Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) had tiny hands and immense vision. His dream of music was all-embracing, informed by mysticism, Eastern philosophy, Theosophy, Russian Silver Age poetry, light, color, and sensation, all expressed with erotically-charged harmony that edged towards atonality, exaggerated dynamics, and compacted formal structures.

Yet he had those tiny hands, and they loom large in his piano works, in particular the ten piano sonatas that span the length of his short career. As much as any piano composer in history, the very shape and presence of Scriabin’s hands can be felt in his piano scores, so much so that their formidable technical difficulties are best approached from a practical, physical point of view—i.e., what configuration or fingering did Scriabin have in mind when he wrote this? Once that’s solved, the passage in question is likely to become far less thorny.

The Piano Sonata No. 4, composed in 1903, the year of Scriabin’s move from Russia to Western Europe, the year also he abandoned his wife and four children for another woman, is the work in which Scriabin broke new ground as he moved from a conventionally Romantic manner, which he commanded splendidly, to his most individual self. Through many and rapidly changing emotional climes, the music makes its way to a conclusion Scriabin marks focosamente, giubiloso—fiery and jubilant.

Sometime around 1904, Scriabin began to jot down his flashes of inspiration in notebooks. In one volume he began to inscribe a seemingly endless poem, “The Poem of Ecstasy,” which would become the aesthetic basis not only for the massive tone poem of the same name but also his Piano Sonata No. 5, which followed closely in 1907:

The Spirit/Winged by the thirst for life,/Takes flight/On the heights of negation./There in the rays of his dream/Arises a magic world/Of marvelous images and feelings./The Spirit playing./The Spirit longing./The Spirit with fancy creating all,/ Surrenders himself to the bliss of love. /I call you to life, mysterious forces!/Drowned in the obscure depths/Of the creative spirit, timid/Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity! . . .

Those last stanzas were inscribed as an epigraph to the piano sonata, which embodies the harmonic and pan-artistic explorations that both earned Scriabin a cult following and marginalized his position relative to the musical mainstream.—From notes by JAMES M. KELLER, SCOTT FOGLESONG, MICHAEL STEINBERG, and STEVEN ZIEGLER