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Composed: 1909-10

Length: 24 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, chimes, cymbals, tam tam, triangle), 2 harps, organ, strings, color organ, and solo piano

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 8, 1935, Pierre Monteux conducting

About this Piece

Like his good friend Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin (1875-1915) won a Gold Medal for his piano-playing upon graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 and embarked on the career of a young virtuoso, playing recitals throughout Europe. His own early music was much in the manner of his idol Chopin. But in the first years of the new century Scriabin transformed his life. He left his wife and children and ran off with a young music student. And–under the spell of Nietzsche, Madame Blavatsky, and theosophism–he came to believe that his music had to power to bring mystical unity to a fragmented world. Scriabin’s extraordinary egocentrism (he had been raised by adoring aunts and a grandmother) and the fact that on the old-style calendar his birthday fell on Christmas Day contributed to his sense of Messianic mission. He began to create a visionary music suited to this mission, one based on single-movement forms, chromatic harmonies, and daring ideas about its presentation.

Scriabin laid out a sequence of four symphonic works that he believed would lead to the transformation of human consciousness: The Divine Poem (1905); The Poem of Ecstasy (1908); Prometheus, The Poem of Fire (1909-1910); and Mysterium, planned but not yet written when Scriabin died at 43 of a massive infection. Mysterium, the culmination of the sequence, was to bring about the actual transformation. Scriabin envisioned a performance in India in which the audience and performers would be garbed in white, all the arts–including “the art of perfume”–would be fused, and in the course of the performance mankind would be elevated to a state of ecstatic consciousness.

Prometheus, first performed in Moscow on March 2, 1911, with Scriabin as piano soloist and Koussevitsky conducting, forms a distinct chapter in this progression. Across its twenty-minute span, Scriabin attempts to depict nothing less than the development of human consciousness, from primordial formlessness through man’s emerging self-awareness to a final ecstatic union with the cosmos. In Greek mythology (and in Aeschylus and Shelley), Prometheus had been a rebel who battled the gods on behalf of man, but Scriabin saw in Prometheus’ fire the symbol of human consciousness and creative energy. He attempted to depict this musically in his “Poem of Fire,” and he envisioned not simply a “symphony of sound” but a “symphony of color rays.” Toward this end he conceived a new instrument–the tastiera per luce, or “color-keyboard”–that would project light of different colors on a screen behind the orchestra, reproducing visually what the orchestra was dramatizing in sound. It was a visionary conception and one of the earliest early multi-media events (Scriabin would have liked Fantasia a great deal more than Mussorgsky).

Scriabin never saw a performance with light (the premiere was simply as an orchestral piece), nor did there exist an instrument that could produce the light display that he envisioned. In fact, Scriabin’s ideas about the correspondences between particular colors and tones (or ideas) were never developed in a systematic way, and those who create the light display at performances of Prometheus must create their own theory of light and its relation to this music.

Scriabin scores Prometheus for a huge orchestra that includes an important part for the solo piano, but this is not a concerto–the piano is simply one of the characters in the unfolding drama of enlightenment. The music itself begins in ambiguity with what Scriabin called “the mystical chord,” a slightly-discordant assemblage of fourths. Out of this soft tonal smear, marked “smoky” in the score, distinct musical forces begin to emerge. French horns intone a phrase depicting what one Scriabin scholar has called the “crepuscular, invertebrate state of Karma-less humanity,” a trumpet call represents the creative will, the piano symbolizes man, and a gentle flute melody is the dawn of human consciousness; later the solo violin will be associated with human love. Many of the themes are built on an upward sweep, symbolic of man’s aspiring, yearning grasp for consciousness.

Musically, Prometheus may be described as a gradual crescendo and accelerando that moves from a quiet Lento beginning to a thunderous Prestissimo close. Scriabin covers the score with subjective instructions for the performers. No audience can be aware of these, of course, but they reveal the essence of this musical journey to its creator. A sampling: voluptuous, almost with pain, with delight, with intense desire, with emotion and rapture, with restrained terror, defiantly, stormy, with radiant brilliance, piercing like a scream, suddenly very sweet, victorious, with blinding brilliance, in a whirl.

Such a progression clearly has an erotic component, and that was very much a part of Scriabin’s ecstatic vision. At the climax (that word is used advisedly), an optional chorus enters singing only vowel sounds, the color organ generates an overpowering radiance, and the orchestra rushes Prometheus to its orgiastic fulfillment on a harmonically unambiguous (and very loud) F-sharp-major chord.