When Alexander Scriabin set out to write his fourth symphony, he was deeply immersed in the Theosophical movement that had entranced the Russian aristocracy throughout the Gilded Age. With messianic occultist and spirit medium Helena Blavatsky as its guiding force, the esoteric movement was — in her words — the “synthesis of science, philosophy and religion,” a seeking to revive “Ancient Wisdom” that had been forgotten or deliberately erased over the centuries.
Scriabin had always embraced the exotic and occult with missionary zeal. From Theosophy to Buddhism to Hinduism to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer, no philosophy was too avant garde for his taste (if “Ancient Wisdom” can be even considered avant garde). Naturally, his internal life drove his artistic life. His compositional development is a swift departure from traditional approaches during his early years to ever more mystic and symbolic expression (for a measure of just how far a departure, consider that he and Rachmaninoff had been students together at the Moscow Conservatory).
This mysticism, this hothouse of occultism, supernaturalism, narcissism and seeming madness, mixed with Scriabin’s dominating compositional genius, is articulated in full form in his fourth symphony, The Poem of Ecstasy (which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under Riccardo Muti, will perform June 11-13).
While the title itself may seem a touch risqué, the work began life as “Orgiastic Poem.” The change was not out of deference to audience sensibilities; he struggled with the concept itself. Still, there is no way of avoiding the piece’s overtly sexual impulses. Is there a more vivid depiction of orgasmic climax in the literature?
But to leave it at that would be to cheat ourselves out of a full understanding of Scriabin’s intentions. This is, if you will, a sacred orgy (although with a decidedly different philosophical foundation than Messiaen’s vision of sexual expression in his Turangalila symphonie, heard earlier this season). This is sex as the generative power behind the entirety of the cosmos, the pulse of life. As he said in his own program notes for the work’s premiere:
“The Poem of Ecstasy is the Joy of Liberated Action. … The stronger the pulse beat of life and the more rapid the precipitation of rhythms, the more clearly the awareness comes to the Spirit that it is consubstantial with creativity itself. When the Spirit has attained the supreme culmination of its activity and has been torn away from the embraces of teleology and relativity, when it has exhausted completely its substance and liberated active energy, the Time of Ecstasy will arrive.”
Purple prose aside, Scriabin sees this composition as a limnal experience, a doorway through which we may lose ourselves. Like a sexual experience, this music (as envisioned by Scriabin) allows us a moment to silence the internal chatter and become immersed in something larger than our egoistic concerns. Beyond our traditional, everyday routines lies the promise of ecstatic transformation. The unspoken voyage: from the delirium of love through the exaltation of art as a medium for personal alchemy.
Very well, but how?
Much of the work’s effectiveness relies on the infamous “mystic chord.” In technical terms, the chord is a “quartal hexachord consisting of an augmented fourth, diminished fourth, augmented fourth, and two perfect fourths.” In plain English, the chord provides a departure point from which harmony does not push us toward a home key, in which we are immersed in ambiguity, tension, and suspense. The tonal center is perpetually elusive.
In this disorienting world, we encounter sensuality, voluptuousness. The score directs the orchestra to play, at various times, “with a sensual pleasure ever more ecstatic,” “as if enchanted,” “almost deliriously.”
Obviously, Scriabin had otherworldly ambitions for his work. The complete spiritual transformation of everyone who hears it? Let’s just say it’s an aspirational goal, and leave it at that. But one does not have to be driven to re-evaluate the cosmos in order to feel the work’s raw energy and power. The author Henry Miller, who knew a little about sensuality, found himself transfixed by the Poem, and left us quite a vibrant description of the work’s enduring allure:
“Put it on loud. … It has that far-off cosmic itch. Divinely fouled up. All fire and air. The first time I heard it, I played it over and over. It was like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows.”
Peter Lefevre, based in California, covers opera and classical music for the Orange County Register and Opera News.
TOP: Detail from the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52), by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, at the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.