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ClassicsOnline Home » SCRIABIN: Symphony No. 3 / Le Poeme de l'extase (Piano Transcriptions)
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Symphony No.3, Op. 43, "The Divine Poem"; Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54
Transcriptions for piano by Lev Konyus (Léo Conus) (1871-1944)
The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin is an isolated figure, eventually separated from the mainstream of Russian music by his own peculiar brand of mysticism, in which he saw himself in a Messianic light. Nevertheless his quest for a means of bringing together colour and music, the visual and the aural, technically impossible with the means at his disposal, has now been to some extent realised, while his harmonic and melodic innovations took place at a time when others too were seeking new means of musical expression. His relatively early death led to a subsequent under valuation of his achievement, which itself in some ways foreshadowed important subsequent changes in Western music.
Scriabin was born in Moscow in 1872, the son of a lawyer, who, after lack of success in his chosen profession, entered the Russian consular service, and of a mother who was a gifted musician, a pupil of Leschetizky. After his mother's death and his father's decision to serve abroad and to remarry, Scriabin spent his childhood in the care of his paternal grandmother and of an unmarried aunt who pandered to his every whim and was able to encourage his obvious interest in the piano and in music. Following an uncle's example and that of his father's family, Scriabin joined the Moscow Military Academy, excused, for reasons of health, any participation in more rigorous training. Meanwhile he studied the piano with Georgy Konyus, then a Conservatory student, following this with lessons from Rachmaninov's strict teacher, Zverev, and participation in Safonov's piano class at the Conservatory, theory lessons from Sergey Taneyev and lessons in counterpoint and fugue with Arensky. Completion of his studies at the Military Academy in 1889 allowed him to pay exclusive attention to music, graduating as a pianist at the Conservatory in 1892, when he took second prize to Rachmaninov's first. He found formal instruction in the techniques of composition uncongenial, but was skilled at improvisation, modelling his style here on that of his adored Chopin.
After somewhat reluctant publication of earlier compositions by Jurgenson, Scriabin found enthusiastic support in Belyayev, who published his work and promoted his concert appearances. In 1897 he married a young pianist, Vera Ivanovna Isakovich, in spite of his aunt Lyubov's attempts to discourage a match of this kind, It was again with the help of Safonov, who had arranged for the first performance of his Piano Concerto, that in 1898 Scriabin found employment as a member of the teaching staff of Moscow Conservatory. The next five years were spent in Moscow, until, in 1904, the help of a rich pupil enabled him, like Tchaikovsky before him, to resign from the Conservatory. Now increasingly influenced first by Nietzsche and then by Madame Blavatsky and theosophy, he settled for a time in Switzerland, where he wrote his Third Symphony, Le divin poème, first performed in Paris early in 1905. Scriabin was now accompanied by a former pupil, Tatyana Fyodorovna Schloezer, a niece of Paul Schloezer, who taught the piano at the Conservatory, and his wife Vera was finally able to return to Moscow with their children. Belyayev himself had died in 1904 and a reduction and
as a symphony, breaks away entirely from the traditional organization of such works. Instead there are three movements, extravagantly scored and of considerable length. The work opens with a Prologue that in sixteen bars includes three leading motifs, Divine Grandeur, Summons to Man and Fear to approach, suggesting Flight. The Allegro, Struggles, presents the conflict between Man-God and Slave-Man in a sonata form movement in which these contrary elements win their way to freedom as the spirit soars.
The slow movement, Delights or Sensual Pleasures, has a subject related to the second subject of the first movement, intensifying in passion moving towards a motif suggesting Divine Aspiration. The first subject of the last movement, Divine Play or Divine Activities, includes an element of the opening of the work and there is a second subject marked avec ravissement et transport, the so-called Ego theme. The detailed directions on the original score make the symbolism of the work clear, but it is possible, as always, to hear The Divine Poem as pure music. The four-hand piano arrangement by Lev Konyus was made while Scriabin's long-suffering wife busied herself with copying the score. The transcription became a matter of concern to Scriabin in 1906 when he needed copies of it and of the full score to show to conductors in Holland and Belgium, only to learn that the work on which Konyus had spent five months had apparently been lost in the post between Russia and the publishers in Leipzig. The transcription, however, exists and has evoked considerable admiration. It also provided the young Prokofiev in 1909 with a source of interest, as he played through it without the help of a second pianist.
Scriabin had involved himself in the matter of Safonov's dismissal of Georgy Konyus from the staff of the Moscow Conservatory in 1899. Although he presented an impartial view of the quarrel to Belyayev, Taneyev, who supported Konyus and was always an opponent of the conservative Safonov, claimed that Scriabin had sided with the latter. Georgy Konyus, however, established an important position for himself in the musical life of Moscow and from 1920 to 1929 was Dean of the Faculty of Composition at the Conservatory. Descended from a French family of musicians that had settled in Russia during the Napoleonic wars, Georgy was the eldest of four brothers, the violinist and composer Yuli (Julien), whose violin concerto remains in present repertoire, the pianist Lev (Léo) and Victor. Abroad the brothers reverted to the original French version of their names and family name, Conus.
It was left to Lev Konyus to intervene when Scriabin failed to complete a transcription for two pianos of The Poem of Ecstasy, a fourth symphony that occupied him intermittently from 1905 until 1908. Originally conceived as a Poème orgiaque, a work that was to be orgasmic as much as orgiastic, the music served as a counterpart to a poem, of which a full translation appears in the biography of Scriabin by the late Faubion Bowers. The work itself was first performed in New York in December 1908 and in St Petersburg the following January. Prokofiev, who was present at the latter performance, claimed that it was impossible to make the work out, adding, in a note to his friend Myaskovsky, that it gave him headaches.
The Poem of Ecstasy is in a single movement, broadly in sonata form, after an introduction in which two important motifs are announced, the first, heard almost at once, suggesting human striving for the ideal and the second, marked Lento, Soavemente, the so-called Ego Theme. The body of the movement, marked Allegro volando, states a first subject, the flight of the spirit. The slower second subject, marked carezzando, representing human love, is followed by a more emphatic third theme, summoning up the human will. The material is developed and returns in recapitulation in a mood of rising ecstasy culminating in the union of the male divine principle with the woman-world.
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