Scriabin’s Premieres in Moscow

Aleksandr Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire represented an attempt to expand traditional tonal relationships and to blend music with other arts through the use of a keyboard that projected colored light.

Summary of Event

Aleksandr Scriabin’s Prométhée: Le Poème du feu (Prometheus: The Poem of Fire) received its premiere in Moscow on March 15, 1911, in a performance conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. The work was scored for immense resources, including not only a large orchestra but also an extensive obbligato piano solo (played by the composer), parts for organ and chorus, and especially the use of a “light keyboard” to project colored lights onto a screen. Unfortunately, this last instrument was not yet ready, and the premiere had to take place with only standard illumination. Prometheus (Scriabin)
Symphonic music
[kw]Scriabin’s Prometheus Premieres in Moscow (Mar. 15, 1911)[Scriabins Prometheus Premieres in Moscow (Mar. 15, 1911)]
[kw]Prometheus Premieres in Moscow, Scriabin’s (Mar. 15, 1911)
[kw]Moscow, Scriabin’s Prometheus Premieres in (Mar. 15, 1911)
Prometheus (Scriabin)
Symphonic music
[g]Russia;Mar. 15, 1911: Scriabin’s Prometheus Premieres in Moscow[02750]
[c]Music;Mar. 15, 1911: Scriabin’s Prometheus Premieres in Moscow[02750]
Scriabin, Aleksandr
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna

The “mystic chord” that underlies the work (consisting of the pitches C, F-sharp, B-flat, E, A, and D on the piano) is seemingly an attempt to replace the tonal organization that had governed music from the time of Johann Sebastian Bach with a new system; in reality, however, the mystic chord is a supercharged version of colorful chords that Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner (the three composers who most strongly influenced Scriabin) had frequently used in their music. A program was loosely discernible: The sole piano represented Prometheus, who was punished by the gods for giving fire to man (Scriabin had been especially influenced by the ancient Greek Aeschylus’s depiction of this event), and the arrival of fire was heralded by the choral epilogue, in which the chorus sang only vowel sounds and not words.

The work soon received performances abroad, especially in London under Sir Henry Wood and in Amsterdam under Willem Mengelberg. Some conductors even presented the work twice on the same program so that the audience could absorb its full impact. It was not, however, performed with a color organ as Scriabin intended until 1915, when the Russian Symphony Orchestra under Modest Altshuler performed it at Carnegie Hall in New York. At that performance, streaks or spots of light illuminated a sheet placed above the heads of the performers.

Scriabin devoted himself to two musical media: the piano and the orchestra. His earlier piano works are in direct line of descent from the études, preludes, and stylized dances of Chopin, but with highly enriched harmonies. At the same time, he was writing opulent symphonies with highly musical content, culminating in a third symphony, Le Divin Poème (The Divine Poem), performed in 1905. This period saw his resignation from the piano faculty of the Moscow Conservatory; his move to western Europe (primarily Switzerland); his abandonment of his wife for Tatiana Schloezer, a piano student at the conservatory who was his companion for the rest of his life; and his discovery of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who enunciated the doctrines of the eternal return and the superman who could transcend ordinary limitations of morality with the power of his will.

Two works mark Scriabin’s full maturity as a composer: Le Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy), Poem of Ecstasy, The (Scriabin) a large-scale orchestral work completed in 1908, and his Fifth Piano Sonata Fifth Piano Sonata (Scriabin) of that same year. Both were based on a poem that Scriabin had written around 1905, after he had abandoned Nietzsche’s philosophy for the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophy He regarded Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine (1888), a mixture of occultism and Indian religious thought, as important to his thinking; he later came to use Blavatsky’s “Theosophical” ideas as formulas to describe his own experiences and thoughts.

Both Poem of Ecstasy and the Fifth Piano Sonata are extensive one-movement works based on musical motives that are constantly transformed. Poem of Ecstasy requires a large orchestra, including eight horns, five trumpets, and an organ for the grand apotheosis at the end. It is a very erotic musical composition; Scriabin perceived ecstasy as a state in which the consciousness of self disappears into a superpersonal, nearly divine oneness.

Among the most original elements of Scriabin’s style are his extravagant expression markings. In contrast to the detailed performing instructions that his contemporary Gustav Mahler inserted into his symphonic scores, Scriabin sought to influence the mood of the performers. His instructions, in French, were often quite unusual. Those in Prometheus are representative: “delicate, crystalline,” “with an intense desire,” “suddenly very sweet and joyful,” “with emotion and rapture, and then mysteriously veiled,” “ecstatic,” “increasingly luminous and flamboyant.” What these directions have in common is an intense subjectivity, akin to Scriabin’s custom of playing only his own music in his piano recitals and, according to many witnesses, never playing a given piece the same way twice.

Extramusical influences on Prometheus had been building for several decades. Several writers of the nineteenth century, including E. T. A. Hoffmann, Charles Baudelaire, and Joris-Karl Huysmans, had been affected by the idea of synesthesia (the mixing of perceptions of musical sounds with colors or words), and the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century had given musical titles to poems and paintings. Similarly, composers such as Emmanuel Chabrier gave pictorial titles to piano pieces, and Claude Debussy chose a woodcut of a wave for the title page of his symphonic poem La Mer (1905). Scriabin esteemed Wagner for seeking a synthesis of all the arts in his music dramas, but he felt that Wagner had developed the arts along parallel lines rather than merging them into an integrated whole.


Prometheus was regarded as the most extended, ambitious, and imaginative of Scriabin’s completed compositions. Combining characteristics of both symphony and concerto with an orchestration that reinforced motivic development and counterpoint, it also promised to be that synthesis of all the arts toward which the French and Russian Symbolists Symbolist movement had aspired. Scriabin associated at this time not primarily with fellow musicians (he disdained nearly all other composers) but with a small group of poets and painters who experimented with language and colors. The period immediately preceding the outbreak of World War I in 1914 was one of intense and even violent experimentation in artistic Russia as well as in other European cultural centers, such as Paris and Vienna. From a later perspective, Prometheus thus came to be viewed in two ways: as a harbinger of the atonality of the later twentieth century and as a work that stretched the tonal system to its limits. Both interpretations are plausible and have been supported with musical evidence, although Scriabin never discussed his technical principles of musical composition.

Scriabin’s interests returned to the piano with his last five piano sonatas. Mystical connotations have been given to two of them: The Seventh Sonata has been called the “White Mass,” and the Ninth, the “Black Mass.” The Tenth Sonata of 1913 represents Scriabin’s closest approach to atonality.

The project that occupied most of Scriabin’s interest during his last years was even more grandiose than Wagner’s ambitious cycle about the ring of the Nibelungs. The Mysterium, Mysterium (Scriabin) as Scriabin’s project has been called in Western countries, was to be enacted in India (originally in the Himalayas) and was to include not only music but also art, dance, recitations of Theosophical poetry, the burning of incense, and even the giving of caresses, thus involving the senses of sight, smell, and touch as well as hearing. Mysterium was to accomplish no less a goal than the unification of humankind in a single instant of ecstatic revelation; its finale was to culminate in a vision of apocalyptic ecstasy and the end of the world. Scriabin even welcomed the outbreak of World War I as a means of hastening this end.

Realizing that preparation was needed for him to reach his grandiose goal, he sketched the “Preliminary Act” (or “Preparatory Act”), a musical tragedy concerning a hero who would bring joy and ecstasy into the world before his death. Some of Scriabin’s last piano pieces may have been destined either for this work or for Mysterium. Financial support for this undertaking was not forthcoming, and Scriabin’s death from blood poisoning in 1915, at the age of forty-two, ended whatever hopes existed for the completion of his grandiose work. As with Prometheus, Scriabin’s visions outran the technology then in existence.

For several decades, Scriabin’s Prometheus had to wait for a performance as the composer had intended. To begin with, the musical aesthetic that prevailed for several years after the end of World War I was hostile to Scriabin’s opulent and intensely personal musical style; a work such as Igor Stravinsky’s Wind Octet of 1923—with its adherence to classical and musical forms, its stripped-down instrumentation, its astringent sonorities, and its allusions to everyday music—was the exact musical antithesis of Scriabin’s Prometheus. The music of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples (especially Anton von Webern) made a much sharper break with tonality, and Paul Hindemith’s“New Objectivity” repudiated the hyper-Romanticism associated with Scriabin. Even before the outbreak of World War I, Jean Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony (which also premiered in 1911) represented in its uncompromising austerity a reproach to Scriabin’s self-indulgently opulent musical style. At least some of Scriabin’s visionary ideas, however, were continued by such mystical composers as Cyril Scott (who was, like Scriabin, a Theosophist) and the Catholic Olivier Messiaen, who developed a similar but much more intricate system of musical composition.

For general music lovers, Prometheus was for many years a work that was discussed in textbooks on musical history rather than one that was performed. Some conductors in the 1970’s, however, approached it as a challenge, because it was a multimedia work that could incorporate color as well as music. Scriabin had wanted colors provided by concealed lamps that would flood the concert hall with light, not colors projected onto a screen as in the first performance using light (in New York in 1915), and in his manuscript score for the color keyboard he included two “voices,” one slower than the other. Scriabin did not describe any apparatus for projecting the colors (technology was not his forte), but in his sketches he worked out equivalents of colors and pitches (F-sharp was violet, for example). He changed some of these ideas in his later annotations to the score.

Beginning in the early 1970’s, interest in multimedia works, improvements in technology (especially lasers), and the revival of many post-Romantic works led to renewed attempts to perform Prometheus with colored lights. In Scheveningen, the Netherlands, in 1973, the auditorium was filled with an inflatable balloon, and lights were projected from its surface to the inside. At Oxford, England, in 1979, the chorus was draped in white, and the colored lights were projected onto the singers. In Louisville, Kentucky, in 1990, the effect of two lines of color was achieved through the projection of one set of colors onto the backdrop of the stage while the orchestra was suffused with lights of another hue. Prometheus would seem to be an ideal work for film or video recording, with music, colors, dance, and even some kind of action. At any rate, performances of this work, with or without lights, are rare because of the resources that Scriabin specified.

Among audience members, reactions to the use of multiple media in simultaneous effects vary. Some are entranced by the interplay of sound and light, whereas others feel that the light show detracts from the musical performance. Scriabin’s feeling that the integration of colored light within a symphonic work would be “a powerful psychological resonator for the listener” was realized in Prometheus, but not fully until several decades after his death. Prometheus (Scriabin)
Symphonic music

Further Reading

  • Baker, James. The Music of Alexander Scriabin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Although his musical analyses are highly technical, Baker provides an extraordinarily clear assessment of Scriabin’s most important twentieth century works.
  • Bowers, Faubion. Scriabin: A Biography. 2d rev. ed. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1996. Extensive biography details Scriabin’s personal and professional lives. Includes many photographs and a catalog of Scriabin’s works.
  • Brown, Malcolm. “Skriabin and Russian ’Mystic’ Symbolism.” Nineteenth-Century Music 3 (July, 1979): 42-51. Presents the case that Russian Symbolist philosophers and writers had a strong influence on Scriabin’s musical mysticism.
  • De Schloezer, Boris. Scriabin: Artist and Mystic. Translated by Nicolas Slonimsky. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Originally published in Russian in 1923, this book by one of the composer’s intimate friends (the brother of his mistress Tatiana Schloezer) gives many accounts of the development of Scriabin’s mysticism, his concepts of ecstasy, and the development of Mysterium.
  • Macdonald, Hugh. “Lighting the Fire: Skryabin and Colour.” Musical Times (October, 1983): 600-602. Describes the various attempts to perform Prometheus with colored lighting and how Scriabin changed his color equivalences.
  • Meade, Marion. Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth. 1980. Reprint. Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2001. A detailed and personal biography of the woman whose books had a strong influence on Scriabin’s Theosophical thought. Mentions Theosophy’s effects on some writers, but does not address its influence on musicians.
  • Morrison, Simon. Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. A study of four scores by Russian composers, including Scriabin’s unfinished Mysterium. Appendix offers an English-language translation of Scriabin’s libretto for the “Preparatory Act.”
  • Peacock, Kenneth. “Synesthetic Perception: Alexander Scriabin’s Color Hearing.” Music Perception 2 (1985): 483-506. Traces the history of synesthesia among several writers and in the medical literature before discussing Scriabin’s Prometheus and his projects for Mysterium.
  • Rudakova, Yevgeniya, and A. I. Kandinsky. Scriabin. Translated by Tatyana Chistyakova. Neptune City, N.J.: Paganiniana, 1984. Mostly a documentary and pictorial biography, with reproductions of Scriabin’s manuscripts and concert programs. An interesting sidelight is the constantly favorable attitude displayed toward Scriabin by Soviet critics from 1918 onward.

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