Length: c. 9 minutes
As Alexander Scriabin reached 31 years of age, many forces in his life were converging in such a way that he felt compelled to take a dramatically new path for his professional and artistic career. His publisher, the famous Mitrofan Belyayev (1836-1903), who had introduced many Russian composers to Western Europe, had been hounding Scriabin to start composing more pieces to make up for all the advance money that had already been meted out. Scriabin also was trying to earn enough money to move to Switzerland with his wife and family, with every intention of leaving them for another woman, whom he was also bringing along.
Inspired by the relevance of his music in the general fin de siècle shifting of aesthetics occurring in Western Europe, he used the summer of 1903 to chart new directions with a flurry of creative activity. Scriabin had long had an affinity with the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, but the dense and diffuse writings of Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophical movement inspired him to take a more mystical direction in his thinking. This inspired Scriabin to bring symbolically together all the forces of nature into one all-encompassing musical force that was striving to evolve ever higher toward the stars.
With his Sonata No. 4, Scriabin created his first piece of program music. He himself wrote a poem in French to closely accompany the music, which described in highly metaphorical language an obsessive fascination for the stars and the human longing to embrace them. Written in F-sharp major and in two movements, Andante and Prestissimo volando, the distinct melody used throughout is first stated in the right hand and distinguishes itself between half-step motion followed by a large leap upwards, symbolizing the longing toward the stars.
The Andante movement has often been analyzed as a theme and four short variations, ending with a peripatetic bridge section but without a clear break, leading directly into the second movement. In the seventh bar is a good example of Scriabin’s famous “mystic chord” (C-sharp, F-double-sharp, B, E-sharp, A-sharp, and D-sharp).
The second movement uses the theme from the first movement as its primary material, but also introduces a second and closing theme, forming the exposition to a standard sonata form. This sonata form plays out with a development, recapitulation, and extended coda, but the buildup of a thick texture of repeated chords and arpeggios makes for a large sonic accompaniment that almost deliberately buries the identity of the themes.