Scriabin | Piano Sonata No. 5

This past January 6 was the 150th anniversary of Alexandre Scriabin‘s birth. I discovered him with a Marc-André Hamelin album, featuring all the composer’s piano sonatas. Back then I was not accustomed to listening to classical music and it took me a while to get acquainted with these new sounds, they resonated at first like a musical mess that I could not understand. For a whole week straight it is the only album I listened to in my studio, until Scriabin’s passion, fervor and drive blossomed in me, my brain classified the notes properly and I finally understood. Now I get emotional when I listen to this album, I think I can comprehend Scriabin’s intensity, his quest as an artist, the meaning he wishes to create with his art. He is a very inspiring artist indeed.

Since it is his 150th anniversary, I will sporadically present some of his works over the next few months. Today I will talk about Sonata No. 5, Op.53, one of my favorites.

“The Piano Sonata no. 5 Op. 53, de- scribed by Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915) as a “grand poem for piano” – originated in 1907, thus at the same time as his orchestral work Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy), op. 54. The two works not only share the period of composition, but also a literary pro- gramme that had great significance for the composer.

Before beginning work on the score of the Poème orgiaque (the original title of the Poème de l’extase), Scriabin started drafting a poem in verse form that he wished to use as the basis for the work. (…) The composer worked quite long and thoroughly on this poem, and at the end of May 1906 the poem appeared, in Russian and under the author’s own imprint.

Scriabin regarded the poetic text for the Poème de l’extase as a sort of manifesto by which to present, in literary form, his mystical-theosophical view of the world’s development. In it he put forth his idea of mankind’s release through the power of exhilaration and ecstasy. The music of the accompanying orchestral work was to evoke this ecstatic vision through sound. The Piano Sonata no. 5 op. 53 is also closely connected to the poetry of the Poème: the composer placed eight lines of its text at the head of the Sonata as a motto. In its first edition, the Russian text is arranged on four lines, and supplemented by a French translation :

(Source : Henle)
Original Russian text

Я к жизни призываю вас, скрытые стремленья!
Вы, утонувшие в темных глубинах
Духа творящего, вы, боязливые
Жизни зародыши, вам дерзновенье приношу!

Original French translation

Je vous appelle à la vie, ô forces mysterieuses!
Noyées dans les obscures profondeurs
De l'esprit créateur, craintives
Ebauches de vie, à vous j'apporte l'audace!

English translation

I call you to life, O mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
Of the creative spirit, timid
Shadows of life, to you I bring audacity!

The Piano Sonata No. 5, is his first sonata to be written in one movement, a format he retained from then on. A typical performance lasts from 11 to 12 minutes. The work is considered to be one of Scriabin’s most difficult compositions, both technically and musically.

After finishing his symphonic poem Le Poème de l’Extase, Op.54, Scriabin did not feel comfortable living in Paris. In early September 1907 he wrote: 

“Life is fearfully expensive, and the climate is rotten. The air in the areas where we could find an apartment big enough for us at a reasonable price is frightful … you cannot make any noise. You have to wear house slippers after 10 at night.

Scriabin decided to go to live in Lausanne with his pregnant wife Tatyana, since he found the place to be cheaper, quieter, and healthier, and only 7 hours away from Paris. Also, he had his music being printed there, as he had recently broken his long-term partnership with publisher M.P. Belaieff due to financial discrepancies.

In his new peaceful household in Edifice C Place de la Harpe, Scriabin could play the piano without fear of complaints from neighbours, and soon began to compose again, alongside the revisions he was making to the score of Le Poème. On 8 December, Tatyana wrote to a friend:

“We go out a little, having caught up on our sleep. We begin to look normal again. Sasha even has begun to compose – 5th Sonata!!! I cannot believe my ears. It is incredible! That sonata pours from him like a fountain. Everything you have heard up to now is as nothing. You cannot even tell it is a sonata. Nothing compares to it. He has played it through several times, and all he has to do is to write it down …”

In late December, Scriabin wrote to Morozova about the imminent completion of his new work:

“The Poem of Ecstasy took much of my strength and taxed my patience. … Today I have almost finished my 5th Sonata. It is a big poem for piano and I deem it the best composition I have ever written. I do not know by what miracle I accomplished it …”

Although the actual writing took only six days, from 8 to 14 December 1907, some ideas had been conceived much earlier. The initial nine bars of the first theme of the exposition, Presto con allegrezza, can be found in a notebook from 1905 to 1906, when Scriabin was in Chicago. Another notebook from 1906 contains the Imperioso theme, while elements from the Meno vivo can also be made out, as well as sketched-out passages for a few other sections.

Five months after its completion, Scriabin published the work himself in Lausanne, producing an edition with 300 copies. He later gave the autograph as a present to his pupil Alfred La Liberté. In 1971 the pianist’s widow gave the manuscript, along with various other documents, to the Scriabin Museum.

The work was premiered on 18 November 1908 in Moscow by pianist Mark Meitschik

(Source : Wikipedia)

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