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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

Scriabin wrote ten piano sonatas in addition to his many miniatures, but they were not his biggest pieces. In fact, as his career went on they became smaller: the Fourth Sonata (1904) has two movements, like Beethoven’s op. 111, but in reversed order so that it ends with a vertiginous prestissimo volando (flying at great speed). From then on, they were all single-movement works like Liszt’s Sonata in B minor; and from the Sixth Sonata on, as the whole-tone and octatonic collections took over the normative functions formerly exercised by major and minor tonalities, Scriabin dispensed with the use of key signatures or designations.

Scriabin’s public orations were his five symphonies, a genre in which he parted company with his erstwhile model, Chopin, and joined the ranks of symphonic maximalists such as Mahler and Strauss. (Both German names deserve to be invoked, since although Scriabin called them symphonies, the last two were single-movement programmatic works that could just as well have been called tone poems.) The First Symphony (1900), like Mahler’s Second, apes Beethoven’s Ninth in the use of vocal soloists and chorus for an oratorio-like finale. But Scriabin found his true symphonic métier when he dispensed with words and began finding musical analogues for the new ideas about art’s significance that he picked up from his contacts among the mystical Symbolists and, later, from theosophy. The place to begin is the motto opening of the Third Symphony, subtitled Le divin poème (“The divine poem”), Scriabin’s one multimovement programmatic composition. The use of the motto and the key, C minor, are transparent gestures of tribute to Beethoven’s Fifth, the most famous symphony in the world.

But his starting point was as much Wagner as Beethoven, as we can infer directly from the motto theme, which he modeled (how consciously one can never tell) on the opening of the Tristan Prelude. In both cases an unaccompanied preparatory melody lasting one measure leads into a startlingly dissonant chromatic chord containing a tritone, urgently demanding an unspecified resolution. Scriabin’s chord is the more radical of the two, in keeping with the emulative spirit of maximalism, since it is an ad hoc harmonic structure with no common-practice standing at all.

Where the famous Tristan-chord could be classified, if desired, either as homologous (similarly structured) to a half-diminished seventh chord, or (more functionally) as a French sixth with one of its intervals unconventionally altered by contraction, Scriabin’s chord may be viewed as a German sixth, homologous to the dominant seventh, with one of its intervals unconventionally altered by expansion, adding to its dissonance and intensifying the affect of egoistic self-assertion (Ex. 4-12).

Approaching the Ultimate

ex. 4-12a Alexander Scriabin, The Divine Poem, I, mm. 1–15 (figuration and arpeggiation omitted)

Approaching the Ultimate

ex. 4-12b The “Scriabin sixth” and German sixth compared

The most striking parallel between the two openings is the specific way in which the first chord is prepared. Wagner leaps up from the tonic note to the sixth degree, which in the minor mode is a half step above the fifth, and passes through the fifth to a complementary half step below—that is, to the chromatically inflected fourth degree, the “altered” note that gives the Tristan-chord its name-worthy color. Scriabin’s opening exactly inverts Wagner’s procedure. The melody (assuming D♭, as at the beginning one must, to be the tonic) leaps down to the chromatically inflected fourth degree and proceeds through the fifth to a complementary half step above—that is, to the sixth degree, which, the mode being major, must also be chromatically inflected to preserve the half-step relationship.

The first resolution of Scriabin’s “ad hoc” chord is to an unsullied consonant triad, enhancing the promise of what the symphony’s program note calls “joyous and intoxicated affirmation,” to be wholly attained (as in the old Beethovenian scenario) in the C-major last movement, when the hero—personified by the solo trumpet—at last comes fully into his own. The trumpet had played the peremptory “summons” motif (the dotted rising sixth) in the third and the sixth measures of the opening as shown in Ex. 4-12. “The free, powerful man-god appears to triumph,” according to the program, which, although actually penned by Tatyana Schloezer, the composer’s common-law wife (much as Liszt’s writings, including programs, were often the work of his mistress, the princess Sayn-Wittgenstein), transmits the composer’s intentions well enough to have had his endorsement. “But,” the program continues, “it is only the intellect which affirms the divine Ego, while the individual will, still too weak, is tempted to sink into Pantheism,” that is, into hedonistic passivity and indolence.

How could such an abstract program be musically represented? Just as in the Tristan Prelude, the first phrase of Scriabin’s motto theme is seconded by a sequential repetition. But unlike the second phrase of the Tristan Prelude, the repetition is no mere intensifying reiteration. It does not terminate in another affirmative cadence, as it might well have done (see Ex. 4-12), but dissolves in a tritone link that palpably weakens its thrust. It is followed, in perhaps all too craftsmanly a fashion, by a second tritone link calculated to prepare the main key of the first movement, thus to launch a conventional sonata form that is interrupted, in a manner reminiscent of Chaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony or Franck’s Symphony in D minor, by periodic recollections of the opening motto.

These reminiscences must surely have been written, or at least improvised, before the actual opening passage was composed, for they demonstrate the genesis of the “ad hoc chord”—a chord that the composer continued to exploit as a basic component of his harmonic vocabulary, and that has accordingly earned the nickname “Scriabin sixth.” The first reminiscence (Ex. 4-13) takes place in E♭ major, the classically mandated key of the second theme in a C-minor sonata movement. The local tonic is held out in the treble instruments while the bass proclaims the motto in the new key. At the moment when the theme reaches the fifth note, the inflected lower neighbor tone or appoggiatura to the fifth degree, the trumpet-hero joins in to sound the complementary inflection above. The two voices, trumpet and bass, proceed in contrary motion through the fifth and on to the opposite or reciprocal inflection, thus producing the “Scriabin sixth.”

Approaching the Ultimate

ex. 4-13 Alexander Scriabin, The Divine Poem, I, fig. [1]

It is a symmetrical, simultaneous exchange of functions (known technically as a chiasmus, “cross” in Greek), comparable to the functional exchange involving the two tendency tones over the tritone link, illustrated in Ex. 4-11. It gave Scriabin an idea with enormous consequences. In the music following The Divine Poem, simultaneously sounding (rather than successive or progressive) symmetrical relations became the primary means for embellishing or prolonging the dominant function, and this is what led Scriabin to his special domain of quiescently “invariant” harmonic space.

Maximally prolonged “Wagnerian” dominants were long a Scriabin specialty. Even the little Prelude, op. 48, no.4 (Ex. 4-4), is Wagnerian in this sense, built over a dominant that is first sounded in m. 2, sustained through an/0 4 8/ vagary that moves by way of a symmetrical circle of major thirds from III to ♭VI, and not fully resolved until the end of the piece: Tristan in a nutshell. The obvious next step, once Scriabin had begun superimposing rather than juxtaposing symmetrically related harmonies, was to combine the two members of the tritone link in Ex. 4-11 into a composite dominant that could be “walked around.”

The immediate product of the operation, the Scriabin “double dominant,” was a chord homologous to a French sixth, as demonstrated at the beginning of Ex. 4-14. But that was just the beginning. As the example shows, the French sixth is one of only two chords in common practice (the other being the diminished seventh chord) that contain two tritones, the one corresponding to the sustained tendency tones in Ex. 4-11, the other to the complementary roots along the tritone link. Chords consisting of two tritones have exactly the same properties of invariance as a single tritone, but twice as many of them. That is, they are inversionally invariant on two axes of symmetry and transpositionally invariant at two intervals. Such chords were ideally suited for enhancing and furthering—in a word, maximalizing—Scriabin’s developing methods of dominant embellishment and prolongation.4-14

Of the two possible double-tritone chords, only the French sixth suited the composer’s present purposes, not only because of its Wagnerian associations but also because it was generically related to the “Scriabin sixth,” and could even be combined with it to achieve a further maximalized dominant sonority. The two chords had three tones out of four in common. Put together, as the next step in Ex. 4-14, their total of five tones would immediately have suggested to Scriabin, heir along with Stravinsky to the special traditions of Russian “fantastic harmony” going back to Glinka, that with the addition of a single remaining tone he would have a chord that expressed the dominant function by encompassing all the members of the whole-tone scale.

Approaching the Ultimate

ex. 4-14 Whole-tone scale as expanded dominant

This was a momentous discovery. A chord containing the entire whole-tone scale contains three tritones, thus maximizing further the potential for harmonic (that is, inversional and transpositional) invariance. Like the complete twelve-tone aggregate, of which it is, so to speak, a fifty-percent sample, the whole-tone aggregate has the property of stasis: every possible position of the chord is intervallically, hence functionally, identical to every other one. No matter which of its members is in the bass, no matter by which of its constituent intervals it is transposed, the pitch and interval content of the chord never varies. It could be endlessly “walked around”—that is, mined for a great variety of symmetrical constituents (the tritone itself, the augmented triad, the French sixth, the “incomplete” dominant ninth, plus a few, like the “Scriabin sixth,” without any common-practice classification) that offered infinite possibilities for motion without functional harmonic progression or resolution.

Best of all, it could be resolved at will to a functional tonic merely by allowing any of its constituent tones to proceed by half step (i.e., as a leading tone) or by fifth (i.e., as a root). And all of these possibilities are in effect doubled by the fact that there are two whole-tone scales—that is, two complementary samplings of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, one corresponding to the even-numbered tones counted from any given starting point or “zero pitch”, the other to the odd—between which progressions could freely take place without resolving harmonic tension.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004005.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004005.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004005.xml