The Myth of Scriabin’s ‘Pleroma’

Few have contributed as much to the understanding of Russian music in the West as the late Professor Richard Taruskin. But in one case the very authority that he gained through his work has led to the wide and unfortunate adoption of a misnomer, wrongly attributed to Scriabin: in major English-speaking works on the subject, Scriabin’s ‘mystic’ or ‘Promethean’ chord is now frequently referred to as the ‘chord of the pleroma’. The word ‘pleroma’, though, occurs nowhere in Scriabin’s writings as they have come down to us, and there is no record of his having used the term ‘chord of the pleroma’.

Professor Taruskin received, it seems, a report of  the conference held in 1992 in Moscow at the Scriabin Museum, entitled Различные аспекты творчества А. Н. Скрябина [‘Various aspects of Alexander Scriabin’s creative work’] (Moscow, n.d. Editors: T. B. Rybakova, O. M. Tompakova). One speaker had been the eminent Scriabin scholar of the Soviet era, Igor Bèlza. His talk  (p.17–21) was entitled Филосовские истоки образного строя «Прометея» [Philosophical sources of the structure of imagery in Prometheus]. Bèlza refers, perhaps, to the famous  occasion recounted by Alexander Ossovsky, when Rachmaninov sight-read the full score of Prometheus. (Воспоминания о Рахманинове [‘Reminiscences of Rachmaninov’], ed. Z. Apetyan, vol. 1 p. 405. Ossovsky recounted that the opening chord ‘delighted’ Rachmaninov, though he thought it would not sound well, owing to ‘illogical’ spacing. Bèlza (‘Phil. Sources’,  p. 18—19) gave the following account:

            Шестизвучие, которым начинается великая поэма, называется обычно «прометеевским». Говоря, однако, о гностической концепсии произведения, мы вправе назвать это созвучие, ошеломившее уже первых слушателей своей  необычностью. «Чем ты это делаешь?» – спросил автора на репетиции пораженный Рахманинов. – «Аккорд плеромы». […]

            The six-note sonority with which the great poem begins is usually called ‘Promethean.’ But, speaking of the gnostic conception of the work, we are right to   give a name to this sonority, which astounded the very first listeners with its unusualness. Impressed, Rachmaninov asked the composer at a rehearsal: ‘What are you using for this?’ ‘The chord of the pleroma.’[…]

A fuller text of Bèlza’s address is given in the Museum’s publication Ученые записи [Scholarly Notes] No.1 (Moscow, Kompozitor, 1993, p. 70–77), in which he is more specific and limited in his statement about the term ‘chord of the pleroma’ (p. 75):

            […]гностический аспект, объясняющий, в частности, предложенный мною термин «аккорд  Плеромы».  У нас нет, правда, документального свидетельства, что Скрябину было известно это слово […]

            […] the gnostic aspect which partly explains the term which I have suggested, ‘chord of the Pleroma.’ It is true that we have no documentary evidence that this word was known to Scriabin […] [italics in original; underlining by present writer.]

It seems likely that Professor Taruskin did not see this longer text, which clarifies that the term is Bèlza’s invention, whereas the shorter excerpt strongly implies that it was Scriabin’s own. Bèlza was the author of an authoritative biography of Scriabin (1987). There may have been an eagerness, after the fall of the Communist system, to embrace topics, such as Gnosticism, which would have been problematic in the Soviet era. This zeal on Bèlza’s part seems to have misled Taruskin himself into adopting as authentic a spurious term.

© Simon Nicholls 2022


Z. Apetyan, compiler and editor, Воспоминания о Рахманинове [Reminiscences of Rachmaninov] vol.1. 2nd, completed edition: Moscow, State Music Publishers, 1961.

Igor Bèlza: Aleksandr Nikolaevich Skryabin. Moscow, ‘Muzyka’, 1987.

State Memorial Museum of A. N. Scriabin (as it then was):

Tamara Rybakova and Olga Tompakova, eds: Различные аспекты творчества А. Н. Скрябина: материалы научной конференции, посвященной 120-летнию со дня рождения А. Н. Скрябина /6 и 7 января 1992 г./

[Various aspects of the creative work of Alexander Scriabin: documents of the research conference dedicated to the 120th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Scriabin (6th and 7th January 1992.) Moscow n.d.

Editorial committee: Igor Bèlza, Tamara Rybakova, Olga Tompakova, Andrei Bandura:

Ученые записки [Scholarly notes] no. 1. Moscow: ‘Kompozitor’, 1993.