Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy

The Moscow-born Scriabin began his life with a military career, as had many members of his family, but his increasing interest in the arts led him to study at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his teachers in composition were Arensky and Taneyev, though it was as a pianist that he earned a degree in 1892. Two years later he made his debut as pianist in St. Petersburg, performing his own works; his early music pays homage to Chopin, Liszt, and others, but it also hints at harmonic experiments that were to come. In time, his compositional designs became more heavily chromatic and even grandiose: Around 1909 he began work on a multi-media piece to be performed in the Himalayan mountains, “a religious synthesis of all arts,” as he wrote, “that would herald the birth of a new world.”

Yet his compositions at this time were relatively grounded, and by the time of his Poem of Ecstasy (completed in 1908) he had begun to employ what he called his “mystic chord,” essentially a whole-tone aggregate that subverted a sense of tonal “pull” (but which actually sounded somewhat like the expressionist, late-Romantic works of Schoenberg and others). Originally conceived as his Fourth Symphony, the 20-minute, one-movement Poem was inspired by a 300-line verse the composer penned initially, whose sentiments are so flowery as to be virtually impenetrable: “When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity,” he wrote, “when it has exhausted completely its substance and its liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy shall arrive.”

From Scriabin’s writings one can derive at least a broad structure of three main sections: 1) the soul in the orgy of love, 2) the realization of a fantastic dream, and 3) the glory of his (Scriabin’s) own art. Beginning with a languid flute theme, energized by violin and wind soloists, the first section culminates in an explosion of strings and trumpets (Presque en délire, almost to deliriousness), at which point the trumpet declares an emphatic, near-heroic “principal” theme that forms the basic building-block for the second section (and to some extent is the basis of the rest of the piece). A solo clarinet introduces a Lento section of galloping strings and twittering flutes. The final Scherzando also opens with a clarinet solo, marked avec volupté, et plus et plus extatique (language intended perhaps to make clear the music’s sensuous—or sensual—nature), and concludes with a final statement of the theme and a blaze of C major.

—Paul Horsley