I am an instant illuminating eternity
I am affirmation.
I am Ecstasy.
Scriabin, excerpt from the Poem of Ecstasy
Are you a pianist looking for a new piece to practice? Are you a musician who wants to learn more about classical repertoire? Or are you a music lover interested in piano music? Let me tell you a little story, and you will discover a piece which is not very often played.
Sometimes something special happens between a musician and a piece of music.
Sometimes the sense of connection a musician feels is difficult to explain.
Sometimes it is even harder to describe exactly why a musician deeply loves a certain composition.
Sometimes it is not a question of analysis, comprehension, depth, passion, history or musicology.
Sometimes a piece, although not often played, or not generally considered a masterpiece, can have a special place in the heart of a particular musician.
And this is the case with Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata N°1 in F minor (opus 6) and myself.
Scriabin is best known for his later compositions, and his early works are rarely performed on the world stage. His Piano Concerto (opus 20), for example, is not generally programmed in the final round of international competitions, and not often played in classical hall concert series. The Sonata N°1 is hardly ever performed, the Sonata N°2 (opus 19), however, has always been popular and is quite often played by pianists today.
Scriabin was extremely sensitive to Nature, and its shades and atmospheres found their way into his music. His affinity with the natural world and the importance to him of colour is evident in these words he wrote after a visit to Latvia and the sea :
“Everything glowed with magnificent majesty on the horizon. First a clear purple, then it turned rose-coloured, and finally silvery flecks stained the surface of the sea…. The green of the sea blended with the blue reflection of the sky. There was such a play of colours and shades as I’ve never seen. It was a picture, a triumph of colours, a festival of truth.” 1
Synesthesia, a condition where the stimulation of one of the senses has an effect on another, was to influence Scriabin later on. He came to associate a particular colour with a particular musical key, and developed a whole system of colours that he used in the music of his mature period.
In the first decade of his published music, pieces called “Mazurka”, “Waltz”, “Nocturne”, (even one “Polonaise”) are strongly reminiscent of Frederic Chopin. He admired Chopin and his forms, his long, singing lines, his freedom and deep expression, all of which can be heard in Scriabin’s own music. He accepted the comparison of his music to Chopin’s, while defending his own musical identity :
“What if my music does sound like Chopin? It’s not stolen, it’s mine…” 2
His Sonata N°1 was written at the age of 21. At this time Scriabin was struggling with a physical problem : he had over-practised some technical passages in Liszt’s virtuosic Don Juan Fantasy, and damaged his right hand. The doctors were of the opinion that he would no longer be able to play the piano. This was catastrophic for the young composer, and he was greatly saddened :
“ 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. I was expecting revelations from Heaven but they did not come…” 3
One can imagine how awful it must have been for him to feel restricted physically in the sounds he could produce, restricted in what he could express, when he could feel his soul bursting with emotion. During the same period he wrote a Prelude and Nocturne for the left hand (opus 9). Luckily for him, he did eventually recover and was able to play again. However he only performed his Sonata N°1 once in public, even after he recovered, maybe because he associated it with the difficult time of his disabled hand.
Background information such as this can help to better understand the Sonata. The fact that Scriabin’s right hand was limited explains the density and technical difficulty of the writing for the left hand. The rhythmical patterns are often tricky and complicated. The harmonies are not as complex as those he developed later, but his musical personality is already evident. The left hand often has arpeggios, and sometimes takes over the melody from the right hand. The right hand does not have fast, virtuosic lines, but singing melodies and free phrases. The Sonata is deeply expressive, intense, and generally serious in tone. In spite of Scriabin’s young age and consequent limited life experience, there is a perceptible sense of despair and hopelessness. The heavy mood of the last movement “Funebre” could apply to any tragedy.
The Sonata is in four movements : Allegro con fuoco – Adagio – Presto- Funebre. The last two are connected, as the Presto ends with a dominant chord that prepares the tonic at the beginning of the Funebre, and some editions present the work in three movements. The beginning of the first movement is very agitated, giving a tremendous feeling of torment. There are two main themes and the second one is more nostalgic, more meditative. The movement is in classical sonata form and in the recapitulation the second theme is played in octaves in the right hand. The second movement, Adagio, is a long, very slow melody with mysterious harmonies. In the second part of this movement the melody is repeated, with the variation of a rippling accompaniment in the left hand.
The Presto has crazy triplets in the left hand, a technically difficult obsessional motion of great intensity. There is an A-B-A form and the B-theme is more melancholic and cantabile. A short lento transition announces the final movement, which can be compared to the funeral march of Chopin’s second Sonata. There is a very magical, enigmatic moment in Scriabin’s Funebre. In the middle of the movement at the indication “Quasi niente” series of chords rise and hover, time is suspended, the atmosphere is other-worldly. It is difficult not to think of the sentence quoted above:
“I was expecting revelations from Heaven but they did not come.”
I think that we pianists often practice pieces that are ”useful” : useful to play in competitions, or useful in building an interesting and marketable piano recital. Music that people already know is easier to program, it is true, but this inhibits the discovery of lesser-known jewels and treasures a composer may have written. Of course everyone experiences music differently, and opinions and tastes vary. Personally, I feel almost a sense of mission to perform pieces with which the audience may not be familiar, especially when I love that music. And this can be very rewarding. For example when I played the first Sonata of Prokofiev (opus 1) in F minor, also not very well known, I was surprised and delighted how much people enjoyed discovering the piece, and how certain preconceived ideas about this Sonata that is “never played” were changed.
Hopefully Scriabin’s first Sonata will be played by the new generation, and if you are a pianist reading this short article, I hope that you will want to discover the pleasure of having it at your fingertips.
Written by Fanny Monnet – 2020
1 Scriabin, A Biography by Faubion Bowers
2 Scriabin, A Biography op.cit.
3 Scriabin’s notebook