London. J. Lane The Bodley Head, 1923, p. 106.

[14] V.V. Rubtsova, preface to the Henle edition of Sonata no. 8.

[15] H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine. Vol. II, Cosmogenesis. London, The Theosophical Publishing Company, 1888, heading to p. 607.

[16] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 157.

[17] Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin, trans., annotated Simon Nicholls, The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin. New York, Oxford University Press 2018, p. 85.

[18] Op. cit. p. 295.

[19] Cf. “A Note by Boris de Schloezer on the Preliminary Action.” Nicholls and Pushkin, The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin, p. 47.

[20] H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, vol. II, p. 580­­–581.

[21] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 162.

[22] Op. cit., p. 263.

[23] Tamara Levaya, “Skryabinskaya ‘formula ekstaza’ vo vremeni i v prostranstve” [Skryabin’s ‘formula for ecstasy’ in time and in space], in A. N. Skryabin: chelovek. khudozhnik. myslitel’ [the person, the artist, the thinker]. Moscow, Skryabin Museum, 1994, p. 101.

[24] ‘Extra-tonal’ is a term used by Russian commentators of Skryabin’s era, Sabaneyev for example, to denote a harmonic style where the tonic is distantly felt as an attraction but resolution is avoided. Stretches of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchei the Deathless (1901-1902) are ‘extra-tonal’.

[25] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 295.

[26] Cf. E. Mikhailov,  op. cit., p.76. He quotes Skryabin: “Harmony and melody are two sides of a single essence”. Mikhailov comments: ‘[…]Has not the embodiment of a specifically Skryabin space-time been revealed here, more exactly, the translation of time into space?’ This brings to mind the words of Gurnemanz to Parsifal during Act One of Wagner’s opera: Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit. [Here time becomes space]. Skryabin’s critical attitude to Parsifal, expressed to Boris de Schloezer, shows that he knew the work. Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 38. Wolzogen’s Leitfaden [thematic guide] to Parsifal was in Skryabin’s personal library.

[27] Мikhailov op. cit., p. 74.

[28] B. Fokht. Filosofiya muzyki A. N. Skryabina [Skryabin’s philosophy of music]. In Skryabin: chelovek. khudozhnik. myslitel [the person. the artist. the thinker]  p. 186. Nicholls and Pushkin p.195.

[29] Nicholls and Pushkin, op. cit., p. 106. Notebook of 1905–6.

[30] Hegel: ‘[…] the level and excellency of art, in attaining a realization adequate to its idea, must depend on the grade of inwardness and unity with which Idea and Shape display themselves as fused into one’. Bernard Bosanquet, trans., The Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art [Aesthetik]. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1886, p.138. Skryabin recommended Hegel in a letter to Margarita Morozova, 3/16 April 1904. Kashperov, op. cit., pp. 307–8, letter 322. Nicholls and Pushkin p. 237.

[31] Gottfried Eberle, “‘Ich erschaffe dich als vielfältige Einheit’”. In Aleksander Skrjabin und die Skrjabinisten. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn, eds. Musik-Konzepte 32/33. Munich: edition text+kritik, 1983, p. 48–49.

[32] My colleague, the distinguished pianist and professor Dina Parakhina, has remarked that these descending fourths need to be treated always as a release  from  the tension built in the ascending  theme they follow. They need to be played with great lightness and a certain irreality, and are always marked to be pedalled – a super-clear articulation is essential, of course, but this is not the main requirement.

[33] Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 66.

[34] At the basis, however, lies the desire for absolute bliss. Life is upsurge. Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 113, Skryabin’s own footnote in the notebook of 1905–6.

[35]  Sabaneyev 1925/2003, p. 295.

[36] “Scriabin’s Symbolist Plot Archetype in the Late Piano Sonatas”, Susanna Garcia,

19th-Century Music, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), p. 273-300.

[37] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 162.

[38] Stefanie Hue-Ling Seah, “Alexander Scriabin’s style and musical gestures in the late piano sonatas: Sonata no. 8 as a template towards a paradigm for interpretation and performance.” A dissertation submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Sussex, 2011. p.116., accessed 5/10/2016.

[39] V. V. Rubtsova, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Skryabin. Moscow, Muzyka, 1989, p. 223.

[40] The word ‘immediately’ suggests to the present writer that the diminuendo made by many players in the repeated falling phrases, not marked by Skryabin, is not appropriate here: the transition to ‘dissolution’ should be startling and instantaneous ­– a breaking-through into a different mode of existence.

[41] Nicholls and Pushkin, p.145.

[42] V. Del’son, Skryabin. Ocherki zhizni i tvorchestva [outlines of life and creative work]. Moscow, 1971, Muzyka, p. 322.

[43] Pavchinsky, “On Skryabin’s large-scale piano works”, p. 449.

[44] E. Gunst. A. N. Skryabin i ego tvorchestvo [Skryabin and his creative work]. Moscow, 1915, Jurgenson, p. 32.

[45] Skryabin considered the emergence of consciousness to have a profound effect on the material of the Cosmos. Nicholls and Pushkin, p.107–108.

[46] Op. cit., p. 158.

[47] Both these manuscript sheets are in the Glinka Museum, Moscow.

[48] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p.  250.

[49] Op. cit. p. 57.

[50] Op. cit. p. 313.

[51] Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 115–125.

[52] Sabaneyev: Skryabin. Moscow, 1916, Skorpion, p. 48.

[53] Nicholls and Pushkin, p.76.

[54] ‘The majority were enthusiastic for Bergson’. Boris Pasternak, Safe Conduct, trans. Beatrice Scott. In: Boris Pasternak, Prose and Poems, ed. Stefan Schimanski, intro. J. M. Cohen. London, Ernest Benn, 1959, p. 32.

[55] Henri Bergson, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, chapter II, “De la multiplicité des états de conscience: l’idée de durée”. Paris, Félix Alcan, 1889, p. 76.

[56] E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. London, 1927/1969, Edward Arnold, p. 154.

[57] Paul Badura-Skoda, essay on the Hammerklavier sonata. Paul Badura-Skoda, Jörg Demus, Die Klaviersonaten von Ludwig van Beethoven. Wiesbaden, 1974, F.A. Brockhaus, p.175.

[58] […] the effect of the harmonic progressions characteristic of the later music is always to weaken the relationship between chords which precede and follow, and this is also a temporal matter. Hugh MacDonald, “Skryabin’s Conquest of Time”, Otto Kolleritsch, ed., Alexander Skrjabin, Graz,1980, Universal Edition/Institut für Wertforschung, p. 62.

[59] […]the renunciation of unidirectional striving […] the locking of the “running spiral” into a spherical form […] Tamara Levaya, “Skryabin’s ‘formula for ecstasy’” (present version from the 2005 edition.) Quoted from E. Mikhailov, op. cit., p. 75.

[60] Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya, p. 254.

[61] T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”, Four Quartets, London, 1944, Faber & Faber, p. 12.

[62] Pavchinsky, The Sonata Form, p. 198–206.

[63] Manfred Kelkel, Alexandre Scriabine: sa vie, l’ésotérisme et le langage musical dans son œuvre. Paris, 1978/1984, Librairie Honoré Champion, livre III p. 146–150.

[64] Kelkel, op. cit., livre III p. 150.

[65] Pavchinsky, op. cit., p. 206.

[66] Pavchinsky does not give bar numbers; they are supplied by the present author.

[67] Pavchinsky, op. cit., p. 204.

[68] G. E. Conus (Konyus) (1862–1933) was a pupil of  Arensky and taught Skryabin at an early age. His analytical method, involving the graphic representation of sections of a composition according to bar numbers, was published in the journal Muzykal’naya kul’tura, 1924 no. 1 (“Metro–tektonicheskoe razreshenie problem muzykal’noi formy”) [A metro-tectonic resolution of the problems of musical form]  and appeared in book form in the year of his death. The attraction of this method for Kelkel is double: the early teacher/pupil relation between Konyus and Skryabin and the evidence in many manuscripts of Skryabin’s calculations involving bar numbers. The bar numbers of Kelkel’s analysis, in which he counts the number of bars in each section, are supplied by the present writer. Kelkel takes the development as starting with what I have called the ‘cadence- or connecting theme’ at b.118, apparently for reasons of mathematical proportion.

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin – translated by Simon Nicholls and Michael Puskin with annotations and commentary by Simon Nicholls and foreword by Vladmir Ashkenazy 

LCCN2017044481 (ebook)
ISBN 9780190863661 (hardcover)

51IqKo5QVEL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)

Alexander Skryabin kept private notebooks in which he noted down thoughts occurring to him, building into a world-view which had a radical effect on his creative work. For the first time, these notebooks have been translated into English in full and with the introductory material of the original 1919 publication, giving an insight into Skryabin’s creative process and the conditions of his last two years of work. The combination of Simon Nicholls, a musician, and Michael Pushkin, a professional Russianist, ensures accuracy. The notebooks are complemented by letters and other relevant material and there is a biographical section and an analysis of the Poem of Ecstasy, showing how Skryabin’s poem corresponds with the orchestral score. A section on Prometheus deals with the principles of colour/sound relations in the work and their relation to its form. Research is based on original Russian material from sources close to the composer, and there are illustrations from the archives of the Skryabin Museum, Moscow.

“…his message has a meaning inherently connected with our spiritual existence.”

Vladimir Ashkenazy

“A splendidly researched volume, and an endlessly fascinating piece of scholarship. I learned a great deal from it, and it will prove essential to anyone wishing to probe deeper into Skryabin’s world. The book is an immensely valuable addition to our understanding of every aspect of this most enigmatic of Russian composers.”
Marc-André Hamelin

“Brings to life…the composer’s secret journals in fresh, modern translations”.
Lincoln Ballard

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin can be purchased here.

Igor Zhukov: obituary

Igor Zhukov, a leading Russian pianist who was also a conductor and a recording engineer, died in Moscow on January 26, 2018. He was 81, having been born in 1936 in Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky in the Soviet era); his family moved to Moscow a year after he was born. He studied at Moscow Conservatoire with Emil Gilels and Heinrich Neuhaus, and won the second prize for piano in the Long-Thibaud competition of 1957. He was a pianist of profound insight, which was vividly conveyed by an enormous, seemingly infallible technical capacity. His authoritative recording of all ten Scriabin sonatas was the first complete recording to be made in Russia, and was issued in the composer’s centenary year of 1972. It aroused great interest in the West, and has been reissued on CD; but Zhukov’s formidable discography contains, besides other works by Scriabin, a wide repertoire ranging from Bach to Prokofiev, including the Brahms second concerto, the Medtner first concerto, and all the music for piano and orchestra by Tchaikovsky. The Sonata op. 22 and the Quintet by Medtner were also recorded by Zhukov. He performed and recorded in a trio with the violinist and cellist Grigory and Valentin Feigin, and proved to be an outstanding partner to the soprano Natalia Gerasimova in a disc of songs by Glinka and Rachmaninov.

As conductor Zhukov worked with the Chamber Orchestra of the Ulyanovsk Philharmonia, New Moscow Chamber Orchestra and, more recently, with another chamber orchestra, the Nizhny Novgorod Soloists.

As a human being Zhukov was warm, generous, hospitable and hugely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about all aspects of music. His enormous repertoire as pianist and conductor was predominantly Russian and German, but it is a testimony of his breadth of sympathies that he conducted moving and eloquent performances, with the Nizhny Novgorod Soloists, of works by Elgar and Britten.

Tracks from Zhukov’s recorded archive are being assembled on the official website of the Nizhny Novgorod Soloists (Russian language):

Review – The Alexander Scriabin Companion: History, Performance, and Lore. Lincoln Ballard, Matthew Bengtson with John Bell Young. Rowman & Littlefield.

Here is a comprehensive and many-faceted book for confirmed and potential Scriabinists, a collaboration between a scholar and a performer, with a contribution from a notable Scriabinist who is no longer with us.

The music is examined from the angles of harmonic and stylistic development and also from the point of view of interpretation; as well as giving advice on tackling the major piano works, Matthew Bengtson wisely suggests introducing less advanced players to some of the miniatures. Lincoln Ballard is an expert in the reception history of Scriabin’s music, and recounts the vicissitudes of its popularity, not only in the West but also in the Soviet period in Russia. The chapter on harmony will be found useful by many who may have found Scriabin’s scores hard to read and who have not yet found out the deep logic of what he is doing, the ‘pattern in the carpet.’

Scriabin’s own performing style is examined with reference to the work done by Pavel Lobanov in Russia and Anatole Leikin in America. The recommendations of recordings for many works are useful, and will encourage investigation – many fine Scriabin performances can be heard on the internet now. The reader is made aware of important historic performers from the Russian tradition: Sofronitsky, Feinberg, Fyodorova (or Fedorova). Some more recent reissues of historical performances are not mentioned: in particular, most of Sofronitsky’s performances are now available on the Russian label Vista Vera.

It should be said that some views expressed in the contribution of the late John Bell Young, a distinguished player of Skryabin’s music who had close contact with the Russian tradition, may be regarded as quite idiosyncratic, and these should be read critically.

Do acquire this book: like Larousse’s encyclopedia, it could carry the motto ‘Je sème à tout vent’ ­– ‘with every puff of wind I sow a seed.’

Simon Nicholls

The Alexander Scriabin Companion: History, Performance, and Lore (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). By Lincoln Ballard and Matthew Bengtson, with John Bell Young.

Critics, scholars, and students who seek reliable information about Scriabin have long contended with journalistic exposés and outdated publications that can be more anecdotal than factual, most notably the two books by Faubion Bowers. On the other hand, a wealth of academic studies tackle more complex issues of performance practice, theoretical analysis, and stylistic influence, but can overwhelm readers with their technical jargon and dense writing style. These writings also remain largely inaccessible those who lack subscriptions to such databases as JSTOR and Project MUSE. A century’s worth of Scriabin scholarship is now collated and clearly organised in a new book that bridges the divide between popular and scholarly writings, and presents a unique collaboration between a historian and a performer: The Alexander Scriabin Companion: History, Performance, and Lore.

Co-written by a musicologist (Ballard) and a performer/scholar (Bengtson), this interdisciplinary study adds to a growing body of companion-titled books on classical composers that have appeared since the early 2000s.[1] The Scriabin Companion corrects many of the myths and misconceptions that have enveloped the composer’s music for over a century. It offers new information on Scriabin’s critical reception and the interpretation of his music at the piano, and provides a modern and comprehensive account of his legacy. The book does not assume any familiarity with music theory or critical theory. It is written in an accessible style that will appeal to readers who are just discovering Scriabin’s music for the first time, and those whose knowledge of his life and music runs deep.

The book opens with a foreword by the English pianist Stephen Hough and an introductory chapter written by the late American pianist and critic John Bell Young (1953-2017). Part I, written by Ballard, introduces readers to Scriabin’s biography and cultural background as well as his musical and philosophical influences. Brief synopses of his major works for solo piano and for orchestra supply readers with essential historical background and performance histories for each work. High quality recordings are recommended for each piece, including historical recordings and recent releases. Part I also documents the great pianists and conductors who championed Scriabin’s music, many of whom built their careers on this repertoire. Part II, also written by Ballard, discusses four major topics in Scriabin’s reception history: the myths and fallacies that originated with his biographers; the composer’s claims to synaesthesia or “colour-hearing”; the major revival of interest in his music during the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially among the American counterculture; and the charges of anti-Russianness that have been levelled against his music. Part III was written by Bengtson, Assistant Professor of Piano Literature at the University of Michigan, and a specialist in Scriabin’s music. His six chapters explore stylistic issues in Scriabin’s piano music, and offer analytical observations as well as interpretive and technical strategies for performing his works. Bengtson breaks down Scriabin’s style into its core elements (harmony, melody, rhythm, sound, and technique) in an effort to help pianists of all skill levels more clearly communicate the composer’s music and message.

The Alexander Scriabin Companion aspires to be the authoritative modern source for anyone who is interested in learning about this composer’s life, legacy, and music. It broadens our understanding of early twentieth-century Russian style by identifying some of its key stylistic markers, and Scriabin’s unique thumbprint in particular. The book presents a fresh perspective on some of the most heavily discussed topics in the Scriabin literature, and its extensive citations offer ample avenues of research for the next generation of scholars. Armed with these materials, readers will be able to better appreciate the stylistic innovations and colourful imagination of this extraordinary composer. Scriabin Association members can use the discount code “RLFANDF30” to purchase The Alexander Scriabin Companion for $30 off the listed price of $100. Please place your order today at:

A video introducing the book can be viewed here.

[1] Examples include The Mahler Companion, ed. Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson (Oxford University Press, 2002); The Liszt Companion, by Ben Arnold (Greenwood Press, 2002); The Szymanowski Companion, by Paul Cadrin and Stephen C. Downes (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), as well as a series of music-related titles published in recent years by Cambridge University Press.

For a review of the book from the Scriabin Association please click here.

The Enigma of the ‘Dragonfly-Woman’

1024px-Lalique_dragonflyScriabin’s miniature Enigme op. 52 no. 2 (1905), with its aerial main section, languid middle part and flyaway ending, is the subject of some startling comment from the composer and his partner Tat’yana de Schloezer, as reported in Sabaneyev’s Memoirs.

‘I wrote it and showed it to Tat’yana Fyodorovna’, Alexander Nikolaevich recounted, ‘and I said:  ‘Now then, what is that, guess?’

‘And I immediately told Alexander Nikolaevich what I imagine here:  a sort of winged  small being, not exactly a woman, not exactly an insect, but certainly of female gender; in her there is something prickly and wriggly, a sort of segmented quality. And it is terribly slippery and evasive, and in this slippery evasiveness there is great coquetry. And there’s no way you’ll ever catch it…’

Alexander Nikolaevich finished this ‘duo-narrative’:

‘And, after all, imagine, what a graphic quality there is in music! For, you see, I imagined exactly something of that sort when I was writing. That sort of strange creature, all the same it’s one of the elementals, it must be….Mischievous,’ he added his favourite word.[1]

Is it possible that Tat’yana de Schloezer and Alexander Scriabin recalled the famous ‘Dragonfly Woman’ brooch made by René Lalique for Sarah Bernhardt in 1897–8, and shown in the Paris World Fair of 1900? This remarkable piece is made of gold, enamel, chrysoprase, chalcedony, moonstones and diamonds. The tail is articulated so that it can move with the wearer. Lalique was, perhaps, inspired by the seductive quality of Bernhardt herself, in such roles as Cleopatra, which she played in the 1890s. The Dragonfly Woman is now in the Gulbenkian Museum, but perhaps she comes alive in Skryabin’s strange little composition – a work which marks a step forward in the development of his personal style.[2]

Simon Nicholls

[1] Leonid Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Skryabine, Moscow, 1925, p. 140–141.

[2] Sokolov plays Enigme:

Scriabin Association Concert, Saturday 29th April, Coventry University Ellen Terry Building

scriabin-poster3The Scriabin Association is pleased to announce its next concert of Scriabin’s piano music, which will be held on Saturday 29th April at 7pm. Thanks to support from Coventry University the concert will take place at the University’s Ellen Terry Building, CV1 5RW. The evening marks the 145th Year since the composer’s birth, and presents repertoire spanning the composer’s entire working life. Those who attended the Association’s Centenary concert will know a thrilling evening awaits…

The concert is free admission on the door with all welcome. For further details contact: OR Phone: 024 75 013905. See below for full programme:

Scriabin Concert 29th April, 7pm – Ellen Terry Building, Coventry University

Andrew Thayer:
Op.9, No. 1 in C sharp minor, for left hand (Andante)
Op.11, No. 2 in A minor (Allegretto)
No.11 in B major (Allegro assai)
No.18, in F minor (Allegro agitato)
Op.22, No. 1 in G sharp minor (Andante)
Op.51, No. 2 in A minor (Lugubre)
Op.67, No. 1 (Andante)
Op.74, No. 1 (Douloureux, déchirant)
No. 2 (Très lent, contemplatif)
No. 3 (Allegro drammatico)
No. 4 (Lent, vague, indécis)
No. 5 (Fier, belliquex)

Darren Leaper:
MAZURKAS Op.25, No. 1 in F minor (Allegro)
No. 3 in E minor (Lento)
VALSE Op.38 in A flat major (Allegro agevole)
QUASI VALSE Op.47 in F major
TWO DANCES Op.73, No. 1, Guirlandes (Avec une grâce dolente)
No. 2, Flammes sombres (Avec une grâce languissante– Presto)


Cecilia Xi:
SONATA No. 2 Op.19 in G sharp minor, Sonate-Fantaisie
I Andante.
II Presto.

Iain Laks:
SONATA No. 5 Op.53

Simon Nicholls:
SONATA No. 8 Op.66

Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata – a new aspect of sonata form

Many listeners perceive Scriabin’s later music, to which the fifth sonata may be regarded as a doorway, as free and improvisatory, and indeed the surface of the music often gives this impression. The early listeners to Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata were puzzled by the work. At the abrupt ending, a famous singer in the audience for a performance by Scriabin in Moscow, 1909, remarked to her neighbour, Leonid Sabaneyev, ‘What happened – did he get a stomach ache?’[1] The leading composer Taneyev, who had taught Scriabin harmony, said: ‘This is music which does not finish, but stops’ – a penetrating remark from this great conservative.[2] Scriabin’s younger associate, the pianist Mark Meichik,[3] was entrusted with some early performances of the work, one of them being in Lausanne to the widow of the much older composer Alexander Serov (1820–1871). She was, Meichik recalled, ‘dumbfounded’ by the piece; ‘and when she was told that this “monster” was written in a strict form, she just threw up her hands.’[4] Meichik remembered seeing a sheet of paper bearing a ‘plan’ of the Fifth Sonata: ‘this “plan”’, he wrote,  ‘was numerical and consisted of a whole series of circles of some kind and figures which took up an entire sheet of manuscript paper. Scriabin showed this plan to musicians who had visited him in Lausanne, and he gave it to one of them, the Canadian La Liberté.’[5] Many manuscripts of Scriabin’s later works contain such tables of figures, relating to numbers of bars.

The existence of this plan is all the more remarkable, considering that the sonata was completed in a few days in the wake of the composition of the Poem of Ecstasy. As the composer’s partner, Tatyana Schloezer, wrote to the pianist Mariya Nemenova-Lunz [or -Lunts], three days after a previous letter describing the hurry of preparing the score of the Poem: ‘Sasha has already managed… to compose a 5th sonata!!! I don’t believe my ears, it is unbelievable! The sonata flowed from him in a kind of stream. […] What you have heard is nothing, the sonata is unrecognisable, it cannot be compared with anything.’[6]

Scriabin described the work as ‘a big poem for the piano’,[7] and the plan is akin both to the form of the orchestral Poem of Ecstasy and to that of its literary counterpart, published by Scriabin in 1906. Indeed, the Sonata bears as epigraph a quotation from the literary poem:

I call you to life, hidden strivings!

You, drowned in the dark depths

Of the creative spirit, you, timid

Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity.[8]

The form begins to become clear if we examine the adventures of the opening music, an extremely original passage representing, perhaps, ‘audacious’ flight from ‘dark depths’, and of the languido section that follows it – here we have shapes that foreshadow the material of the sonata, the ‘timid embryos’ of Scriabin’s epigraph. The opening ‘flight’ appears in its original key at the beginning and the end – does this ‘ending’, the sudden stop that puzzled early listeners, represent a new beginning, a renewal of the process in the sonata?

That process is characterised by an upward spiral of ascent and enhancement. The second appearance of the opening music, at b. 157–184, is transposed up by a tone. It appears a third time: the ‘flight’, transformed in aspect and harmony, occurs at b. 247–250 and is immediately followed by the languido material, transformed and transposed up by another semitone. As Scriabin’s friend and chronicler Sabaneyev wrote in 1916, ‘the tonalities change by intervals which grow smaller.’[9] The languido material, in a grandiose version marked estatico, recurs finally at b. 433, transposed up by a further semitone, and the piece ends with the original ‘audacious flight’, in the original key, as mentioned earlier. In the vibrant stillness of the pause bar which follows (as Schnabel often writes at the end of movements in his Beethoven edition: respect the fermata!) we do not know what to expect: is this the end, or is the work going to start over again? Like all true artistic ‘surprises’ and ambiguities, this one is to be relished increasingly every time one hears or performs the sonata.

The recurrences of the ‘flight’ mark turns in Scriabin’s upward spiral. The second occurrence of the opening music coincides with an important formal division in the sonata form. Thus, the ‘upward spiral’ operates simultaneously with the sonata process, but does not invariably coincide with it.

After the first languido comes the Presto con allegrezza, nominally in F sharp major[10] – a dance similar to that of the Fourth Sonata’s prestissimo volando. A series of three imperioso calls (b.96 ff), answered by fearful affanato rhythms and culminating in a fanfare, quasi trombe, which will become important later (b. 114–116),[11] leads the tonality towards a meno vivo section nominally in B flat major (enharmonically the mediant [A sharp] of the tonality of the Presto con allegrezza) (b. 120–139). Two bars of Allegro fantastico and a bar of silence (the significance of these will become apparent later) lead to a Presto tumultuoso esaltato (b. 143–156) which in its turn leads to the recurrence of the opening flight. This passage remains ‘in’ the same key. The quasi trombe figure is reiterated three times during this section, like an invocation, and leads into the next formal division.

The music from the beginning to this point, then, may be summed up in the following scheme:

b.1–46: Prologue

b.47–156: Sonata exposition:[12]

 b.47–79    first subject

b.80–95     transition (stage 1) – continuation of first subject

b.96–119   transition (stage 2) – dialogue: calls and affanato responses

b.120–139 second subject

b.140–156 closing group

In the following section, the material already presented is transformed and led through restlessly varying tonalities. After the initial recurrence one tone higher of ‘flight’ and ‘prologue’ (b. 157–184), there are three ‘stages’ involving the ‘dance’ and ‘call’ material:

b.185–206 (8 + 6 + 8 = 22 b.)

b.207–226 (6 + 6 + 8 = 20 b.)

b.227–246 (8 + 8 + 4 = 20 b.)

This brings us to the second, transformed recurrence of the ‘flight and prologue’ material, which is transposed up by a further semitone as mentioned above, b. 247–262. We may say that this passage does not mark a new main formal section, but is a new turn of the upward spiral which leads into the middle of this central area of the sonata. Bars 263–270, which twice present the famous harmony known as the ‘Promethean chord’, con delizia, and are formed around the initial phrase of the languido prologue, represent the ‘heart’ of the sonata.

In the last part of this central section, two statements of the second subject, one pianissimo (b. 271–280), the other growing from forte to fff (b. 313–328) and transposed up by one tone, enharmonically speaking, frame a section of thirty-two bars in which an allegro fantastico idea is developed. This idea was originally ‘planted’ at the beginning of the exposition’s closing group (b.140–141), like a clue in a thriller. Evoking the concept of increasingly wild Bacchic dance (con una ebrezza fantastica), which gradually takes over from the languor of the second subject, the iambic rhythm of this idea is transformed into vibrating triplets and combined at b. 305–312 with the fanfare which earlier formed the culmination to the ‘calls’ in the exposition (cf. b. 114–116).

The section from b. 157–328, analysed above, plays the role of the development section in a traditional sonata scheme. It is followed by a recapitulation, which has the features of the ‘subdominant recapitulation’ familiar from Schubert’s Trout quintet, to quote a well-known example. It starts at b. 329, nominally in B major, whereas the corresponding passage in the exposition was in F sharp major, and the relations in the ensuing music to b. 400 correspond to those in the exposition.

At this point the listener’s expectation is of the ‘closing group’; this does eventually come, and in the key determined by the pattern of transposition in the recapitulation – E flat major. But it is considerably delayed by a coda:

b.401 – 432 allegro fantastico idea and ‘fanfare’ (cf. b. 289 ff.)

b.433 ­– 440 languido theme from prologue, now estatico. This restatement is again one semitone higher than the appearance at b. 251 ff.

b.441 – 450 ‘closing group’ material

b.451 ­– 456 opening ‘flight’

The delaying of the ‘closing group’ material for forty bars increases the listener’s expectancy and therefore the tension in the music; and at the return of the opening ‘flight’ material the logic of Scriabin’s ‘subdominant recapitulation’ is revealed: the E flat tonality of the ‘closing group’ corresponds enharmonically to the original bass of the ‘flight’ material – D sharp. The circle is closed.

As a prominent Russian musical writer of the Soviet period, Sergei Pavchinsky,[13] suggested, Scriabin overlays the traditional sonata scheme with a second principle in many of his works – here, the second principle is the previously mentioned ascending spiral, a spiral which contrives to meet itself and to complete a ‘cycle’.[14] Perhaps this phenomenon explains the ‘circles of some sort’ on Scriabin’s ‘plan’ as remembered by Mark Meichik. Meichik was by no means the only one to maintain that Scriabin’s music was ‘entirely free from elements of chance, especially in the formal sense’.[15] Scriabin expressed the belief that thought expressed as a principle should govern creative work.[16] It was this rational basis which made possible the creation of such an extravagantly innovative work as the Fifth Sonata.

Simon Nicholls

December 2016

This short article is offered as a memorial to Rosalie Heller (1931–2016), wonderful human being, musician and teacher.

[1] L. L. Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Skryabine, Moscow, 1925/2003, p. 37.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Meichik (1880-1950) was a student of Safonov, Scriabin’s teacher, at Moscow Conservatoire. A successful pianist until 1917 and highly regarded as a performer of Scriabin’s music, he turned after the Revolution to administration, education and publication.

[4] Mark Meichik, A. Skryabin, Moscow, 1935. p. 39. Meichik identifies the performer as ‘one of the Russian pianists’, but we may take this as a way of referring to himself. In mid-May 1908, Meichik visited Lausanne and studied the Fifth Sonata with Scriabin. M. P. Pryashnikova and O. M. Tompakova, Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva A. N. Skryabina, Moscow, 1985. P. 161.

[5] Op. cit. p. 23. Alfred La Liberté (1882–1952), Canadian pianist and composer. His widow Madeleine ‘donated a number of materials, including the manuscript [of the Fifth Sonata], to the A. N. Scriabin Memorial Museum in Moscow’ in 1971. [Scriabin, Sonata no. 5 op. 53, Urtext and facsimile, Moscow 2008. Preface by Valentina Rubtsova, p. 8.] Whether these ‘materials’ include the ‘plan’ remembered by Meichik is not clear.

[6] Letter of November 22/December 5, 1907, quoted in V. Rubtsova, op. cit., p. 5.

The generally accepted story of the Fifth Sonata’s having being composed in a few days needs to be modified, it seems, in the light of correspondence. Nemenova-Lunts wrote enthusiastically about a fifth sonata being composed in August 1907 – this links up with Tatyana Schloezer’s remark in her letter of Nov 22/ Dec 5, ‘What you have heard is nothing […]’. Scriabin wrote later in a letter to La Liberté (Dec 16 [presumably New Style], ‘I am busy now with the 5th Sonata; it is nearly finished […]. I hope to send it to the printer a fortnight from now […].’ The editor of the Bärenreiter edition, from which this information comes, Christoph Flamm, suggests plausibly that ‘work on the sonata dates back at least to the previous summer […]. The completion of the orchestral score [the Poem of Ecstasy] put an end to the compositional process in late autumn, after which Scriabin’s bottled-up creative urge exploded in early December.’ Christoph Flamm, preface to Bärenreiter [Skrjabin Complete Piano Sonatas vol 1, Basel, 2011], pp. XXV–XXVI. To Flamm’s well-informed surmise we may add that work on the Poem of Ecstasy may have had a radical effect on Scriabin’s conception of the Sonata, both in harmonic language and in form – this would account for Tatyana Schloezer’s remark. The surprisingly long interval suggested by Scriabin before he would be able to send the sonata to the printer may have been caused by previous experience of the difficulty he had in correcting his own work, compounded by the fact that this piece was to be published at his own expense, the cost of corrections therefore coming out of his own pocket.

[7] Letter to Margarita Morozova, between November 25/December 8 and Dec 1/14, 1907,  loc. cit.

[8] This translation is from Scriabin’s Russian, rather than from the French translation which is often the source rendered into English. The ‘hidden strivings’ become ‘mysterious forces’ in the French. This tends to imply that some sort of ‘magic’ is being invoked, rather than the composer’s own impulses and thoughts as implied in Scriabin’s original. This was pointed out to me by the leading scholar of Russian literature, Avril Pyman (private communication).

[9] Leonid Sabaneyev, Skryabin, Moscow 1916, p. 133. Much of this first book by Sabaneyev about Scriabin was written during the composer’s lifetime.

[10] In the Fifth Sonata, Scriabin is on the verge of stepping into his later ‘extra-tonal’ harmonic style. Where keys are implied, the tonic is avoided. The present analysis refers to the key signatures which are still used by the composer at this point in his development.

[11] The affanato rhythms are closely related to the rhythms, known as ‘rhythms of alarm’, in the orchestral Poem of Ecstasy which first emerge at the Allegro non troppo, eight bars after figure 3 in the score.

[12] The ‘sonata form’ evoked here is that expounded by A. B. Marx in his Kompositionslehre, which was in Scriabin’s personal library. Marx based his concepts on close observation of the practice of classical composers, Beethoven in particular. The highly disciplined training of Russian composers in Skryabin’s era was based in part on such materials.

[13] Sergei Pavchinsky, Sonatnaya forma proizvedenii Skryabina. Moscow, 1979.

[14] In 1905 Scriabin had made his first acquaintance with the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, which became an important influence on his thinking. A cyclic concept, comparable to the Hindu concept of recurring manvantaras, is central to her Theosophical speculations.

[15] Meichik, op. cit., p. 38.

[16] Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya, p.254.

The ascending direction in the harmony of Chopin and Scriabin and its semantics by Ildar Khannanov

*Translator’s introduction; The Scriabin Association is privileged to present here an article by the distinguished Russian scholar Ildar Khannanov. Dr. Khannanov teaches musical theory at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore. He studied music under the supervision of the prominent Russian theorist Yuri Kholopov[2] at Moscow Conservatoire, and philosophy under Jacques Derrida at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Khannanov’s publications have appeared in Russia, America and Europe.

The present article was originally published in Russian in the Scriabin Museum’s series of scholarly publications, Uchenye Zapiski, in 2012. An article written for a specialist Russian readership may need some introduction to a more general English-speaking public. 

Dr. Khannanov engages, in a strictly scientific and disciplined manner, with the problem of what music – and Scriabin’s music in particular – ‘means’, and how it ‘means’. There may be a need to explain to the general reader one theoretical concept, important in Dr. Khannanov’s article, which is rooted in Russian musical thought, and in the theory of Kholopov. This is the idea of vvodnotonovost’, a term without an exact English equivalent, meaning literally ‘leading-note-ness’, the leading-note having by definition a tendency to lead upward. It was defined by Kholopov in his article on ‘Chromaticism’ in the Musical Encyclopedia edited by Yu. V. Keldysh (published in Moscow from 1973–82) as ‘the introduction of leading-notes into any sonority or chord without the factor of alteration as a progression towards an augmented unison [the enharmonic equivalent of a major second].’ As a simple example, take a dominant ninth chord of C – B flat – E – G – D, and sharpen G to G sharp. The G sharp in the harmony thus produced lends to the harmony the quality of vvodnotonovost’. This is the opening harmony of the Prelude op. 48 no. 4, one of a group of preludes of which sketches are to be found amongst the sketches of the Poème de l’Extase.[3]  

Simon Nicholls

Amongst the scientific problems of the study of Scriabin’s music there is one which occupies an extremely modest position in the works of researchers. It concerns the individual qualities of voice-leading in the composer’s harmony and, in particular, of ascending motion in this voice-leading. This characteristic of Scriabin’s harmony is completely obvious, and it is significant both stylistically, in part, and, in a broader sense, in relation to the scientific study of harmony and of the theory of the Romantic style. But first let us specify that there are varying means of ‘moving upwards’ in music. There are various significances and meanings of such movement.

Ascending tendencies of a particular type appear for the first time, it may be said, in the harmonic language of Romanticism and in the music of Frédéric Chopin. Thus, for example, whereas ascent in Bach was the product of a figure of anabasis[4] and represented a melodic movement upwards, in Chopin this tendency was expressed in harmony by two means: the substitution of a sixth for the fifth of a tonic triad (as in the Mazurka op. 67 no. 2, bar 2) and by movement from the tonic to the mediant, I – III (in a great number of the themes of the mazurkas, etudes and polonaises.) The significance of ascending motion is also different in Bach and in Chopin. Whereas for the Baroque composer ascending motion was associated with ascending into Paradise, in the music of the early Romantics ascending motion was above all associated with an attempt to flee from reality.


As may be seen from the present example, at the beginning of the Cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54) Bach proposes a figure of ascent, of anabasis, starting with a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point.  The voices making up the harmonic arrangement move slowly upwards with effort, through the opposition of the material, and it is this which underlines the text: ‘Resist sin’. But this ascent does not break away from earth’s gravitational attraction; it acts within the framework of that field.

In comparison with this, an example from Chopin’s Mazurka op. 67 no. 2 represents a more complex, hidden, tragic version: gravitational support – the triad – becomes confused through the substitution of a sixth in place of the of the fifth.

Ex. 2

Ex. 2

This barely perceptible gesture (differing from the direct line of ascent in Bach) overcomes the power of the triad for a brief moment. Ascent as such does not take place, but a strong desire is expressed to leave ‘this vale of sorrow’. The interplay of non-harmonic notes is very interesting here: in the left hand, in the chord on the third beat [of the second bar] (in G minor) the tonic triad is replaced by a first inversion chord of the sixth degree by means of the substitution of the note E flat for D. Schenkerian theory[5] wholly ignores this gesture, inasmuch as it regards such a change, on the last beat of the bar, to be insignificant. It is even possible to reduce the E flat to an auxiliary note at the foreground level. The composer is sending us signals, as it were: the melody gallops past the note D, which here is no longer the fifth of the tonic triad, but an appoggiatura to the structural note E flat!

Regarding the other means of upward motion, the well-known movement in Chopin’s music from I – III in the bass, here too proponents of Schenker’s theory have blundered (this applies in part to Janet Schmalfeldt’s paper ‘One and the same, but in a different way: Chopin and the succession of ascending thirds’, given at the European Music Analysis Conference [EuroMac] VI, Freiburg, 2007): they regard this progression as part of an arpeggiation of the tonic triad in the bass. But how far this is from the truth! For the triad of the mediant, arriving directly after the tonic, does not express continuation, the prolongation of a static tonic, but an attempt to leave the tonic triad, to ‘fly up’ above it.

Ascending gestures produced by specific harmonic means also found their continuation in the music of Alexander Scriabin. In the Fantasy, op. 28, in the first subjects of the first movements of the sonatas nos. 2, 3 and 4, in a large number of preludes, etudes and poèmes, the ascending gesture is directed into the realm of the transcendental. The technique employed by Scriabin is different from Chopin’s: in it, ascending flows of harmonic energy are called forth by leading-notes which are breaking away from control, by a new interpretation of vvodnotonovost’[6] as a part of voice-leading.

Ex. 3

Ex. 3

The beginning of Scriabin’s Sonata no. 4 represents one of the most enigmatic and profoundly significant harmonic successions in European music. Novel and complex as it is, it occupies just eight bars, and refers to a prototype, to the form of an antecedent in ‘sentence’ form.[7] The succession starts with a major seventh chord, with its root, fifth and seventh in the left hand. And from the very moment this chord first appears there arises a sensation of a distortion of space of some kind, and of a striving of its lines to the right and upwards (which, above all, is evoked by the upward attraction of the major seventh). The first note of the melody, as always in Scriabin, is both separated from the harmony in the left hand and, simultaneously, indivisible from the harmony which pertains to it. It originates in the silence which surrounds it. It is isolated metrically (it appears on the first quaver of the second beat in the 6/8 metre), but it is represents the third of the major seventh chord and, as such, is understood as a long-awaited completion of the chord’s structure. It should be mentioned that this seventh chord is a subdominant. As it is the first in the melodic succession, it appears as completely isolated and absolutely undefined tonally. The neutral function of a subdominant in the absence of the tonic sonority completely disorients the listener. We find ourselves, as it were, in a cosmic expanse, although only one chord has been sounded.  If this chord were a dominant seventh, then its third would produce an unconditional attraction to the degree above it (as a leading-note to the tonic). But precisely because this chord is a major seventh, its third, in the melody, turns out to be in the field of activity of several gravitational centres.  Scriabin proposes the most interesting movement – a repetition and a leap of a fourth upwards, so that a quartal ascending harmony is obtained: B – E sharp – A – D sharp, and, further, G sharp. This rhythmically organised structure moves away upwards infinitely.

At the same time, the chord in the left hand undergoes irreversible and unpredictable changes. This technique is borrowed above all from Chopin, from his chromatic linear descending successions, but here it acquires new significances. The initial major seventh chord, instead of a ‘textbook’ resolution into the octave above, is suddenly ‘deflated’: its two upper notes ‘come down’. The obvious leading note and major seventh, A sharp, suddenly moves to A natural. According to the terminology of Yuri Kholopov, dezal’teratsiya takes place.[8] In its turn, the fifth of this seventh chord (F sharp) moves to a tritone (E sharp), which may be called a sign of a functional inversion. For a moment, a very familiar chord emerges: B – E sharp – A – D sharp – the ‘Tristan chord’. However, it passes over in a moment, without the resolution which is due to it (Chopin, it may be remarked, does the same thing in the mazurkas, that is to say he gives us a harmony which passes through just as speedily.) This chord adds a nostalgic meaning to the already complicated multiple significance of the vvodnotonovost’.

On the other hand, the ‘Tristan chord’ on B must resolve, according to rule, into a dominant seventh chord on A sharp. The most surprising thing is that this harmony does partly appear after the ‘Tristan chord’, but it has a different third: instead of the C double sharp which is presupposed, first D sharp is heard and then C sharp. And this is also a means of leaving the gravitational field of tonality.  As a whole, as is well known, post-Romantic harmony uses three principal methods of development: the substitution of more complex chords for simpler ones, the propagation of more complex harmonies from simple ones, and the presentation of the function of a simple chord as more complex. But there are also many variations on these three methods. Thus, the unexpected partial alteration of an expected chord (a minor seventh chord instead of a dominant seventh) holds back something of what is expected, but also adds something completely new. A technique of this sort is related to the succession and interaction of images in a dream, when we see places and people that are familiar, but strangely altered.

Further: above the notes of this minor seventh chord (bar 3), above the A sharp in the bass, the melody suddenly decides to ‘fly up’ to the seventh. The upflight takes place as a result of a circular, spiralling movement (G sharp – D sharp – E sharp – C sharp). It is strange that the harmony has not supported this upflight with an increase of tension. The melody has managed to generate energy by itself by means of the most simple revolving motion. The leap has proved to be incorporeal. In it is no terrestrial energy; there is only the graphical trace of a meteor silently flashing through the heavens. And here Scriabin does not make use of standardised methods, breaking away by a long distance from his predecessors Wagner and Liszt.

Beneath the C sharp which the melody reaches in its leap (second beat of bar 3), an altogether strange harmony also emerges: A natural – C sharp – E sharp – G sharp – a major seventh chord with augmented fifth, which, moreover, is constructed on the lowered third degree in the key of F sharp minor! With a third doubled at the octave (C sharp), this chord brings to mind contrapuntal lines solidified and fettered in the ice. By its geometry it also brings mind the pose of a hero who has prepared himself to fly up to the stars, but is suddenly paralysed under the influence of an enigmatic cosmic cataclysm. This chord characterises Scriabin’s poetics: he does not fly into the cosmos, but he wants to fly away.

The subsequent transformation in this unique harmonic succession is as follows: the lowering of the seventh of the chord of the major seventh with augmented fifth – from G sharp to G natural. An association involuntarily arises with a secondary dominant seventh chord (to the lowered sixth degree) with a raised fifth. But this complex chord behaves in a way that exceeds all our expectations: it suddenly resolves into a tonic chord in first inversion! In truth, the simplest chord in such surroundings acquires an unprecedented radiance.  This first inversion chord, with A sharp in the bass, begins to sound like a dominant to the subdominant.[9] Scriabin knows the tendencies of standard voice-leading excellently and is playing with our expectations. It may be mentioned that the bass voice has taken a remarkable path: from A sharp to A natural and back to A sharp, while the return to A sharp has coincided with a movement in the melody from E sharp to F sharp.  The sliding chromatic sixths evoke an almost tactile sensation of movement.

But a minimal amount of time is also allotted to the first inversion chord of the tonic – only the last upbeat of the bar; and on the downbeat another ‘stretched’ chord is sounded: D natural –  F sharp – C sharp – A sharp.  Scriabin’s chords are remarkably adept at conveying a movement which has been momentarily captured, as in a photograph of the highest artistic quality. Here it is a very complicated task to define the function of the chord, but the movement of the voices in it is very clear. Whither the voices move after becoming ‘unfrozen’ is comprehensible. It is essential to mention that this last ‘stretched’ chord represents the culmination of a development over five bars, after which two simpler chords are sounded in bars 6 and 7. These two – Scriabin’s favourite enhanced dominant and dominant ­­– are a kind of cadence, a dénouement to the events. Scriabin follows the ancient law of harmonic succession and gives us simpler chords for the cadence. But the most interesting thing is that after this cadence an ‘epilogue’ is sounded which returns us to the cosmiс expanse of Scriabin’s ‘suspended’ and ‘flying’ harmony. There are 8 bars in all, but a contraction takes place at the beginning, so that the cadence is reached in bars 6 and 7 and a non-tonal epilogue has its place in bar 8.

As a whole, the harmony in the present succession does not break with the tradition of centuries. In contrast to, let us say, the American music of such composers as Leon Kirchner or Ned Rater, the harmony of Scriabin is striking in its meaningful syntax and correct voice-leading. In essence, the principles of vvodotonovost’ are retained, while purposeful chords are constructed, and functional arches and large-scale connections guarantee linear continuity and meaningfulness. The present    succession differs from academic harmony in the interspersion of leading-notes and the new interpretation of the degrees to which they lead. Leading-notes break away from the control of standard voice-leading and take Skryabin’s music off into an open cosmos, beyond the limits of reality, into the realm of the transcendent.

How did Chopin and Scriabin understand the transcendent: in what respect is their understanding more similar, and what respect does Scriabin’s understanding differ from Chopin’s? Situated in the overall context of the philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their concepts of the transcendent were based on the ideas of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But each had his own complementary tendencies. For example, in Chopin the transcendent is also connected with the heroic fate of Poland, whereas in Scriabin a whole bouquet of ideas is presented, including the mystical role of art, the role of technology (of new forms of tonality and harmony) and the idea of the highest refinement. All these ideas had an effect on the birth of musical images which strive into the boundless, into the cosmos, and without the attraction of the ideas which have been mentioned a discussion of the new tonality seems to be without meaning or purpose.

Returning to the problems of harmony and tonality, it is essential to mention that in the music of Scriabin, Chopin and also of Rachmaninov differing resolutions of the geometry of tonal space are presented. In the works of these composers, in particular, certain tendencies emerge in chordal connections, and directional aspects of harmony are manifested. Chopin was the first to displace the fifth of the tonic, which together with the first degree of the scale forms the basis of tonal stability, and to open, speaking figuratively, the path upward. Rachmaninov displaced the fifth in his own way: he substituted the fourth for it and created a special type of ‘falling’ harmony, in which the principle event is the fall of the subdominant to the tonic. Scriabin, though, created a symphony of free vvodnotonovost’, as a result of which the cosmos became much nearer and more comprehensible, and the transcendental principle in music was manifested in all  fullness.

Translation: Simon Nicholls

[1] Original publication: ‘Voskhodyashchee napravlenie v garmonii Shopena i Skryabina i ego semantika’, Uchenye zapiski, issue 7, book 1, Memorial’nyi muzei A. N. Skryabina, Moscow, 2012, p. 57–63.

[2] Yuri Kholopov (1932–2003), prominent Russian musicologist and educator. Taught at Moscow Conservatoire from 1963. His numerous and influential publications cover practically all aspects of musical theory; his textbook Harmony: theoretical course (in Russian) can be consulted at Kholopov’s article Scriabin and the Harmony of the 20th century, first published in the Scriabin Museum’s Uchenye zapiski, issue I, 1993, p. 25–38, was translated with a commentary by Philip Ewell and published in the Journal of the Scriabin Society of America, vol. 11 no. 1, Winter 2006–2007, p. 12–25.

[3] V. V. Rubtsova, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Skryabin, Muzyka, Moscow, 1985, p.263.

[4] Anabasis (classical Greek): literally, ‘moving away from the foundation’, movement upwards – the name of one of the rhetorical figures employed in music of the Baroque. It also signifies ‘Ascension’ in Scripture.

[5]  The theory of Heinrich Schenker is based on graphical analysis of voice-leading and its reduction to three level. [The first level is the foreground, the composition itself or a close approximation to it, the second the middleground, where the music is reduced to a more basic, simple form, and  the third the background, where the fundamental structure is intended to be revealed. See Oswald Jonas, Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker (Macmillan, 1987); Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition, ed. and trans. Ernst Oster (Longman, 1979). trans.]

[6] See introduction [trans].

[7] In the terminology of musical analysis a ‘sentence’ (Satz) consists of two elements, the ‘antecendent’ (Vordersatz) and the ‘consequent’ (Nachsatz). [trans.]

[8] Kholopov’s concept of dezal’teratsiya refers to the movement of a chromaticised note to its diatonic equivalent. The term is not anglicised here in order to avoid confusion with the quite different German concept of Disalteration (a note resolving simultaneously upwards and downwards). [trans.]

[9] For a simpler example of this phenomenon see the end of the Prelude for left hand, op. 9 no. 1 [trans.]

The Development of Dissonance in Scriabin’s Piano Preludes – by Anthony Hewitt

It is astonishing that these most beautifully intricate and sonorous of works are to this day known to few, even by performers. Scriabin’s Preludes have an incredible depth and variety of material, and it was a joy to play these miniatures, each with its own very distinctive character and mood.

Inspired by the 100th anniversary of Scriabin’s death in 2015, and with the encouragement and support of Mary and David Bowerman at Champs Hill Records, I was privileged to record all 90 in two volumes.

There are of course many facets and joys in such a project, but one of the aspects I found most fascinating was to trace the development in Scriabin’s style, from lavish romanticism in the early Preludes, to the bleak vulnerability and stark atonality in the later ones. He stretched the boundaries of tonality, and has sadly been given little credit for it.

If there is one element which I found encompasses the whole span of Preludes, irrespective of style, it’s the sense of tonality as a means of conveying colour and mood, and latterly atonality and dissonance playing a key part in communicating a very specific emotion, often one of rage or violence, unresolved tension, and an accompanying mystical element. We know that Scriabin attributed a particular colour to a particular key, and used a musical light lamp to help illustrate the colour of tonal areas (still housed in the Scriabin museum in Moscow). He even devised a legend showing the colour of each key in the cycle of fifths, which is the the tonal structure of the early Op. 11 set. Fast forward to the very end of his life, before he died unexpectedly in 1915 of septicaemia, and he was planning a vast project ‘Mysterium’, to be set in the Himalayas over seven days and marrying every conceivable art form, with billowing scents, and using the sunrises and sunsets as ‘stage lighting’.

It’s in the set of 24 Preludes Op.11 where we sense the strongest influence of Chopin: the shape of many of the Preludes feels so similar, and it’s hard not to see some of them as a kind of homage. For example, the opening one, Op. 11/1: the pulsating, sweeping, figurations with falling 2nd’s in the treble, is the inverse of Chopin first Prelude, where it’s a rising 2nd. They are structured in the same key as Chopin’s, utilising the aforementioned cycle of fifths (starting at C major alternating between major and relative minor).

This tonal structure gives more credibility to playing and recording them as a set, but let’s not forget the original use of the Prelude in mediaeval times as an improvisation to test the acoustic of a venue, or tuning of an instrument. The Prelude evolved in the Baroque era as an opener to a Baroque Suite or before a fugue, into the soundscapes of Liszt and Wagner, and tonal paintings of Debussy. I felt Scriabin’s late Preludes return to its original meaning, with meandering states of transcendental suspension, albeit without losing the overall arch structure which forges a clear path to a climax, often suddenly and impulsively.  The infusion of energy and passion can happen quite out of the blue, but there is clearly nothing ‘off-the-cuff’ and improvisatory about these.

Scholars have ‘cordoned off’ Scriabin’s style into 2 periods, roughly speaking: pre and post Op. 30, and indeed I could make out a clear line in the sand at Op. 31, where the serenity is stopped suddenly in its tracks by a harsh augmented 5th. Chromaticism had hitherto functioned as a means to achieving a line within a polyphonic context – not dissimilar to its function in Chopin. One can make comparisons to Bach too: the Preludes up to and including Op. 17 had been primed as a group of 48 musical mementos to his concert travels  – at the behest of his publisher Belaev. He stopped short at 47, and the style of these may have much to do with the need for performing on his tours: many are virtuoso piano pieces and could have been more ‘audience-friendly’, but the youthful exuberance and vigour are slowly but surely replaced towards the Opp 40’s with a thinning out of textures and clear development of dissonance which depicts strong emotions, and associations with more austere and barren musical landscapes.

He wrote prolifically during the year of his marriage – perhaps aided by domestic bliss, and ‘let go of the tonal leash’. By the time we arrive at Opus 48, atonality is becoming the dominant musical language. Interestingly at this juncture, Scriabin stops using metronome markings and tempo indications, replacing them with idiosyncratic directions: “Con Stravaganza”, “Festivamente”, “Poetico con delizio” (poetic and with delight), “Bellicoso” (war-like), “Déchirant” (tearingly) perhaps speaks of the time, the world being torn apart by the Great War.

He is very specific in the states of mind needed to capture the spirit, and this we find  in a more extended sense earlier in his career with the ‘soul states’ attached to the 3rd-5th Sonatas. This is testament to the importance he placed on philosophy, and of music being a means of elevating the spirit and achieving a transcendental state. As Scriabin himself said: “why write JUST music – how boring?!.”

Learning and memorising all 90 posed specific challenges, for the sheer volume of material. In a Sonata or Variation form, an inherent part of unifying the structure is the repetition of material. Needless to say, no repetition exists between Scriabin’s Preludes, the longest of which is four pages long. Despite this brevity, it’s remarkable to think that Scriabin wrote so many Preludes, all of which are completely different; testament to his limitless imagination.

Many are fiendishly difficult and virtuosic with awkward leaps (Op 11,14) that are not altogether written in a pianistic manner, and because of the injury to his RH he incurred in a challenge with his peer Joseph Lhevinne, the LH is where we often find the most virtuosic or technically awkward passages (Op 11,11). However, the virtuosity is rarely for its own sake and the density of texture and richness of sonority is clearly woven into the contrapuntal thread . The challenge was to achieve this mass of sound without losing textural transparency.

The later Preludes are technically less difficult than the earlier ones, and it was possible to play each one through in its entirety, sometimes using a complete take for the final edit. This definitely helped in honing in on the character of the work during the recording process. The medium of recording inevitably leads to repeating sections, and in doing so one delves deeper into the mood and feeling: advantageous for capturing the essence of each, but there is often such a seismic mood shift between Preludes that to cross that divide took quite an adjustment. I found the loneliness of the recording studio went with the sense of isolation and mystery of some of the later works.

As is often the case in performing, the challenge is to keep a sense of perspective and not get too caught up in the here and now. Maintaining a sense of line and flow was certainly aided by playing them through numerous times.

I’ll certainly perform these works for many years to come, either in sets, or individually, as a Prelude to another work.

© Anthony Hewitt

Anthony Hewitt’s critically acclaimed recording of the complete Scriabin preludes is available here.