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.