SCRIABIN:
THE POEM OF ECSTASY

Le Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy), Opus 54

ALEXANDER NIKOLAIEVICH SCRIABIN
BORN: January 6, 1872. Moscow, Russia
DIED: April 27, 1915.  Moscow

COMPOSED: He began The Poem of Ecstasy, a symphonic poem sometimes referred to as his Symphony No. 4, in June 1905 (when he commenced a ten-month residency at a villa in Bogliasco, near Genoa, Italy) and finished it in the spring of 1907 in Paris, France; he revised the orchestration later that summer in Lausanne

WORLD PREMIERE: December 10, 1908. Modest Altschuler conducted the Russian Symphony Society, in New York. (The world premiere had been scheduled for February 29, 1908, in Saint Petersburg, but the program was changed, ostensibly because the parts had not arrived on time.)

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1925. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2009. David Robertson conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, small bells (small and large), 2 harps, celesta, organ (or harmonium if necessary), and strings

DURATION: About 22 mins

THE BACKSTORY  The operative word here is “ecstasy.” It comes as no surprise to recall that, at least in the United States, the music of Scriabin ascended to new-found popularity in the 1960s and early ’70s, swept to public consciousness on a tide of hallucinogenic drugs. “Scriabin’s music sounds like I think—sometimes,” Henry Miller had written in his 1945 book Nexus. “Has that faroff cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air. . . . It was like a bath of ice; cocaine, and rainbows.”

Scriabin was not the first example of a rebel issuing from an aristocratic family. His father was a lawyer in the Russian consular service (a profession considered déclassé by the more conservative members of the family), and his mother was an accomplished pianist, a pupil of Theodore Leschetizky at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Alexander was an only child, and he lost his mother to tuberculosis shortly after his first birthday. Since his father was usually away on assignment to some foreign country (most often Turkey), the boy was raised by his grandmother, aunt, and great-aunt, who apparently coddled him terribly.

Scriabin’s early compositions were mostly piano pieces building on the tradition of Chopin. In 1899, a year after he was named to the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, he produced his First Symphony. Another followed in 1902 and a third (titled The Divine Poem) in 1904. By that time Scriabin had become enamored of philosophy—at first the writings of Nietzsche but soon more metaphysical explorations and, especially, theosophy. “To be regarded merely as a musician,” he told his friend Leonid Sabaniev, “would be the worst fate that could befall me. It would be terrible to remain nothing more than a composer of sonatas and symphonies.” He 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 work we hear at these concerts but also his Piano Sonata No. 5: “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! . . .”

Shortly after writing The Poem of Ecstasy, Scriabin would embark on the harmonic and pan-artistic explorations that both earned him a cult following and marginalized his position relative to the musical mainstream. His piano piece Désir (Opus 57), a 1908 score that followed on the heels of The Poem of Ecstasy, marked his arrival at the brink of atonality. In his Piano Sonata No. 7 (1913), Scriabin expanded his harmonic writing to encompass a fundamental chord of twenty-five notes (actually a five-note chord repeated over the span of five octaves), which he viewed as an audible realization of a religious vision. When Scriabin died in 1915 (of blood poisoning resulting from an abscess on his lip), he was working on a sacred theater piece that he hoped to produce in the Himalayas over the span of seven days and seven nights as “the act of union between the Male-Creator and the Woman-World.” This Mysterium, as he planned to title it, was to integrate all the arts and was supposed to prove a transforming event not just for the composer, performers, and audience, but for humanity. (Alexander Nemtin’s realization of its three-hours-plus Prologue was unveiled in 1973.)

The Poem of Ecstasy is tamer stuff, but still not tame. It requires an orchestra of large proportions and surges through its twenty-minute span with a rarely relenting sense of extended yearning, seemingly sprung from the aching loins of Tristan and Isolde, and culminating in a transcendent release of delayed gratification.

THE MUSIC  The piece begins slowly and quietly—Scriabin urges the solo flute and violin to play the opening motif “languidly, with longing.” As the tempo and instrumentation increase, the composer’s markings continue to be precisely expressive: “with a noble, sweet majesty,” “ever-increasing drunkenness,”  “almost deliriously,” “with a noble and joyous feeling,” “with ever more ecstatic voluptuousness.” Scriabin’s language is all his own, but listeners are likely to glimpse remembered sounds from the orchestral writing of Liszt, Wagner, and Franck, as well as from Scriabin’s contemporaries Debussy and Delius (the former’s Ibéria and the latter’s Songs of Sunset were premiered the same year as The Poem of Ecstasy); and some may perceive occasional adumbrations of Messiaen. Commentators have pointed out that the movement is cast in a sonata-allegro structure with the edges of its subdivisions blurred, but I wonder if in this case the listener might best approach it instead as a constantly unfolding rhapsodic effusion of leitmotifs, titillating textures, and exorbitantly rich colors. “When you listen to Ecstasy,” Scriabin told his friend Ivan Lipaev, “look straight into the eye of the sun!”

It was a bit much for some of the contemporary critics, although quite a lot of “normal” listeners fell under the work’s peculiar spell, and especially in Russia The Poem of Ecstasy attracted a legion of fanatical partisans. In a 1919 interview printed in Musical America, the English conductor Albert Coates, who was then directing the Imperial Court Opera in Petrograd (the renamed Saint Petersburg), reported that the proletariat went wild when he conducted the piece and that working-class people besieged him constantly “to get up another concert and conduct Poème d’Extase, they wanted so much to hear it.” Scriabin’s ultra-Romantic stance—the Composer-as-Visionary—began to sit uneasily as the Soviet system settled in, and in 1931 Dmitri Shostakovich condemned Scriabin’s style for its “unhealthy eroticism” and its “mysticism, passivity, and a flight from the reality of life”—though, of course, his assessment must be considered in light of the stringently enforced political correctness of his time.

Eventually Scriabin returned to a place of honor among Russian composers, even before the Soviet era was out. When cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to circle the planet in outer space, on April 12, 1961, All-Union Soviet Radio beamed The Poem of Ecstasy into the universe as an emphatic and hopeful accompaniment. And when Gagarin, back on Earth, was greeted in a triumphant celebration in Red Square three days later, it was again the music of Scriabin that blared forth.

James M. Keller

Portions of this note appeared previously in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and are re-used with permission.

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC

Recordings: Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Theatre Orchestra (Philips)  |  Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI Seraphim)

ReadingScriabin: A Biography of the Russian Composer, 1871-1915, by Faubion Bowers (Dover)  |  The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers, by Faubion Bowers (St. Martin’s)  |  The Music of Alexander Scriabin, by James M. Baker (Yale University Press)  |  Scriabin: Artist and Mystic, by Boris de Schloezer (University of California Press)  | Defining Russia Musically, by Richard Taruskin (Princeton University Press) 

(June 2018)