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Postlude To A Kiss: Scriabin's Raging 'Poem Of Ecstasy'

Alexander Scriabin originally set out to write a piece called "Orgiastic Poem," centered on physical ecstasy, but later decided to alter the title to something more ambiguous. (Getty Images)

I love composer anniversaries because they afford us opportunities to look at musicians anew, and 2015 will mark the centenary of the death of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. It's quite possible that you've never heard of Scriabin, but take comfort in the fact that even his biographer said, "No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death."

Scriabin was born on Christmas Day in 1871 and died at the age of 43 in 1915. He was, first and foremost, a product of the incredibly fertile time in history encompassing his short life.

This upcoming anniversary year gives us a chance to explore Scriabin's music and examine his unique perspectives on life. He was an innovator and freethinker who heralded much of the avant-garde future to come, but in his own individual way.

He was born into an aristocratic Russian military family. While his youth was tinged with the loss of his mother and the absence of his father, Scriabin was well-read and privileged. He studied piano and composition alongside Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory but, even as a young man, his unorthodox approach to tradition and form set him apart.

While Scriabin's early works are reminiscent of Chopin, he soon moved on to break down the traditional tonal structure and experiment with new methods of organizing sound, with a particular emphasis on what is called the "mystic chord," a series of fourths — augmented, diminished and perfect fourths — that create a sense of suspension and break down the traditional tonal center.

Music was the highest art form and poetry was the highest literary form for Scriabin. His Poem of Ecstasy brings these two disciplines together with his own "Poem of Ecstasy" inspiring his music of the same title. But behind this lofty goal was a somewhat less lofty subject: sex.

Scriabin originally set out to write a poem he was calling "Orgiastic Poem," centered on physical ecstasy, but later decided to alter the title to something more ambiguous — which thankfully allowed his work to gain a more universal audience. His poem is 300 lines and his orchestral piece just over 20 minutes long, yet the theme of each is clear and singular. It is a theme of self-affirmation and self-fulfillment, built on the interval of the fourth. And while Scriabin's original version ended with the Nietzsche-inspired last line of "I am God," he changed it to a less controversial "I am" in his final version.

For Scriabin, music was much more than just notes and sound. Even in a Russia where mysticism, religious or occult in nature, was all-consuming, Scriabin stood out with his unique belief system — a mix of Hinduism, theosophy and Nietzsche. He began to see himself as a messianic figure and proclaimed that "the purpose of music is revelation."

Many people thought Scriabin was completely mad, but most acknowledged his genius. He saw musical tones as colors, a condition known as synesthesia, and he longed to connect all of the senses in his work — hearing, sight, taste and smell.

For some time before his death he planned a multimedia work to be performed in the Himalayas that would cause an Armageddon, "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald a new world." He would call the work Mysterium.

While that final work never materialized, Scriabin's music and worldview anticipated the coming avant-garde movement with surprising accuracy. Hearing this lush score and letting it overwhelm our senses is enough to let us appreciate his profound talent.

Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Alexander Scriabin was only 43 years old when he died in 1915. He was one of the geniuses of Russia on a scale with Tolstoy who called the composer a genius. But as a Scriabin biographer said, no one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death.

Well, next weekend the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will remind us of Scriabin's contribution to music when they perform his "Poem Of Ecstasy." The BSO's music director Marin Alsop joins us. Maestra, thanks so much for being with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: Before we hear a first note of music, tell us a little bit about this man. And why do you think we forget his contribution so easily?

ALSOP: Well, it's amazing that there can be this kind of genius that isn't on our radar at all anymore. And part of the issue is that he died he was 43 years old, as you said, so quite young. Most of the music he wrote was for piano. Only a handful or two hands full of orchestral works, which are formidable, but unlike someone like Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff, you know, his output was really restricted mostly to the piano. And I think probably most importantly, he was way ahead of his curve. You know, if you're two years ahead of the curve, it's a good thing. If you're 10 years ahead of the curve, not so good. Scriabin was so far ahead of the curve he didn't even see the curve coming.

SIMON: Let's listen to the opening of the work you'll be performing. And this is a recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Riccardo Muti.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE POEM OF ECSTASY")

SIMON: You hear this music now and almost have to remind yourself it was written around 1908.

ALSOP: Yeah. Can you imagine this is still five years away from Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring?" - which was so groundbreaking. Yet Scriabin, his musical language, his tonal language is already, you know, way past that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE POEM OF ECSTASY")

ALSOP: And you can hear the influence of the Impressionist movement. I mean, the orchestration's so lovely with the flute and the harp and the tremolos and the high strings. But underlying that, there's really no tonal center. It's not as though you hear it and you feel, oh, yes, I'm home. You're a little bit walking on eggshells, and that's part of this avant-garde approach he had to music. While it's quite beautiful, it's also a little bit unnerving.

SIMON: This was, I gather, going to be his fourth symphony. But it turned to this one-movement piece called "The Poem Of Ecstasy." Why "The Poem Of Ecstasy?"

ALSOP: Well, Scriabin really was looking at music more like a philosophy and a unifying force to life. And he wanted to create music that would bring together literature and spirituality and philosophy - everything. You know, he felt that music was a real revelation. And so he himself wrote a lengthy poem - 300 lines - ultimately called "The Poem Of Ecstasy." But as you read the poem, you realize that it's a little more base than that because essentially it's all sex. And originally he was even going to call it "The Orgiastic Poem." And it's quite a good choice he made, I think, to change the title of the poem because it then could have a much wider audience. I mean, at least people didn't exactly know what they are listening to.

SIMON: Well, let's listen to a particularly frolicsome section. I'll put it that way. But it's got a real bounce to it. Let's listen if we could.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE POEM OF ECSTASY")

ALSOP: It's really a very playful section. I mean, you can almost hear the little animals running after each other out in the forest or out in the fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE POEM OF ECSTASY")

ALSOP: You know, Scriabin - there's another interesting factoid about Scriabin. And he suffered from a condition called synesthesia where one hears a tone, one sees a certain color associated with that tone. And so he even created these color wheels that would go along with his pieces. So, you know, this is someone who is very, very much in touch with all of the senses when he's hearing music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE POEM OF ECSTASY")

ALSOP: You know, Scriabin was willing to look at music as the most abstract but also the most comprehensive art form. And so he takes chances that composers - other composers of his time really weren't equipped to take. So I think in many ways, much of the 20th century music to come owes some kind of a - sort of nod of the head at least or tip of the cap to Scriabin.

SIMON: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will play Scriabin's "Poem Of Ecstasy" next weekend and of course conducted by Marin Alsop. Maestra, thanks so much for being with us.

ALSOP: Great to be with you, Scott. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE POEM OF ECSTASY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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