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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

ex. 4-9 Alexander Scriabin, Prelude, Op. 74, no. 1, final chord compared with its referential scales

Now what has all of this to do with the theurgic aims of mystic symbolism or theosophy? We may quote the answer to this question directly from Vyacheslav Ivanov, who in a lecture of 1919 enumerated the theurgic effects of Scriabin’s music, which if regarded as the composer’s ends provide the explanation of his means, as we have been describing them. “Scriabin has expressed in music the most profound ideas of the present day,” Ivanov declared, defining them as follows:

  1. 1. The vision of surmounting the boundaries of the personal, individual, petty “I”—a musical transcendentalism.

  2. 2. The vision of universal, communal mingling of all humanity in a single “I”—or the macrocosmic universalism of musical consciousness.

  3. 3. The vision of a violent breakthrough into the expanse of a free new plane of being—universal transformation.12

The idea of art as world transformation is the essential Wagnerian ideal. Scriabin was the single Russian composer to accept from Wagner the Orphic mission. We have already defined the Wagnerian resonance in Scriabin in “purely musical” terms when we noted Scriabin’s strong insistence on the dominant function. Most of his chords are dominant in color and tendency. In the Prelude, op. 48, no. 4, the chords were mainly dominant sevenths with additives; by the time of op. 74, the chords were mainly French sixths with additives. But the French sixth chord can be viewed as an “altered” dominant seventh, the alteration consisting of the flatting of the fifth degree. If the fifth degree is omitted from the French sixth, the remainder comprises an “incomplete” but fully functional dominant seventh, consisting of a defining root and a tritone in need of resolution.

With any given root, the tritone has only one option for resolving: the seventh must descend a semitone and the third (the functional leading tone) must ascend a semitone. That dual necessity is what gives the chord such a restless will of its own, which when exploited as Wagner did in Tristan und Isolde can channel the desires of the listening multitudes. But that desire is a highly egoistic desire; it heightens a listener’s awareness of his or her “personal, individual, petty ‘I,’ ” as Ivanov would say, and its selfish needs. Yet the primary selfish need, as Wagner so compellingly if paradoxically emphasized in Tristan, is the ego’s need for satiation—the extinguishing of desire, which can only come from union with the other: already a transcendence.

Scriabin found a way of representing satiation without resolution, thus quelling the ego’s need and achieving its dissolution; and we have already observed the mechanism by which this remarkable effect of quiescence is achieved. It is harmonic invariance based on the tritone. Because the tritone exactly bisects the octave, and therefore replicates itself when transposed by itself, its two tones, while needing resolution as we have seen, are of ambiguous tendency. The way in which a tritone will seek its resolution will depend on external stimuli—that is, the notes that accompany it. When accompanied by a dominant-seventh root, its pitches are defined as leading tone and seventh respectively. The leading tone, as we know, seeks resolution by ascent, the seventh by descent. Yet by changing the defining root we can cause an exchange of the two functions: what had been the leading tone tending upward becomes the seventh tending downward, and vice versa (Ex. 4-10).

Extinguishing the “I”

ex. 4-10 Alternative cadential harmonizations of the tritone

The two roots that accomplish this transformation must of course themselves lie a tritone apart. The direct progression formed by these two chords—chords sharing a tritone in common, their roots lying a tritone apart—was anticipated as early as Liszt and was memorably employed by Musorgsky to simulate coronation bells in Boris Godunov. It is the essential Scriabin progression. When turned into an oscillation along the “tritone link,” the bass progression continually contradicts and recontradicts the resolution tendencies in the harmonic tritone (see Ex. 4-11). This easy reciprocity of function negates the harmony’s “functionality,” turning it qualitatively from an active tendency (as in Wagner) into a latent or passive one. Although there is continual root activity, there is no functional progression—marching in place again.

Extinguishing the “I”

ex. 4-11 Alexander Scriabin’s “tritone link”

Playing over Ex. 4-11, we seem to examine or experience a single “floating” harmony from a dual perspective, something the Russian music theorist Boleslav Yavorsky (Scriabin’s younger contemporary) compared with moving from two-dimensional to three-dimensional space—which in turn is something Scriabin himself hinted at in a remark reported to Varvara Dernova, the discoverer of the tritone link, by Georgiy Rimsky-Korsakov, a grandson of the famous composer and a composer himself: “You have to be able to walk around a chord.”13 Until one of the root notes exemplified in Ex. 4-11 leaves the tritone treadmill and proceeds along the circle of fifths (or, in a pinch, by a semitone as if resolving an augmented sixth), the eventual destination of the tritone is in doubt, and one can even forget that the tritone has a destination. A quality of hovering, of time-forgetful stasis, altered consciousness, or even trance, can be induced. The “personal, individual, petty ‘I’ ” is lulled; consciousness is made available for something larger.

Scriabin’s whole stylistic evolution can be viewed as the gradual extinguishing of the desiring subject, the “petty ‘I,’ ” so as to make possible a theurgic, world- (or at least consciousness-) transforming transcendence. We have seen the end result in the miniatures of op. 74. We can trace the process through which the composer arrived at their enigmatically attenuated style by sampling some of his larger pieces, which at their largest are truly grandiose. For Scriabin’s output spectacularly encompassed both romantic extremes of expression—that of intimate aphoristic disclosure, and that of swollen public oration—and maximalized them both.


(12) Pamyatniki kul’turï 1983, p. 115.

(13) Dernova, Garmoniya Skryabina, p. 352.

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. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004004.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004004.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004004.xml