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Greetings, music lovers!  Dumbo has kindly lent me an installment of this great series to use any which way I like, so...

Is music capable of bringing us to ecstasy? ... I don't mean just the state of pure pleasure, but something that transcends our senses, something if not spiritual than certainly not of our normal everyday perception.  Is music capable of sending us places that lies beyond other arts, into a purer state of being?

And even if musical is capable of this, how would you go about writing it?  At least one composer attacked this issue head-on, with surprising results:

The face on the left belongs to Alexander Scriabin, a Russian composer during the last years of the old Empire, lionized during his lifetime as not merely a composer but a spiritual messiah, largely ignored after his death, resuscitated in recent years due to the genuinely bold and inventive ways that he twisted conventional music into knots.  He was a pioneer and a failure, a man who wrote great music and never succeeded at the one thing he set out to do.  Scriabin wanted to change the world.  Just look at those eyes!

If you read a CD insert on Scriabin you might think that he was clinically insane: did he really think he was a God?  Did he really try to end the world through music?  His brief biography sounds like the stuff of monomania, but he was very much a product of his time...

Setting the Stage:

As a pianist, Scriabin's earliest compositions bear the strong imprint of Chopin.  An injury to the nerves in his right hand nearly ended his career at the outset; during his recovery, he composed two works for the left hand alone, one of which is still in the repertoire.  Notice how Scriabin tries to disguise the fact that it's for one hand by using a little unobtrusive counterpoint (more than one melody, simultaneously) during the lyrical section, and bombastic, passionate chords during the Sturm und Drang middle:

Even in his early years Scriabin was already thinking big.  His first symphony ended with a Beethovinian chorus singing a "Hymn to Art", and his early notebooks are already filled with plans for a grant symbolic opera about Art itself.  The symphony was a failure, and the operas never came to pass... But in the meantime Scriabin began to absorb philosophy, and eventually came into contact with two sets of influences that would change his trajectory as a composer.  

The first was German in the form of philosophers like Fichte, Hegel, and especially Schopenhauer.  Schopenhauer believed that music was not just special, but specifically different from the other arts to the degree that it reflects the world of pure Will.  It is our most direct link to the 'real' that lies beyond our basic senses.  Oh, and he fell under the spell of Nietzsche's Übermensch theory, too.

The second influence was Elena Blavatskaya - or as she's better known in the west, Madame Blavatsky - the late 19th century spiritualist who claimed to bring secret knowledge from Eastern mystics, and who co-founded the Theosophical Society in New York.  Blavatskaya was a lightning rod of controversy during her day, but her early works - like The Keys to Theosophy - were popular with readers.  In the West she popularized the idea that there are different 'planes' of existence, and that humans evolve both physically and spiritually.  (Full disclosure: I think she's full of bunk.)

Scriabin's diaries show him absorbing and transforming these influences into a purely self-styled form of metaphysics, amateur and inconsistent at times, occasionally casting himself in the role of Prometheus, the bringer of fire (knowledge/art) to audiences.  Through his music we would not just hear the sounds of ecstatic transcendence, we would experience it.  Scriabin's music would be our vessel to higher states of consciousness.

Of course none of this would matter if his music didn't succeed as music, and fortunately it does.  Listen to a few minutes from his Poem of Ecstasy (essentially his fourth symphony), a one-movement orchestral piece that leads us from an almost Debussian languish through states of agitation and finally to eventual triumph:

Pay special note to the ending (beginning around 7:20 in part 2 of the clip), where he sends the entire orchestra into a frenzy of the loudest music it's capable of producing.  Scriabin wants us, during this climax, to stare directly into the sun, much like the cover of the symphony's printing (to the right).  He is Prometheus, and he is guiding us upwards.  Apparently the music gave Prokofiev a headache, which... if you know Prokofiev, is pretty funny.

But all of this was just prelude to what he eventually conceived as his Great Work, a seven-day concert at the foot of the Himalayas which would create a sensory overload so profound, and a spiritual communion so ecstatic, that the material world itself would dissolve away.  He called it his Mysterium, and in the totality of its vision, bolder than anything ever conceived by Wagner, it would change the course of history.  

There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours.
Okay, so it was a bit too ambitious.  Scriabin never got far in his plans, eventually downgrading to a "Prefatory Act" where he'd learn how to coordinate all these disparate parts, and then he couldn't complete his "Prefatory Act", and then... He died, young and with no small amount of bathos, from an infection after cutting a pimple while shaving.  

His plans never came to fruition, and his surviving family was immediately in danger of poverty.  A colleague and former classmate - Sergei Rachmaninoff - helped keep them afloat by organizing performances of Scriabin's piano music and donating them the receipts.  By the time the Soviet era was in full swing, most of Scriabin's works were rarely, if ever, performed.

Rebirth, Renewal

It's no surprise that Scriabin's mystical mish-mash didn't appeal to Soviet authorities, but after decades of neglect, both musicologists and performers began to rediscover his work and the unique properties on which it is constructed.  If early Scriabin was a bit too derivative of Chopin, late Scriabin looks like nothing else in the history of music.

Some of those qualities aren't entirely unique to him, like his interest in synethesia.    Scriabin "heard" colors, much like his elder Rimsky-Korsakov, but unlike his artistic ancestors he attempted to coordinate these with his composition thoroughly and consistently.  These culminated in the 1910 symphonic work, Prometheus: Poem of Fire, in which he scored a stave for "rays of light", intending to coordinate the color inside the performance hall with the sounds coming from the orchestra.  He lacked the technology to put this into effect, and even contemporary performances have trouble avoiding the kitsch factor, but Prometheus is still one of his best, most interesting works: lush, imaginative, and seductive. I highly recommend this great video essay about the music and the problems of performance:

Another reason that Scriabin's music is so unique has to do with some complicated issues of tonality.  Most (not all) Western music is based on a fundamental relationship, or an interval, that we call the perfect fifth: because of its consonance and stability, it's not only the backbone of most (not all) harmonies, but it's also happens to be the distance between a home key and its 'dominant', or the harmony that most instinctively pulls us back home.  If you're used to modern rock, it's the basis of the power chord.  It's no exaggeration to say that we hear it everywhere.  (If you want to know more Dumbo covered this in a previous diary.)

It took someone with goals as visionary as Scriabin's to rethink this entirely.  Scriabin doesn't abandon tonality like the avant garde composers a generation later - he does something far stranger, essentially cobbling together his own tonal system from a mix of fourths and, most strikingly, tritones (the interval that medieval philosophers called "the devil in music" for its dissonant instability.)  He keeps stacking interval on top of interval until the whole edifice nearly collapses - in fact, until he nearly achieves complete dodecaphony toward the end of his life.

Even his piano sounds different.  Listen to the great Vladimir Horowitz describe, and perform, one of Scriabin's oddest compositions, "Vers la flamme".  Horowitz focuses on the percussive touch, but listen to those gorgeous chords that open the piece, dark and foreboding, built from two tritones ("the devil") stacked upon one another.  Under two simple melodic fragments, Scriabin builds increasingly complicated cross-rhythms until the piece (and its performer) nearly collapse at the end:

If any music is capable of bringing us to ecstasy, this is it.

Some Final Thoughts

If this has interested you in Scriabin in any way, I have a whole slate of suggestions.  The best of his sonatas are first-rate and belong in any good repertoire of modern piano music, especially the 5th, his most accessible, the ethereal 7th, the quietly demonic 9th, and the frenzied 10th.  His piano output otherwise consists of preludes, character pieces, and "poems", of which the best and most famous is the impossibly gorgeous op. 32 no. 1.   His most often performed piece is likely his op. 8 no. 12 Etude, an early work of virtuoso Romantic passion.

For a sense of how far afield Scriabin was pushing in music, try his last set of preludes, op. 74.  They are dry, difficult, and may even be unpleasant on your first listen.  This is music from another plane of existence.

Due to historical circumstances - changing attitudes in politics, ideology, and aesthetics - the generation that followed Scriabin was not too interested in mysticism and his brand of inventive tonality.  He left only a few minor disciples, not entirely uninteresting, but less ambitious and even more forgotten than he ever was.

There is one minor disciple of note, however, a young student of Scriabin's named Boris Pasternak.  Before Pasternak went on to pursue his crazy dream of becoming a writer (yeah, good luck with that!) he studied composition under Scriabin and wrote in an idiom that closely resembles Scriabin's 'middle period':

Funny where life takes us.

Originally posted to De hominis dignitate on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 07:01 PM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  pico (13+ / 0-)

    What is wrong with me that I cannot appreciate Scriabin?  It always makes me feel defective to admit it, but the truth is that I agree with Prokofiev, the music gives me a headache.  (And yes, that was funny.)

    "None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free." - Goethe

    by jlynne on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 07:34:02 PM PST

    •  Heh, he does. (15+ / 0-)

      It took me years.  I first heard his music around 2001, and I really disliked it (I thought it sounded like random, unpleasant noise.)  My conversion was slow but complete, and I think feeling his music under my fingers made all the difference.  

      His particular type of dissonance is like a wine or cheese that takes time to develop a taste for: not necessarily 'better', but different and an acquired taste.  I love tritones, and I love resonant his harmonies are.  If this diary wasn't already a monster, I'd have spent some time talking about his octatonic scales and how unique there are, too.

      But yeah, I never think I'm going to convince everyone.  Just ask my husband, who prefers to leave the room when he hears Scriabin.  Heh.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 07:41:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  The tritone, or diminihed 5th/Augmented 4th (7+ / 0-)

        (depending upon it's "spelling") is particularly irritating and at the same time provocative because it does not exist in the natural overtone series. (The overtone series, for those who are not familiar with musical and acoustic theory, are the "unheard" but yet perceived intervals which happen when a specific note is played on an acoustic instrument or sung and is a major factor in the tonal design of pipe organs, especially "mixtures" or compound ranks). It's why it's "sexy", just like an unda maris or celeste (a double-rank or organ pipes with one tuned just under or just over pitch, respectively) is often called "sexy".

        As a tonal composer myself, I often use tritones and other "crunchy" intervals for effect (my Second String Quartet features a long ending sequence of minor and major seconds in the coda of the first movement as well as Bartok-like serial cells in other places). The "diabolicus in Musica", aka, the tritone, has a long history going back to modal music, where the locrian mode--rarely employed--contained a tritone which could not be "mutated" to produce a perfect fourth or fifth.

        Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Ren and Stimpy: Dog on Cat equalitymaine.org

        by commonmass on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 01:20:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You'll be happy to know that there's (6+ / 0-)

          a considerable amount of disagreement about how to read Scriabin's harmonies, and the overtone series is part of that debate.  Sabaneev believed that Scriabin derived his "Mystic chord" from the series 8-14 (with some adjustments when the tone falls just short of what the piano actually produces.)  I don't think many people buy that theory anymore, but there's no doubt he gets a particularly unique resonance out of his synthetic chords.  

          You can see how he uses the tritone relationship in a quasi-dominant function here.  It was hard to go into too much detail about how this works without getting technical.

          He also does some interesting things with polytonality.  I really love the partial cadences in "Flammes sombres" (op. 73 no. 2), which are essentially a stacking of D minor on top of B major - despite the conflicting D/D# and F/F#, it sounds unbelievably rich.

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 01:44:14 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I have often used a tritone relationship (5+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            pico, Dumbo, ER Doc, SherwoodB, martyc35

            to the tonic in my own work as a "synthetic dominant". Scriabin certainly does this. One of the things that can be very interesting about this is that it can have the effect of making the major second, the minor 7th and 9th sound consonant. Playing with theory is fun.

            Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Ren and Stimpy: Dog on Cat equalitymaine.org

            by commonmass on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 01:50:24 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  ... And I get to learn new phrases. (6+ / 0-)

              Synthetic chords and synthetic scales.  Which I had never heard of before today.  Interesting.  

              I'm not a music theorist.  I (think) I'm just a reasonably bright guy who dinks around with his guitar and recorder during TV commercials.  It's interesting to tweak the Do-re-mi musical scale one way or the other and see what goofy sounds come out of it.  The ones that foul the fifth note are always the spookiest sounding.  Most "mystical."

              I also get a kick out of the scales that flatten the second note, for instance C major with a D flat and A flat.  If you play around with it, it eventually PULLS you towards that D flat chord like ripe dangling fruit.  And then D flat goes back to C major with a nice cadence-like effect.

              Here I am, sounding all musical...

              You know, it would be fun if you posted a diary about one of your quartets.  Nobody would think you were tooting your own horn.  Although tooting your own horn is nice, too, if you can manage it.

              •  Russians loooooove that flattened second. (5+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Dumbo, dirkster42, ER Doc, commonmass, martyc35

                You get it a lot in late Romantic music, especially when they're trying to imitate something quasi-oriental.  It's an essential feature of Rimsky-Korsakov's octatonic scales, but they also love Neapolitan chords, where the flattened second fits right in.

                There's a really nice one leading up to the final cadence in Mussorgsky's Sonata 4-hands (around the 4:50 mark here).

                Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

                by pico on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 03:07:40 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

              •  A chord built on flat 2 (7+ / 0-)

                can either sound unexpectedly "light," if the context emphasizes the harmony, or unexpectedly "dark," if the counterpoint is more prominent.

                I remember my theory teacher and I having a moment of "wait, you hear it that way?" when he said that a description of a flat 2 chord as "dark" was incomprehensible.  I was all, "no, it totally sounds darker!"

                Took us a minute to sort that one out.

                If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

                by dirkster42 on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 04:17:21 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  Miserlou by Dick Dale and the Deltones. (5+ / 0-)

                  With a flat second.  One of my brothers, the one I live with, used to play keyboard for Dick Dale on the road.  

                  Dick Dale used to have a menagerie of tigers and other exotics at his ranch out in Riverside, too, he tells me.  Dick Dale also had an annoying habit of speaking of himself in third person, like he was a brand name.  "Get this straight:  When we're on stage, people are there to hear Dick Dale, not YOU!"

                  He was also an Arab-American, and Miserlou is derived from a traditional Lebanese belly-dancing song with that same flat second.

                •  Is there anything, Dirk, that you are not (2+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  pico, martyc35

                  good at? Musician, Theologian, all-around-good-guy? You never cease to amaze me, Dirk.

                  Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Ren and Stimpy: Dog on Cat equalitymaine.org

                  by commonmass on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 06:29:54 PM PST

                  [ Parent ]

      •  I reread your diary (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pico, martyc35

        again slowly. My only complaint is that people unfamiliar with Scriabin might be chased away with your recommendations. Surely people should start with the piano sonatas 2-4 and some of the famous etudes before moving on.

        I think I did fall in love with Scriabin by playing some of the early preludes. The etudes are really difficult for me.

        The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

        by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 09:01:14 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I am listening (9+ / 0-)

    to "Vers la flamme".

    The touch of Horowitz is so magnificent.

    Every note shines through.

    That is very interesting about Pasternak.

    Thanks for this diary.

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 07:42:03 PM PST

  •  Thanks for the diary (10+ / 0-)

    which is quite a tour de force in all the cultural info you've pulled together.  

    I must confess to appreciating the diary more than the music, though the diary is helping to shed new light toward the music.

    Don't know if that was your goal (?) but hope I didn't go too far afield.

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 07:45:16 PM PST

  •  When I learned about the Mysterium in (6+ / 0-)

    High School, I thought the concept was so cool.  

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 08:52:39 PM PST

    •  I hate to put it this way, but it's likely (9+ / 0-)

      we'd know nothing about the Mysterium if he hadn't died so young: based on his trajectory, he probably would have abandoned it and moved on to other projects.  

      If you want something really batty that actually was completed (not in full, because it was an ongoing project), check out Nikolai Obukhov's Book of Life.  I love this anecdote about it:

      Obukhov's wife was so exasperated with her husband's obsessive activity on the massive and peculiar piece that once she attempted to destroy the score by cutting it up. The composer caught her in time, carefully and reverently suturing its wounds, and adding drops of his own blood where he repaired the torn pages. He kept it in a "sacred corner" of their Paris apartment, in a shrine upon which he placed candles to burn day and night, along with religious icons.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 09:01:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I hear echoes of BOTH Debussy and Rachmaninoff's (6+ / 0-)

    Symphonic Dances in the "Poem of Ecstasy"

    In fact, I hear a LOT of the Rachmaninoff.

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White -6.00, -5.18

    by zenbassoon on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 09:01:51 PM PST

  •  This idea (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, Dumbo, commonmass
    Is music capable of bringing us to ecstasy? ... I don't mean just the state of pure pleasure, but something that transcends our senses, something if not spiritual than certainly not of our normal everyday perception.  Is music capable of sending us places that lies beyond other arts, into a purer state of being?
    both got me through and reinforced the closet, until it shattered at the end of my first year of college.  Musical ecstacy was a compensation for an absence of sexual ecstacy, but it became a kind of feedback loop.

    In general, I've found musical ecstasy is more about cultivating a state of mind than what a specific composer sets out to do.  Some composers are more prone to trigger the effect than others - Arvo Part's coming to mind - but so much has to do with the mood, or disposition, in which one either performs or listens to the music.

    I can't say I've ever experienced ecstasy while listening to Scriabin, though I like it quite a bit.  If you like Scriabin, and are looking for new sounds, I recommend Roslavets.

    I also envy your prose skills.

    If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

    by dirkster42 on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 11:01:32 PM PST

    •  Much appreciated. (5+ / 0-)

      For what it's worth I don't know if I come close to anything like a genuine spiritual experience with Scriabin, but the closest I get is the midpoint climax in his Sonata 10 (roughly 7:55-8:25 in this recording.)  Gawd, the sounds he draws from the piano!  I can feel my eyes rolling back in my head: if that's what ecstasy does, then it's doing it.

      I do like Roslavets quite a bit, too.  Of that generation of Russian composers, I'm especially drawn to Artur Lourié, and he has one of the strangest histories - he was an effete decadent who aligned with the gung-ho futurists and ended up an early Soviet official.   But a work like this in 1915?  That's crazy awesome.

      (I don't know who YouTube user Hexameron is, but he or she is my hero for posting so much difficult-to-find Russian modernist music.)

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 11:17:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Wow. (4+ / 0-)

        The look of that score - talk about bursting boundaries!

        If religion means a way of life, and life's necessities are food, clothing, and shelter, then we should not separate religion from economics. - Malcolm X

        by dirkster42 on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 11:23:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Indeed, many kudos and clicky-tips (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pico, commonmass

        are due Hexameron.  

      •  Really great diary. (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pico, ybruti, commonmass, Dumbo, SherwoodB

        I have always been a great Scriabin fan, naming one of my children after his daughter even.
        The first thing I heard was the Sonata #5 years ago. I play alot of his preludes on piano and love the way he deviates from Chopin at a much earlier age than people think.
        If I remember correctly, Scriabin got first place in piano and Rachmaninoff first in composition while they were school buddies. Scriabin also wrote 3 interesting symphonies that do not get enough attention.
        I think you have a clip of that graduate student doing Prometheus with the light show, that is fantastic.
        I have learned a few things from this diary, which is really something since I have many books about Scriabin's life myself.
        Thank you for this!!

        The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

        by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 10:27:08 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  What's curious to me is that (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          commonmass, Dumbo

          you can start hearing him break away from Chopin really early, but even in his late period works you can still here echoes of Chopin, as if there's some essence he never leaves behind.  More than anything else it's the Chopin mazurka that he keeps coming back to, however reimagined.  Something about Chopin's phrasing and rhythms.

          Glad to hear from a fellow Scriabinite!

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 11:45:44 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Funny thing is that (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            pico, martyc35

            my best friend was an organist and got me high for the first time. Once he played Scriabin's 5th sonata for me and I told him 'it cannot end that way'. I remember him laughing. I remember how puzzled I was over the ending and I was hooked to Scriabin from then on.
            I am a huge Glenn Gould fan and just discovered a recording of the 3rd Sonata. Amazing what Gould does with this piece, much slower than other pianists.
            Yes, even the early preludes show a movement away from Chopin's style. It seems like he wrote preludes all the time so they are a good indicator of what his thoughts are with harmony. The break between the 4th and 5th sonatas is alarming.
            There is something very deep in Scriabin, listening to some of the other Russian composers, I really feel something missing, some spark that Scriabin has that no one else does.
            If you ever find a recording of Mikhail Rudy playing late Scriabin piano, get it. I go to sleep with it a lot, listening to the late works in a half dream state is really something else.

            The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

            by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 08:34:40 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  I only rarely experience (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, dirkster42, commonmass, GustavMahler

      "ecstasy" when listening to music anymore, but I say that because I used to have very powerful experiences that I only later came to realize might have been spurred by being bipolar.  The prescription drugs I am on usually take most of the edge off of that.

      Can musically induced ecstasy be compensation for lack of sexual ecstasy?  Sort of like blind men who develop bat sonar hearing?  I suppose it may be that way for some people.  But when I was getting more lovin' than I knew what to do with, though, I still was getting a totally different experience from music than I was from sex.  

      I've tried to relate, a few times, now, how lonely music sometimes makes me feel -- not because it sounds lonely, but because it's so beautiful that I realize that there is no real possibility of sharing it.  Even if you were to meet somebody that said they liked this or that piece of music that sends you into ecstasy, you'd still be stuck in that classic Philosophy 101 conundrum of "Can you REALLY ever hear the same thing that I hear?"

      I first experienced that in the fifth grade (might have been third, but I'll say fifth) when I was listening to Bach's Little Fugue in G Minor for the first time at school.  I've talked about this and dwelled on it enough now to think maybe it was a pivotal moment in my life in some way.  It didn't make me want to become a musician or make me want to collect Bach records or anything like that.  What I remember most about it, more than how beautiful the Bach was, was the odd sense of awe and panic at the realization that nobody else could hear what I heard.  That's heavy stuff for a ten year old to process for the first time.  I'm still processing it.

      •  Yes I had the same thing (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pico

        happen with the Stokowski orchestration of the Passagaglia and Fugue, by the end I thought I would tear my hair out. I was the only piano major that hung out with the organ majors, I just wanted to hear Bach all the time.

        The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

        by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 08:37:07 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Magnificent diary. (4+ / 0-)

    A long awaited one, too!  We've bantered about Scriabin so many times in the comments of these Thursday diaries.

    My impressions overall of Scriabin, having listened again, just now to Poem of Ecstasy.

    If it seems difficult to get into at first, I think I understand why.  Imagine it as a tapestry.  At first, all you see is all that fabric, and it's all the same fabric.  In this case, it's these symmetrical scales and tritones that give it its nebulous and shifting tonality.  That in itself is interesting, but not interesting enough to seem to justify a long work.  That's the point at which a greater familiarity with it is required so you can actually see what Scriabin does with all that fabric-that's-all-the-same.  That's a much more difficult challenge for a first time listener.  

    (And all of this is true, as well, of much of Debussy's music).

    I have to admit I like it a lot more than his piano music.  The use of the orchestra lets single parts, like the trumpet blaring out the main "ecstasy" motif, stand out and get noticed above all the chromatic rumblings going on in the bass.

    Now... about Scriabin's sanity or lack thereof...  He was part of a movement that was itself a little bit crazy, and perhaps even a little crazier than the rest.  That leads us into the whole issue of the sanity or lack thereof of mass movements.  

    I don't meant to contaminate the discussion by using the example, but I'm going to use Jim Jones just because it's more clear cut.  People say Jim Jones was crazy.  He told nine hundred people to kill themselves and they did.  So he's crazy.  But THEY, those nine hundred, (with complicating details) killed themselves.  I have wondered before, if there hadn't been a thousand people at Jonestown -- maybe, instead, just forty -- that somebody would have said, "I have a better idea.  Let's NOT kill ourselves and tell everybody we DID.  That's what I'm going to do, later dudez, I gotta skedaddle!"  There seems to be some necessary critical mass factor for these things.  If there had been a lot more people at Jonestown, or a lot fewer people, I really think there wouldn't have been a mass-suicide.

    Social movements of the right size and shape can and do create their own realities.  The members reinforce each others beliefs with the result that people otherwise sane enough to function quite well in all other regards, except for that one thing, will believe, say, or do goofy things that they wouldn't by themselves.  

    Hearing about Scriabin and his fellow mystics, I'm struck by their similarities with other bohemian subcultures, like the Haight-Ashbury hippies.  People were doing a lot of weird shit back in the late sixties, early seventies, things that ten years later they must have looked back at and said, "It was the drugs," when it was the time and the place and the people reinforcing each other.

    Am I the only one who remembers the Harmonic Convergence?  OH!  God bless Wikipedia; it has everything.  It was in 1987, but it was a hilarious hangover event from the hippy days in its conception.  That's what I thought of when I read about the Mysterium.

    The Prefatory of the Mysterium is pretty cool.  It's more sophisticated music than Poem, although I still like Poem.  It's more accessible, especially with that cool trumpet part.

    •  Thank you so much, and that's a good point (4+ / 0-)

      on how it takes some time to know what to listen for.  I mentioned in a thread above that my first experience with Scriabin was negative; I actually had my breakthrough on piano first because it was easier to analyze the effects in the score and to really see what my ears were responding to.  

      The whole theosophic movement fascinates and repulses me - I'm too far on the side of the rationalist/empirical scale - but they created some great art, even if they seem crazy at times.  I'll stand behind Bely's Petersburg as quite possibly THE great Russian novel, but damn if its disjointed, poetic fragmentary prose doesn't seem as daunting and same-y as Scriabin's music, until something starts clicking, and the layers begin unpeeling, and the whole magnificent edifice becomes clear.  

      I think I was born in the wrong era, heh.

      Thanks again for letting me take the series for a spin.  This was a lot of fun.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 11:51:16 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  WE NEED A DIARIST FOR NEXT THURSDAY. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, commonmass

    Hopefully I'm going to be back in the saddle Thursday after next.  But we need a guest host diarist for Thursday March 1.  

    Any subject, any music is fair game.  All that I ask is that you coordinate with me so that we don't get two people posting diaries at once.

  •  My First Time (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, commonmass, Dumbo

    I remember being a student at Southern Illinois in the early '80s and attending a friend's recital in Shryock Auditorium... she was a piano / organ performance major; and one of the pieces she performed was one by Scriabin on the organ.  I remember just closing my eyes as the music filled the hall and letting it carry me away.  Fantastic!

    Thanks for the memory (I wish I could remember the piece now...)

  •  and here i thought (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, commonmass, Dumbo, SherwoodB

    this was going to be about the grateful dead.

    The cold passion for truth hunts in no pack. -Robinson Jeffers

    by Laurence Lewis on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 09:28:26 AM PST

  •  Really cool series (5+ / 0-)

    and really cool and thorough diary. Gotta love dkos for the vast and broad interests that people bring here.

    I hadn't seen any of these series before but will check them out! Sent this to my husband who graduated a composition major. :)

  •  Another one of my favorites (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, commonmass, Dumbo, SherwoodB

    Gee, you have good taste!

    I'm a bit surprised you didn't mention his piano concerto - it's astonishingly moving, and quite up there with the best (I also love Beethoven's fifth and Grieg's, but Scriabin, being less commonly heard, sounds fresher).

    Silvio Levy

  •  I am more of a Shosty and Prok guy (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, Dumbo, SherwoodB

    (of course part of my musical training was in Russia, so I guess I am somewhat biased) but I have always appreciated Scriabin. I'll admit: I don't play any. It's not my style. My fingers are better suited to Shosty and Prok, among others. As a pianist, I'm really a repetiteur--most specifically an accompanist of art-songs-- and otherwise a composer and organist and choral guy, but I do play some lit as a pianist in public from time to time. I'll listen to Scriabin, but have never really been moved to play any.

    That notwithstanding, this is an excellent diary. Just because I don't play any doesn't mean I don't appreciate it.

    Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Ren and Stimpy: Dog on Cat equalitymaine.org

    by commonmass on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 01:08:41 PM PST

    •  Get the complete (0+ / 0-)

      preludes and etudes from Dover and start with the preludes. I am sure you will have some favorites pretty soon. What could it hurt?

      The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

      by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 08:49:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dumbo, pico, SherwoodB, GustavMahler

    All of this was new to me and interesting, and I liked the music, which did not give me a headache. I think I will check out piano scores by Scriabin on one of the free websites and see if there is something a perpetually intermediate pianist like myself would enjoy. If not, it would still be fun to see what the score looks like.

    What I loved most here was watching Martina Filjak, and I was sidetracked for quite a while looking at other clips of her on YouTube.

    •  It could only be more entertaining (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico

      if she bounced a ball on a paddle with her other hand while playing.

    •  In that case you might have fun with (0+ / 0-)

      the prelude he wrote for the left hand: it's not as intimidating as the nocturne, but it'll still be a fun challenge.  Here's the score and video, and you can see that it's solidly intermediate.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 02:58:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  See in this nocturne, (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pico

        early Scriabin, simple, but has a longing, searching feeling that I just don't find in other composers. Compare with early Rachmaninoff works. Even the early simple preludes have this feeling that I don't hear in the early works of other composers. For me it is the 'thing' that makes Scriabin, Scriabin.

        The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

        by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 08:48:01 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Dover has a book of (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico

      Scriabin complete preludes and etudes for about $10. Best ten bucks you could ever spend, I have 3 copies around. You will find many of the early preludes you can play, you will not regret it.

      The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

      by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 08:40:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Your mileage may vary, but I found (0+ / 0-)

        Dover's "Mazurkas, Poemes, Impromptus and Other Pieces for Piano" a better gateway to his piano music.  It has the poèmes (op. 32!), the mazurkas, and a few of his more ambitious but not too intimidating longer works.

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 08:58:03 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Of course I have that too, (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          pico

          some of those pieces are too difficult for me, I am after all a violist!

          The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

          by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 09:05:53 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for this! (3+ / 0-)

    Sorry I got to it a little late. I'm completely unfamiliar with this stuff, but I have to confess I'm much more a fan of the Classical period, and a little of the Romantic, then I pretend nothing else happened after that in orchestral music besides a little Copeland... But I'll give this a try!

    -5.12, -5.23

    We are men of action; lies do not become us.

    by ER Doc on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 04:29:01 PM PST

  •  What a comprehensive and wonderful diary. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico, ybruti

    I love to open a tab and listen while I read. This series is a great way to learn about music, composers, and form in a way I just don't know how we would get it all so nicely put together.

    This is a marvelous excursion. Thank you and thank you all.

    Science is hell bent on consensus. Dr. Michael Crichton said “Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing to do with consensus... which is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right,”

    by Regina in a Sears Kit House on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 10:07:30 PM PST

  •  Did Scriabin write anything comprehensible? (0+ / 0-)

    I like organized music, this stuff is way out of control and too long.
    Some of Debussy is out of control but most isn't.
    Listening to Scriabin, I really miss Chopin's Etudes.

    •  Of course he did. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      enemy of the people, pico

      You just don't get it yet, it takes a little work.

      Try the 3rd movement of the 3rd piano sonata. This is his late, early style. Since the 3rd mvt. connects to the 4th mvt. without break, you will need to listen to the whole sonata because the 4th mvt contains themes from the 1st movement and.. do you get it?

      Scriabin has about 4 periods of music, early, late early, early late and late. Well there is a middle early and middle late too, but I digress...

      There are youtubes of famous pianists playing some of the famous etudes. Chopin and Scriabin are different composers. I love Chopin, but I love Scriabin too. For me, Scriabin is someone I do not fully understand, but I listen to it over and over hoping to discover its secret. The late Sonatas are a good example, I could spend a lifetime listening to them and marvel at the sound. What was he thinking? Music on 4 staves, just amazing composition.
      I could go on...

      I wish you luck in your musical journey.

      The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. - Elbert Hubbard -9.62/-8.15

      by GustavMahler on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 10:49:40 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Heh, funny you should say that, because (0+ / 0-)

      the typical criticism of Scriabin is that his music is too organized, that despite a really revolutionary way of thinking about harmony, he stuck to structures so conventional that he'd have been considered old hat a century before.  As one of the best writers on Russian music once said, "rarely has a Dionysian art ideal (wild, intoxicated) been pursued in so sophisticated an Apollonian (mathematical, sober) manner."

      Take the seemingly-wild "Vers la flamme" in the last video: it only has two melodies, and it doesn't really develop either, it just makes them louder and the accompaniment more agitated: the whole thing could be charted in a simple diagram.    The Poem of Ecstasy?  Three basic parts, nothing special in their organization.   The 5th sonata adds an extra melody to an otherwise (mostly) conventional sonata form.

      The reason they're hard to get into is that his notion of harmonic grammar is so unusual that it's like hearing someone speak a foreign language: it may sound like gibberish at first, but the grammar is every bit as straightforward, once you learn it.  In fact we see him getting stranger in the last year of his life because he seems to have realized that his unique system of harmony was a straightjacket - it's surprisingly constrained, and he'd written himself into a corner.  

      That being said, I'll second what GustavMahler says above, that his early works are easier to 'get' because their language is more recognizable.  You might like the preludes, of which Op. 2 No. 2 is the most popular.  The structure is very straightforward: it's in a simple rounded binary form, and Scriabin likes to repeat his main theme in the dominant before moving to the B section.  (Incidentally, he keeps this kind of structure throughout his career, although he eventually trades the perfect fifth for the tritone, and that's one of the things about his late music that sound 'jarring'.  But the structure stays the same.)

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 12:50:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you. I am about half way through, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pico

    have bookmarked it, and will pick up again tomorrow. Stirring.

    W. H. Auden: "We must love one another or die."

    by martyc35 on Fri Feb 24, 2012 at 11:48:52 PM PST

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