Scriabin, Poet of Fire and Ecstasy by Guillaume Fournier

The musical works of Alexander Scriabin can be better explained and elucidated if we take his aesthetic and philosophical concerns into account. The title of this lecture: “Scriabin, Poet of Fire and Ecstasy”, brings together the key themes of his work.

The Poem
Indeed, many of his works are based on texts that Scriabin himself wrote beforehand. Other pieces are called “poems” without any literary reference: Scriabin instituted the genre, much like Chopin did for the nocturne. But Scriabin was also a “Poet”, in its first meaning of “Creator.” Indeed, the topic of how the act of creation reflects universal laws was a constant concern in this composer’s works and writings.

Fire in Scriabin’s thinking is a force that is both productive and destructive. Fire is also spiritual, a symbol of the creative spirit, as can be seen in the mythological figure of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus in order to breathe life into men. I therefore propose to present this unique internal aesthetic adventure in the history of music by following the itinerary of this creator towards the affirmation of his will, the purpose of which was to lead all Humanity to the transfiguration with the cosmos, through “Ecstasy”.

Early years
Until the turn of the century, Scriabin was still undergoing the romantic influence of Chopin. As a student at the conservatory, he set himself up to be a virtuoso, and some of his works were already published. However, the inner world of the young Scriabin was already turned towards spirituality. When he was 16, he wrote:  “The religious feeling is the consciousness of the presence of Divinity in oneself.” This short sentence may be the first tentative formulation of what would become Scriabin’s mystical experience.

When Scriabin was 20 years old, a tragic injury to his right hand led him to an attitude of sudden revolt: revolt against God and revolt against the laws of the material universe.

One can read in his notes:

This is the most serious event in my life! What an obstacle for my ultimate goal: glory,  fame ! According to doctors, this is insurmountable. It is the first failure in my life. I’m afraid I will never heal.

At another point in Scriabin’s notebooks, one also reads :

I was expecting revelations from Heaven but they did not come.


[Humans can] expect nothing from life apart from what they can create themselves and for themselves.

Fortunately, a romantic encounter illuminated those dark times. In 1891, Scriabin fell in love with Natalia Sekerina, a charming young pianist, who was several years younger than him.

This romantic encounter is very important to help us understand that Scriabin already had in himself all the beginnings of his future quest.

Indeed, he wrote many wonderful letters to Natalia and composed a Romance for voice and piano that ends with these words: “And all this universe of ecstasy could be yours!”

Scriabin’s feeling of “ecstasy” is certainly mixed with the delight of a first passionate love, but Scriabin already seemed be aware of his future preoccupation, as if he was saying: “Just follow me and I will bring you to Ecstasy.”

In 1892, he travelled across the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. In the letters he wrote to Natalia, he expressed feelings about fusion with Nature. A little later, a voyage at sea inspired further discoveries. He woke at dawn, on the boat, and then he discovered the shiny surface of the sea, reflecting the sky. It felt as if he was in the centre of a huge blue sphere. 20 years later, that vision inspired his idea of a sphere-shaped temple. This temple would have the same shape as the vision of the Baltic Sea he described to Natalia.

This idyll between Sasha and Natalia was very tormented, and lasted until 1895.

Those three years, from 1892 to 1895, were extremely difficult for Scriabin. Indeed, the paralysis of his right hand worsened. Thoroughly distressed, he also suffered from unbearable headaches. However, when doctors announced to him that they were impossible to treat, he confidently replied: “Yes, it is possible.”

Thus, after several months and thanks to determined efforts, he regained the use of his fingers. He went on to enjoy a triumphant career as a pianist, and decided to play his own works exclusively. He also became the youngest professor of the Moscow Conservatory, at the age of 26. Thanks to this crisis, Scriabin became aware of his “Great Self”, “free and divine” as opposed to the “Small Self”, limited by space and time.

This profound awareness of this divine principle: his “Great Self”, totally free, filled him with a radiant happiness, with a fullness of being and a desire to share that happiness and freedom with all men and the entire universe. This supernatural happiness dwelt in Scriabin all his life, even in the midst of the worst, most terrible events. Although he was very sensitive and was very affected by events, this only influenced his “small self” and did not affect his works or ideas, which were at the level of his “Great Self”.

Thus, at the end of the nineteenth century, Scriabin’s aesthetics took a new direction: at that time he left the Conservatory and forsook everything that could prevent his development. He became a member of the Philosophical Society, and believed that it was possible, thanks to the omnipotence of Art, to free Humanity from its limited and miserable condition, and to lead all men to ecstasy. He then proceeded to define Ecstasy as “the highest degree of action, the summit, the last moment.”

The instrument of Scriabin’s free power was Art, capable of acting not only upon the spiritual universe, but also of affecting the material universe as well.

First Symphony
In this spirit, he composed his first symphony in 1899, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. This symphony ends with a “Hymn to Art,” a poem written by Scriabin himself. Here we can already find the essential themes of Scriabin’s thought: it is about “an inspired Priest”, about “the spirit of joyful and powerful art, which rules on earth”, about “elevating Humanity by art.” This hymn ends with the words: “Glory to Art, Glory forever !” Through this symphony, Scriabin affirms the status of the creator-man and artist-man who is the God of a new religion, which is Art.

Opera Project
Then, he discovered the philosopher Nietzsche, passionately read Nietzsche’s book Thus spoke Zarathustra and conceived the idea of an opera. In this unfinished opera the hero is designated as a “philosopher-poet-musician”, a kind of Nietzschean Superman, who wants to share with men the happiness that he has achieved, through the power of art:  “If only I could offer a small piece of my happiness to the world , it would rise in jubilant triumph for centuries”,  as the hero exults in this unfinished opera. Indeed, in the last act of the opera, which was left unfinished, the hero triumphs: his teaching is received by the people, who are saved, while he dies in ecstasy and divine bliss.

This project reveals the theme of the misunderstood hero, the theme of the solitary individual opposed to the multitude of men he wants to release. Obviously, Scriabin felt totally identified with his hero, whose mission was to reveal to men the profound divinity lying within themselves and capable of bringing them to freedom. Addressing himself to God, he wrote in his notebooks:

I will tell them that they should have no hope in You and to expect nothing from life outside of what they can create themselves and for themselves. I thank You for all the horrible events of my life, You showed me my infinite strength, my unlimited power, my invincibility, you gave me the victory.

This opera was never completed. In fact, it probably no longer corresponded with the composer’s spiritual concerns anymore. Scriabin’s connections between his “self” and the outside world (his “non-self”) were gradually changing. Indeed, the outside world, which he first regarded as an enemy, had gradually built his own personality. Thus, for Scriabin, there was no border boundary anymore between “self” and “non-self”; everything was engulfed within him.

He wrote elsewhere:

You, stones of my anger,
You, delicate lines of my caresses,
You, sweet half-tones of my dreams,
You stars, flashes of my eyes,
You, sun of my happiness, –
You are the spatial expression of my temporal feelings.

Scriabin felt the Universe as deeply rooted within himself, and therefore created by him.

The Divine Poem
By composing his 3rd symphony entitled Divine Poem in 1905, Scriabin brought his new thinking to a larger audience. This work includes a literary program to complement the music. His program describes the evolution “of the human spirit and union with the Universe,” which, erasing ancient beliefs from his mind, leads to the “joyous affirmation of liberty”. The Divine Poem contains 3 parts:

1.“struggles” between the slave and the free man (Luttes)
2. the “pleasures” of man immersed in the sensual world and nature (Voluptés)

  1. “Divine Play”, the joy of newly found freedom, where the Spirit frees itself up to the world with which it is one, in ecstasy (Jeu divin).

During the same period, Scriabin began writing poetic and amazingly detailed instructions in his scores, words such as: “voluptuous”, “languid”, “ecstatic” …

Finally, Scriabin would still need to develop his experience simultaneously on both levels: his musical work and his philosophical speculations. So, naturally, Scriabin, like the “philosopher-poet-musician” from his opera, was led to create a new genre.

The poem for piano
Taken from poesis  (Latin), and poiesis (Greek), meaning “creation”, the poem is the art of evoking and suggesting sensations, impression and the most intense emotions through the merging at a deep level of sounds, rhythms, harmonies, especially in verse. On the piano, Scriabin’s “poem” is a short, free form, a kind of well-achieved lyrical improvisation. He wrote almost 30 “poems”, containing his most beautiful “moods”,[1] and culminating in opus 72: “Towards the Flame”.

From that point onwards, Scriabin’s research focused increasingly on the great philosophers and he maintained a keen interest in Theosophy : “an esoteric doctrine based on a syncretism of different religions, philosophies and sciences, with the goal of leading Humanity to brotherhood and peace.”  However, Scriabin adhered to no dogma, and used his readings to confirm his thoughts:

“Thus the world is the result of my activity, my creation, my free will.”

This new ideology found its point of crystallisation in the Poem of Ecstasy, a huge work for an orchestra of “cosmic” dimensions.

The Poem of Ecstasy
Completed in 1907, The Poem of Ecstasy is primarily a poem  of approximately 300 lines, written by Scriabin himself. It is a paean to the Spirit of Creation, written as a self-portrait. The poem tells how the Spirit takes flight, gradually liberating itself from torments of all kinds in order to achieve Ecstasy, i.e. the supreme degree of self-realisation.

For Scriabin, ecstasy is not  only an extreme condition found among mystics, but a kind of absolute consciousness, a total opening, an illuminated knowledge and awareness, a state of bliss, similar to Buddhist states.

In the course of the literary poem, the musical poem is an ode to magic, to spiritual intoxication and to the power of music, which lies beyond the power of words.

As Scriabin’s daughter Marina wrote about his opera project, the hero “himself died in ecstasy and achieved divine bliss.” But, she adds, the death of the hero of the opera in ecstasy did not result in the immediate transfiguration of humanity and the cosmos, but only showed the way to achieve this transfiguration.

Through the Poem of Ecstasy, Scriabin made a transition from individual ecstasy to collective ecstasy.

In 1908, Scriabin moved to Brussels, and was introduced into the Theosophical field, which marked a new stage in his life. In Brussels he would develop his “theory of universal correspondences”.

In fact, for Scriabin: “Everything is contained in everything” and “Everything is vibration”: “Vibration connects all states of awareness together, and vibration is their only substance.”

He explains in his notebooks:

The substance of the world is like an ocean, composed of billions of water drops, each of which is a perfect representation of the whole ocean. If one gave a single drop another colour, all other drops would acquire a complementary colour. Indeed, one colour can only exist in relation to other colours. Following the principles of universal analogy, we can deduce the effect of one creative act on the entire universe.

This example regarding colour is not trivial. Indeed, Scriabin was influenced by the concept of synaesthesia: that is to say that every sound he heard was immediately associated with a vision of colour. Each tonality entered into a correspondence with a defined colour, and each colour itself symbolized a specific state.

Thus, for Scriabin:

F # (blue) represented meditation and spirituality,
C (red) symbolized Humanity,
D (yellow) stood for intense joy,
A (green) reminded him of vegetative and putrid stagnation.
A b (purple) referred to the transition between life and immortality, which meant spiritual ecstasy.[2]

In this manner, Scriabin is very close to another great Russian artist, Vassily Kandinsky, who was also influenced by synaesthetic concepts. They also agreed about the meaning of colours and about the ambition to create a “Total Art”.

However, it was another painter, Jean Delville, whom Scriabin met in Belgium, and who may have inspired Scriabin’s monumental work: Prometheus, the Poem of Fire.

According to the account given by Manfred Kelkel, Scriabin must have been overwhelmed when he saw Delville’s painting. Kelkel writes: “Everything is a flame, and the most prominently bursting flame is Prometheus himself.” The 5-pointed star held by Prometheus symbolizes, according to Kelkel, the motto of the Emerald Tablet : “what is above is like what is below.”[3] Thus, the mythological tale of Prometheus helps us to penetrate the mysteries of the universe, so that we can feel what connects men (what is below) with the divine world (what is above).

Scriabin’s work no longer follows a literary program. Instead, it bears a symbolic cover designed by Delville.[4]
In the orchestra, we encounter a new instrument: the luce, or light keyboard. In fact, the simultaneous perception of sounds and colours was supposed to enable the participants to transcend their feelings and lead them directly to  collective ecstasy. However, the luce was not completed in time for the premiere of Prometheus.

As early as 1904, Scriabin conceived the idea of The Mysterium, a work of “Total Art”, a synaesthetic work. This work was to take place in a hemispherical temple in India, over a period of seven days, involving all the senses and sensations of the participants, to bring them to a state of ecstasy and unity with with the cosmos. However, Scriabin’s accidental death, at 43, prevented him from completing this huge project and he only had time to write the libretto entitled: The Prefatory Action.

What would “The Mysterium” have been like, musically speaking ?

We can imagine by hearing his last works for piano. The dances opus 73, “Garlands” and “Dark Flames” were his last pieces to allude to the element of Fire. Indeed, dance was to be the leading, primordial art constituting “The Mysterium”, along with music and poetry. In fact, “The Mysterium” was expected to conclude with a gigantic and cosmic orgy of dance: “Dissolve yourselves in death in the vertigo of dance.” There was no ecstasy without dancing, according to Scriabin.

As for Vers la Flamme, a poem of poems, in which music emerges from dark silence and leaps to the radiant sun, “with more and more tumultuous joy”, “like a fanfare”[5] until its final explosion and blinding light, it was as if it was meant to illustrate a verse from the Prefatory Action, which runs: “In this breath of fire resides the poem of the creation of the world.”

Like Prometheus, Scriabin played with the Fire of music in order to elevate people and to make them hear and see the unseen and unheard, mingled in the trance of “heavenly fire”.

Everything about Scriabin – his art, his thoughts, his vision of the universe, his conceptions of the evolution of mankind – everything had its source in a spiritual and mystical experience, which is very unusual and perhaps unique.

This experiment was based on a deep awareness of a free and divine principle, his “Great Self”, which led him to desire to share his happiness and freedom with all men and the entire universe. His instrument of communication was Art.

Thus, the work of Scriabin is not an end in itself. Indeed, the end is not art, the end is more than art, even if its path leads through art. The end is in another life, in the ideal of a new world, the key to which is ecstasy.

Finally, an excerpt from the Poem of Ecstasy:

I am an instant illuminating eternity
I am affirmation.
I am Ecstasy.

That which menaced
Is now seduction.
That which frightened
Is now pleasure.
And the bites of panther and hyena
Are new caresses.
And the serpent’s sting
Is but a burning kiss.
And thus the universe resounds
With a joyful cry :
I AM !

[1] Nastroienie, “mood”, was a favourite term with Scriabin. (Ed.)

[2] The polarity F# – C (spirit – flesh) was directly stated by Scriabin to Sabaneyev. The other colour associations are based on later research by Bulat Galeyev (Ed.)

[3] Manfred Kelkel: Alexandre Scriabine, un musicien à la recherche de l’absolu. Paris: Fayard, 1999, p. 166. The painting referred to is the monumental canvas which Delville worked on between 1904 and1907. A reproduction can be seen at The ‘Emerald Tablet’ or Tabula smaragdina  was reputed to be a stone inscribed with words from Hermes Trismegistus, although its origins are uncertain; it had a high reputation amongst mediaeval alchemists and mystical philosophers, and the text was translated into English by Sir Isaac Newton. There is no known documentary evidence that links the Tabula smaragdina with Skryabin. (Ed.)

[4] Delville’s graphic work of 1911 can be seen in the Scriabin Association’s gallery.

[5] Scriabin’s indications in the score. (Ed.)