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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

And yet the essential motivating metaphor that drove the more potent maximalists of the period to the limit—the aggregate harmony standing for the All, the One, the Universal, the object of all metaphysical and religious striving—was not all that different from the image of the “all-encompassing brink” that inspired Berg. The difference lay in the treatment. Rather than a playful surface ornament as it was with Berg, the aggregate harmony was for Scriabin, Schoenberg, and Ives a symbolic ideal, not to be invoked lightly but to be approached gradually, as the One was to be approached through a properly perseverant spiritual quest, and to be expressed not blatantly but latently, in a properly occult fashion.

From Expression to Revelation

fig. 4-1 Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin in an engraving from a photograph taken aboard the Volga steamship that carried him on a concert tour through Russia in 1910.

For Scriabin, the quest was the work of a lifetime. A piano prodigy, he seemed destined at first for the career of a virtuoso-composer like Liszt or, more precisely, like Chopin, with whom he identified powerfully and on whose very distinctive style he at first attempted to fashion his own, even going so far as to adopt Chopin’s characteristic Polish genres like the mazurka, of which he wrote twenty-three between 1889 and 1903. He was drawn even more to that most “poetic” of Chopinesque forms, the freestanding aphoristic prelude, of which he composed a complete Chopinesque set of twenty-four (published as op. 11) between 1888 and 1896.

Scriabin continued to write preludes throughout his career, right up to his final work, a set of Four Preludes published in 1914 as his op. 74. As he came ever more explicitly to maintain, short but striking preludes were in their immediacy akin to spiritual disclosures and could function as prophecy. From an art of the sensuously—at times erotically—beautiful, Scriabin’s music developed by degrees (each with its clearly identifiable technical preoccupations) into an art of sublime—at times mystical—revelation.

We can take the measure of this transition by comparing a prelude from the middle of Scriabin’s career—op. 48, no. 4 in C major (1905; Ex. 4-4)—with a selection from that final group, op. 74. The highly emotional tone of the earlier piece is achieved by methods we have come to associate with Wagner (perhaps by way of Schumann). The primary method is the maintenance throughout of a sense of harmonic tension that is relieved only by the final cadence. Indeed, the last chord of the piece is practically the only pure, unadulterated triad to be found in it. Almost all of the other harmonies, while clearly “triadic” in concept and function, have been altered, either by the use of additives like sevenths and ninths, or by the chromatic tweaking of their constituent pitches so that they become “tendency tones.”

The very first chord is an especially telling instance. It is only in retrospect that we can confidently identify it as a tonic harmony. The added B♭, turning its quality into that of a dominant-seventh chord, gives it the implied function “V of IV”; and its short-term resolution to a chord rooted on F confirms that local diagnosis. The raising of its fifth degree to G♯ adds to its implicit short-range function, since now that tone too seeks resolution, in A. But the F chord to which the first chord resolves is no more stable than the first chord had been: it too has been given a seventh that demands resolution, and its fifth has been lowered a semitone (to C♭, spelled B). Its quality, therefore, has been altered to that of a “French sixth,” a chord that normally resolves as a ♭VI to a dominant. And so it does—but “deceptively,” to the dominant of C rather than the expected dominant of A.

The dominant of A arrives in m. 8, exactly as the dominant of the home key had arrived in m. 4, to round off a pair of parallel periods that together make up the first half of the prelude. It is evident that the novelty of Scriabin’s idiom applies only to its harmonic dimension; rhythmically and in its phrase structure (i.e., its form) it remains simple—and in its high rhetorical keyboard style, for all its virtuosity, it remains conventional. As Schoenberg would later put it, “if comprehensibility is made difficult in one respect, it must be made easier in some other respect.”7 Scriabin, like Schoenberg somewhat later, seems to have been attempting to “reduce difficulties by providing a familiar type of unfolding.”

From Expression to Revelation

ex. 4-4 Alexander Scriabin, Prelude in C major, Op. 48, no. 4

But after the cadence on the E-major chord in m. 8 (the only other “pure triad” in the piece and therefore, despite its short duration, a major point of articulation), something happens that is indeed unconventional—though far from unprecedented in our experience—in terms of “normal” tonal practice. What sounds at the very end of m. 8 like an A in the bass, the implicit goal of the E major harmony, is made to function very differently, as suggested by its respelling as B♭♭. Impelled by accompanying tones that form with it a French sixth chord, it is directed down to A♭, a root note that in direct juxtaposition with E (and recalling the initial C) suggests that the overall tonal trajectory of the prelude will be based on a symmetrically apportioned cycle of major thirds rather than the locally operating circle of fifths.

The period from m. 9, where A♭ intrudes, to m. 16, where the dominant of C is regained, is based on a modulating sequence progression. In that sense it functions like a development section, and identifies the return of the opening harmony at m. 17 as a thematic recapitulation. This is indeed a “familiar type of unfolding,” sanctioned by more than a century of common practice as “sonata form,” here applied on a microscopic level. And its familiarity helps us accept the cycle of thirds as harmonically normative. The two halves of a binary form express not the usual I–V, V–I trajectory, but a complementary symmetrical progression: tonic up to mediant (I → III) followed by flat submediant up to tonic: I–III, ♭VI–I. The three points of departure and arrival that articulate the form—I, III, ♭VI—occupy evenly spaced positions along the chromatic scale:/0 4 8/, familiar to us not from common or “classical” practice but from the alternative practice branching off from Schubert to Liszt, thence to Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Ravel, and, most lately, Stravinsky.

One other harmonic idiosyncrasy is conspicuous in this prelude, and that is Scriabin’s propensity for approaching V by way of ♭II, expressed not as a “Neapolitan sixth” but in root position. That is something probably picked up from Chopin (e.g., Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, op. 28, no. 20; see Ex. 4-5), but Scriabin turned what was in Chopin a rarity into a basic modus operandi. The progression bracketed in Ex. 4-5 and labeled “tritone link” shows up in Ex. 4-4 in mm. 1–2, 5–6, and—climactically—over a two-measure general pause in mm. 19–22. The term “tritone link” (tritonovoye zveno) was coined by Varvara Pavlovna Dernova in a dissertation on Scriabin written in 1948 but only published twenty years later, by which time Scriabin had been dead for more than fifty years.8 It was the first important breakthrough in analyzing Scriabin’s until-then enigmatic and refractory harmonic style; like many a modernist, Scriabin kept his methods a secret, the better to stun listeners with their effect.

From Expression to Revelation

ex. 4-5 Frédéric Chopin, Prelude in C minor, Op. 28, no. 20, end

Just how enigmatic Scriabin’s idiom eventually became can be seen at a glance in Ex. 4-6, which contains the first and last of the Four Preludes, op. 74. The extravagant expressive markings in French—Douloureux, déchirant (excruciatingly anguished) in the first, Lent, vague, indécis (slow, indefinite, uncertain) in the last—may seem at first reminiscent of Debussy; but Debussy’s art, while it cultivated the vague and indécis, perhaps, avoided the déchirant at all costs. Rather, they point to a common bond in Symbolism, which in Russia achieved an aura of maximalized religious ecstasy that it never approached in France.

From Expression to Revelation

ex. 4-6a Alexander Scriabin, Prelude, Op. 74, no. 1

From Expression to Revelation

ex. 4-6b Alexander Scriabin, Prelude, Op. 74, no. 4

Alone among musicians, Scriabin actively participated in “mystical symbolist” circles, attending the meetings of the Moscow Religious Philosophical Society, a forum for avant-garde poetry and theology alike, beginning in 1898. By 1905, he had discovered theosophy, an esoteric mystical doctrine that sought to reconcile Christianity with the transcendentalist religions of South Asia, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, which saw as the purpose of life the achievement of a transcendent enlightenment that would free the soul from the shackling temporality of human desire and allow it to join the eternal unity of the Godhead.

In the strong form with which Scriabin was affiliated, theosophy was a Russian maximalist movement. It was spearheaded and disseminated by a society founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91), a Russian aristocratic émigré. Mystic symbolists and theosophists considered art a medium of gnostic revelation—that is, the direct imparting of divine knowledge unmediated by the imperfect and limited human intellect. Within their circles Scriabin was hailed as a prophet, because his artistic medium was the least trammeled by specific representational meaning, had the least paraphrasable content, and was therefore the most inherently “theurgic” of all the arts—the most capable, that is, of becoming an instrument of theurgy, the channeling of divine influence on human affairs.

In the amicably envious judgment of Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866–1949), the leading mystical-symbolist poet and one of the composer’s closest friends, Scriabin was a greater artist than any poet could ever be because of the superiority of his medium. “Where we [poets] monotonously blab the meager word ‘sadness,’ ” Ivanov wrote, “music overflows with thousands of particular shades of sadness, each so ineffably novel that no two of them can be called the same feeling.”9 Music, therefore, “the unmediated pilot of our spiritual depths,” is at once the most sensitive of the arts and the most inherently prophetic, “the womb in which the Spirit of the Age is incubated.”10 Scriabin, for his part, consciously modified his style so as to enable his music to serve the spiritualistic purposes his religious and philosophical beliefs demanded. That meant, among other things, making it inscrutable, resistant to analysis. For this reason he has often been attacked as a charlatan, and just as often defended against himself by nonbelievers who nevertheless regard him, in the words of the American music theorist James M. Baker, as “a master of the craft of musical composition.”11 But Ivanov’s exaggerated remarks can easily be read as just another maximalization (and a particularly Russian one) of the old German romantic notion of “absolute music.” They also accord perfectly with the antiliterary esthetics of Alexandre Benois that (as we saw in the previous chapter) midwifed the rebirth of ballet in Russia. So we should not be surprised to find that Scriabin’s late, “inscrutable” idiom has a lot in common with the maximalistic techniques that Stravinsky adopted, just as deliberately and almost simultaneously, in The Rite of Spring.

To begin with, in Scriabin’s preludes we again confront the total avoidance of “pure triads,” even at the ends of pieces. What to make of that? Of the preludes in op. 74, the last (Ex. 4-6b) ends with the most easily described harmony: seemingly a superimposition of the major and minor triads on A. We may then note that the piece begins with the same harmony, this time with the “disagreeing” thirds located at the extremities, as if the chord were inverted. This is a clue that the harmonic idiom of the music, however unusual, is internally consistent. Another indication: we may as yet be at a loss to account for the final cadential approach to the “A major/minor” chord, by way of a tritone, and yet we have already seen that Scriabin’s music makes considerable use of “tritone links.” The final chord of the first prelude (Ex. 4-6a), unnameable in terms of the common practice, is also approached via a tritone leap in the bass. Such observations give prima facie evidence that the music is following as-yet-undiscovered yet binding rules.

The mere avoidance of pure triads does not in itself demonstrate any real similarity between the idiom of Scriabin’s preludes and that of Stravinsky’s Rite. An arbitrary list of their “common absences” could be infinitely extended. But there are positive affinities as well. For one thing, the bass notes of the chords and arpeggios that inform the left-hand part in Ex. 4-6a—B♯ (=C) in the pickup; A alternating with B♯ in mm. 1–2, followed by F♯ (=G♭) alternating with C in mm. 2–4—suggest a pattern that is completed on the downbeat of m. 5 and recurs, significantly transposed, in mm. 9–15. We have certainly seen this pattern in Stravinsky, and even earlier. For another thing, the music in Ex. 4-6b falls briefly (mm. 13–16) into a regular sequential period. Allowing for some idiosyncrasies in the note-spelling, the “soprano” voice here outlines some ordinary triads, otherwise a great rarity in these compositions. How are they related?4-6a—B

All of the foregoing observations are of a single phenomenon: reliance on symmetrical interval cycles—that is, cycles of intervals that evenly divide the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale—as governors of the tonal trajectory. The bass pitches in the first prelude describe a cycle of minor thirds (0 3 6 9); the sequential triads in the last prelude describe a cycle of major thirds (0 4 8). Both, but particularly the minor-third cycle, featured prominently in Stravinsky because of the affinity between the minor-third cycle and the octatonic scale. And now look at Ex. 4-7, the end of the third prelude from Op. 74: rarely is the octatonic scale displayed so pristinely on the surface of any music.

From Expression to Revelation

ex. 4-7 Alexander Scriabin, Prelude, Op. 74, no. 3, last four measures

As a subset of the octatonic, the /0 6/ tritone relationship was the basis for the harmony in “Chez Pétrouchka” (the second tableau of Stravinsky’s second ballet), and the source of the famous Petrushka-chord. In like fashion, the prelude sampled in Ex. 4-7 consists of two halves, the second of which is a literal transposition of the first by a tritone; owing to the properties of the octatonic scale, the two halves have identical (or “invariant”) pitch content. As for the /0 4 8/ cycle, while not especially prominent in the Stravinsky compositions that we have examined, it was at the heart of Debussy’s tonal procedures in Nuages, which Stravinsky knew and admired well enough to plagiarize (unconsciously) in the prelude to his early opera The Nightingale. Earlier, the cycle (and also its decorated version, the whole tone scale,/0 2 4 6 8 10/, so pervasive in Debussy) had been foreshadowed in our experience in works of Liszt and Schubert, as the /0 3 6 9/ cycle had been foreshadowed in Rimsky-Korsakov and Liszt. It is evident that Scriabin, even at his most purposefully inscrutable, had a considerable patrimony.

But Scriabin maximalized it the furthest, and in ways that bore directly on his theurgic purposes. For one thing, he mined more radical harmonic constructs directly out of the octatonic collection. The choralelike final cadence in the last prelude, right up to its enigmatic “major-minor” conclusion, is a case in point. It is all educed from a single octatonic scale, as shown in Ex. 4-8 (and note the rigorous voice leading in the right hand through a cycle of minor thirds, mirrored at first by the left in contrary motion).

From Expression to Revelation

ex. 4-8 Octatonic derivation of final cadence in Alexander Scriabin, Prelude, Op. 74, no.4

Most significant by far is Scriabin’s habit, taken to an extreme in the third prelude from op. 74, of saturating the musical surface with tritones, and then transposing the whole “globally” around a tritone axis. (Compare mm. 1–4 and 9–12 in Ex. 4-6a.) The harmonic stasis, brought about by the tritone’s invariance properties (since the tritone, when transposed a tritone, merely inverts or “maps into” itself) produces a trajectory that contains movement, so to speak, but accomplishes no motion. We have marched in place.

Moreover, whatever goes for melodic tritones will also apply to harmonic tritones, and especially to chords composed of multiple tritones, like diminished sevenths or French sixths. And the French sixth, it will emerge on closer inspection, is indeed the basic referential harmony in these preludes, having taken over the function performed in more traditional tonalities by the major or minor triad.

The final chord in Ex. 4-6a is an especially characteristic Scriabin sonority: a French sixth (F♯ B♯ A♯ E) filled out or garnished by two additives: a G that may be referred along with the French sixth chord to an octatonic scale, and a D that may be referred along with the same French sixth chord to a whole-tone scale (which it nearly exhausts). The French sixth, then, functions here as a kind of “nexus chord” or pivot, linking two different symmetrical scale constructions that have usurped the place of the more traditional major and minor scales, providing a point of intersection between them on which the final chord is poised, as if balanced on a cusp (see Ex. 4-9).


(7) Schoenberg, “Old Forms in New Music,” unpublished essay quoted in Alan Lessem, “Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Neo-Classicism: The Issues Reexamined,” Musical Quarterly LXVIII (1968): 538.

(8) Varvara Dernova, Garmoniya Skryabina (Leningrad: Muzïka, 1968).

(9) Vyacheslav Ivanov, “Skryabin” (1919), in Pamyatniki kul’turï: Novïye otkrïtiye, 1983 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1985), p. 114.

(10) Ivanov, “Vzglyad Skryabina na iskusstvo” (1915), Pamyatniki kul’turï 1983, p. 103.

(11) James A. Baker, The Music of Alexander Scriabin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 270.

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. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004003.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004003.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 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004003.xml