Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
realised by Alexander Nemtin
Ernst Senff Chor (Sigurd Brauns), St Petersburg Choir (Alexander Kazimirov)
CD 1 Nuances, Preparation For The Final Mistery Part I: Universe
CD 2 Preparation For The Final Mistery Part II: Mankind
CD 3 Preparation For The Final Mistery Part III: Transfiguration
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Alexander Scriabin - Towards The Mysterium
Scriabin died in 1915 at the age of forty-three, at the height of his phenomenal creativity. In his short life he progressed from being a brilliant young pianist with a gift for fluent and melodious piano pieces in the manner of Chopin to the summit of musical modernism. Despite the extraordinary explorations of Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Ives and others then unrecognised, Scriabin's name, often linked with that of Richard Strauss, was a byword for progressive thinking in music in the giddy years before World War One. To his admirers he seemed to be taking Wagner's concept of an all-consuming work of art to a yet higher level, drawing new dimensions of aesthetic and religious experience into his personal artistic vision. Art still aspired then to the highest goals; few questioned the notion that a grand cosmic vision was an ideal and not an absurdity.
What led him along this path? His upbringing, his personality, his environment and his genius. He was short, with small hands (the physical antipole of the lanky Rachmaninov, his friend and fellow student). He had been brought up in Moscow by an aunt and a grandmother who fussed endlessly over his every need and encouraged the fastidious egocentricity that marked his constant attitude to people and things around him. He was a brilliant pianist, and he enjoyed being admired and made a fuss of. He never refused the attentions of patrons and well-wishers. He was a thinker as well as a musician, and he read widely but selectively among the fashionable cosmic and Utopian philosophers of late-nineteenth-century Europe -Wagner and Nietzsche above all. He read the mystic musings of Solovyov and Blok with avidity; he absorbed the Symbolist poets, Vyacheslav Ivanov especially, and became the one musician among the galaxy of great musical talent in Russia to pursue a path of apocalyptic mysticism.
An increasing preoccupation with philosophical and mystical ideas was observed soon after the composition of the Second Symphony in 1902. The next symphony was significantly titled The Divine Poem, and at this time he abandoned both his teaching position at the Moscow Conservatory and his wife and four children, taking off for a long stay abroad with a young admirer, Tatyana Schloezer, who undoubtedly encouraged him to narrow his outlook ever more consumingly into an egocentric world where his own creativity and genius became his exclusive concern.
Tatyana's brother, Boris de Schloezer, later wrote a memoir that assessed Scriabin's thinking with considerable insight. For the composer was not erudite in the conventional sense, having been trained in a military academy, not a university. He was an ardent conversationalist who loved to discuss philosophy and had an unquenchable thirst for metaphysical issues of all kinds.
He became convinced that he was destined to perform a Messianic role as a creative artist. He took little interest in the past, and less in the present insofar as it did not concern himself. His reasoning did not proceed from premises to conclusions, but simply by intuition towards a future consummation along whatever path he needed to take to arrive there. Various Utopian systems appealed to him in passing, including Marxism (although he could never accept its lack of a spiritual goal), but he found his true calling in Theosophy, a doctrinal system formulated by Madame Blavatsky, whose work he first encountered in Paris in 1906. Helena Blavatsky had founded the Russian Theosophical Society in 1875 with the aim of founding a world religion and a universal brotherhood, but Scriabin became acquainted with her teaching in French translation, and it was the Belgian Theosophical Society that he joined. As usual, Scriabin subscribed to those parts of the teaching that matched his own aspirations, in particular the belief in the immanence of the divine essence, the oneness of all creative acts, and the mystic potency of life and matter. He also felt the lure of Eastern mystical beliefs.
He had already formulated, albeit loosely, the idea of the Mysterium (or "Final Mystery"), which probably dates from around 1903. It gradually came to absorb a multitude of philosophical and religious obsessions: the Scriptures, the philosophies of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Mme Blavatsky. The plan was to travel to India and there build a great temple for the production of the Mysterium, a mixture of rite and drama which was to last for seven days and seven nights and transform the human race. He had little concern for the practicalities of all this, and in fact we have little information about how this all-consuming work was to proceed. It was so grandiose that Scriabin at least recognised it could not be undertaken lightly. And like Wagner's realisation that his opera Siegfrieds Tod would need some preliminary dramas to explain it fully, he decided to compose a Preparation (or "Preliminary Action") which would prepare his cosmic audience for the Mysterium, now postponed for the distant future. Only this Preparation survives, and that only in a very sketchy form, for although he worked out a poetic text more than a thousand lines long, the music exists only as fifty-three pages of sketches.
Of the Mysterium's performing forces he told a friend: "There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textual articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours".
The quest for oneness, an essential aspect of his thinking, drew a multitude of aesthetic experiences into a single all-consuming focus: sound, poetry, smell, touch, ambience, drama and action. It also placed his own role as creator and performer at the very centre of attention. His last orchestral work, Prometheus, contains a part for "light keyboard" and requires a solo pianist, organ and wordless chorus. The Mysterium was to go yet further toward an all-embracing experience, not simply artistic in nature but involving the whole being of every participant. He worked intensively on the Preparation in the years 1912-13 and even made plans for a journey to India in the winter of 1914. War put an end to that part of the scheme, and the calamity of his early death in 1915 from a septic carbuncle on his upper lip closed a chapter that was perhaps always beyond human reach. At the end of his life the Mysterium became a phantom in his mind that never came closer to realisation, while the Preparation was a more practical version but still scarcely within the range of earthly planning and creation.
The sketches reveal Scriabin moving towards a new musical language even more advanced than that of his final works. There are, for example, a number of twelve-note chords, employing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in vertical alignment. The music itself cannot simply be adduced from these slender suggestions, but they did inspire one of Scriabin's Soviet disciples to re-create the Preparation in a truly imaginative fashion. Alexander Nemtin immersed himself thoroughly in Scriabin's style and creative processes and devoted twenty-six years of his life to reconstructing a massive three-hour work for orchestra and chorus in three parts. The first part, "Universe", was completed in 1972; the second, entitled "Mankind", was composed in the years 1976-80, and the third part, "Transfiguration", was finished in 1996.
Nemtin's reconstructions faithfully reflect the overflowing richness, the complex orchestration and seething energy of Scriabin's late style. The harmonic language is the intricate chromaticism that Scriabin's most advanced contemporaries (Schoenberg, Berg, Ives, Ravel) were exploring at the end of Scriabin's life. There is a part for organ, and the solo piano plays a leading role, as it had in Prometheus. A wordless chorus is heard in many parts of the work, and a wordless soprano sometimes soars above the chorus. A part for "light keyboard" is specified. The music is restless and impulsive, veering from intense forcefulness to dreamy inactivity, although no mood is allowed to settle for long. The climaxes are stratospheric, the colours kaleidoscopic.
There are many contradictions in Scriabin's work. It is our good fortune that, while he was dreaming of this unattainable, all-embracing apocalyptic music, he continued to compose works of relatively modest scale both for the piano and for orchestra. The two orchestral works of this period, The Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus, the Poem of Fire (1910), are for large orchestra, it is true, and they carry an overwhelming emotional impact, yet they are not long and are not burdened with explicit doctrinal messages. Scriabin was also writing his last five piano sonatas, works of concentrated beauty, each sharply characterised, in which intense musical thought is embodied in single-movement form. In these works and in his late preludes, Scriabin seems to be in complete command of the process of creation from the first idea to the final polished score. With the Mysterium, on the other hand, the cosmogony and the theosophy seem to have impeded the disciplined process that might have brought the work to birth.
The question of whether he knew that the Mysterium was essentially unachievable or not will continue to haunt us. We therefore owe Alexander Nemtin a great debt of gratitude for bringing these tenuous sketches to life and for re-creating a truly Scriabinesque experience.
Hugh Macdonald, a world authority on Berlioz and Scriabin, is on the faculty of Washington University, St Louis, USA.