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.