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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)
Richard Taruskin

Ivanov regarded this effect of porïv—sudden elevation, transporting burst—as an explicitly religious gesture. He related it on the one hand to the Sursum corda, the “heart-lift” at the Elevation of the Latin Mass—on which, as both he and Scriabin knew very well, Liszt had composed one of his most harmonically adventurous pieces—and on the other, to Scriabin’s constant striving to transcend the human plane. The result of Scriabin’s final attempted breakthrough to the realiora, the superhuman superreal, may be glimpsed in the sketches he left at the time of his death for the Acte préalable, or “Preparatory Act,” that reflected something of the Mysterium, an unrealized (and unrealizable) project that would have been Scriabin’s ultimate musical and religious testament.

The Mysterium was to have brought the Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk to its unsurpassable maximum: indeed, as originally conceived, Scriabin’s work was to have been the opus ultimum of all time, literally the last word in art. For starters, it would have combined both of the meanings the Wagnerian term conveyed: Wagner’s original notion, of a collective or communal creation, plus the later one, not attributable to Wagner but exemplified by his works, of combining all artistic media in a single coordinated expressive or symbolic act.

The composer, who had long been dabbling in symbolist poetry (including a verse counterpart to the Poème de l’extase which he had finally decided to suppress), drafted a text for the work that summarized theosophical doctrine concerning the origin and destiny of the cosmos. To this music would be added, along with stage spectacle, choreography, and even aromatic effects to engage the powerfully suggestive sense of smell. The concept began, literally, as a “Mystery Play,” a representation of religious teachings in the form of a Wagnerian opera along the lines of Parsifal (or, even more to the point, the opera Wagner did not live to write, which would have depicted the life of the Buddha).

As he worked, however, the composer began to imagine something far more grandiose: not a mere artwork but an all-encompassing ritual enactment, lasting seven days and seven nights, in which there were to be no spectators, only participants; which would be performed once only, in a specially constructed temple in India; and which would so transform the consciousness of the participants as to give them—and with them, the entire world—access to a higher plane of consciousness transcending humanly imagined time and space. It would literally bring human history to an end.

The reader may be feeling relieved that Scriabin did not live to realize this plan: he died of blood poisoning, the result of a poorly treated boil on his lip, shortly after his forty-third birthday. But as much as two years before his death the composer had conceded that he, being after all only human, could not accomplish such a world-transforming goal. He was, in other words, and despite the insinuations of his many detractors, far from crazy (inasmuch as he was able to recognize his erstwhile delusions and scrap them); but the experience left him literally, and very sadly, disillusioned about the nature and value of art.

Instead of the Mysterium, then, he settled on a more modest project, which he called the Acte préalable, a “preparatory act” that would at least impart to its hearers something of the euphoric grandeur of the symbolist ideal. This is the work for which actual musical sketches exist. Intended no longer as an achievement of a state of spiritual transcendence but rather as a speculative representation of such a state, the sketches for the “Preparatory Act” reveal the final, literally unexceedable stages of the composer’s stylistic and technical evolution.

We already know something of them, since the enigmatic preludes from op. 74 were actually incorporated into these sketches. Among the other things they contained was a series of aggregate harmonies—“ultimate” chords each containing all twelve pitch classes. Yet how can there be a “series” of such chords? In any structurally or functionally meaningful sense there can be only one. And that is precisely what gave the aggregate harmony its poetic significance: What better means could there be for musically representing the vselenskoye (as it is called in Russian), the universal or All-in-One in its literal plenitude? A twelve-note chord can be neither transposed nor inverted. It is everywhere, and everything, at once.

Yet (as Berg’s third “Altenberg Lied” already showed) even a twelve-note chord can be varied in color and in “voicing,” that is, the registral disposition of its individual components. And here we may note genuine connections between Scriabin’s twelve-note chords and the harmonic explorations we have already traced. The eight distinct aggregates that can be deciphered from his Mysterium sketches are not undifferentiated clusters of semitones, but are laid out registrally in ways that emphasize and combine older invariant structures. In one of them, triads are built systematically on C, E♭, F♯ and A, the nodes of an /0 3 6 9/ “primary cycle” of minor thirds as we called it in Vers la flamme. And then to these triads, which together exhaust an octatonic scale, major sevenths (B, D, E♯ and G♯, respectively) are added to supply the four tones missing for full chromatic representation (Ex. 4-21a).

Another aggregate (Ex. 4-21b) places two French sixth chords, equivalent to the content of an octatonic scale, in distinct registers that would no doubt have been further distinguished in timbre when orchestrated. The four remaining tones of the chromatic scale, which (as we may recall from “Chez Pétrouchka”) are equivalent to a diminished seventh chord, are placed atop the French sixths, in a third contrasting register. The twelve notes of the full chromatic scale have been in effect partitioned into three separate inversionally and transpositionally invariant harmonies, each containing two inversionally and transpositionally invariant tritones for a “universal,” all-encompassing total of six.

The Final Burst

ex. 4-21a Aggregate harmony from Alexander Scriabin’s sketches for the Acte préalable

The Final Burst

ex. 4-21b Aggregate harmony from Alexander Scriabin’s sketches for the Acte préalable

Since it is harmonic progression that had always articulated the structural rhythm of music, which is to say its sense of directed unfolding in time, a music based on universal invariant harmonies became quite literally timeless, as well as emotionally quiescent. The two qualities, invariance and timelessness, insofar as we are equipped to interpret musical messages, are in fact aspects of a single quality of quiescence, expressed respectively in two musical dimensions, the “vertical” and the “horizontal.” Interpreting these chords in light of Scriabin’s development—or, as he had once hoped and assumed, hearing them in the context of the enacted Mysterium—we seem to experience an eschatological revelation: a gnosis (occult knowledge) that only music may impart: the full collapse of time and space and the dissolution of the ego (Ivanov’s “petty ‘I’”).

It was a dissolution at which the composer deliberately aimed, as we learn from a memoir by Boris de Schloezer, an eminent music critic who, as Tatyana Schloezer’s brother, was Scriabin’s brother-in-(common)-law. Far from the solipsist of the Poème de l’extase or the Promethean protagonist of the Poème du feu, the author of the Mysterium “no longer dwelt on his own role; what was uniquely important to him was the act itself, and he was willing to be dissolved in it.”19 But that dissolution presaged the end of Scriabin’s composing career. He reached the impasse, it is now thought, before his untimely death prevented his ever overcoming it. In a manner that made him all the more an object of worship to the mystical symbolists who surrounded him, Scriabin renounced the Mysterium in favor of the “Preparatory Act,” and then renounced the “Preparatory Act” in favor of silence. As Simon Morrison has put it, Scriabin

was not in the end defeated in his plans—he triumphed—but they exacted a high cost: writer’s block and compositional paralysis. He did not fail: no artist could accomplish what he attempted to accomplish. Rather, he transcended artistry. His vision [in the words of the mystical-symbolist poet Valeriy Bryusov] dissolved in the “mighty bonfire” of a “holy sacrifice.”20

It was Scriabin who faced first, and perhaps most starkly, the maximalist’s dilemma: the fulfillment of his aims spelled the end of his—or any—art.


(19) Boris de Schloezer, Scriabin: Artist and Mystic, trans. Nicolas Slonimsky (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), p. 269.

(20) Morrison, “Skryabin and the Impossible,” pp. 326–27.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Extinguishing the “Petty ‘I’ ” (Transcendentalism, I)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004008.xml