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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

This description of the potential behavior of the six-tone extended dominant chord has been no mere theoretical exercise. It is a description of the actual behavior of Scriabin’s Symphony no. 4, op. 54, subtitled Le poème de l’extase (“The poem of ecstasy”), his most famous composition. It is very much a sequel to the Divine Poem, again casting the solo trumpet as “Nietzschean” superhuman protagonist, to the point where the symphony becomes a virtual concerto, requiring a credit to the performer. Its surface Tristanisms are too conspicuous to be missed by anyone who knows Wagner.

But the main Tristan affinity is profoundly structural and all-encompassing. Like Wagner’s opera, Scriabin’s symphony consists in the most general terms of a single fundamental gesture, an agonizingly prolonged “structural upbeat” that at the very last moment achieves cataclysmic consummatory resolution. That colossal consummatory gesture is the ultimate reality, the “noumenon” that underlies all sensory and cognitive experience, for which sexual union (as in Tristan), the creative act, childbirth or death as subjectively perceived, even the subjective notion of the beginning or the end of time, can be conceptual or “phenomenal” metaphors.

The music is thus laden with a profusion of powerful but apparently contradictory meanings—triumph and annihilation; procreation and spontaneous cosmic genesis; birth and death—that can best be clarified from the perspective of mystical symbolism, as in Vyacheslav Ivanov’s “threefold vision” of Scriabin’s accomplishment (quoted above), which encompasses both the transcendence of the individual person and the breakthrough to a new plane of being. The extinction or dissolution of the individual ego—the “petty ‘I’”—is ideally prefigured in the six-tone dominant chord, for its component tones constitute a symmetrical scale whose intervals are all equal and whose degrees, therefore, are all equidistant, structurally undifferentiated, and hence not subject to functional classification. If one cannot differentiate degrees or identify their functions, one can no longer identify with the fluctuations of harmonic tension or respond to them emotionally. One’s ego is stilled.

The functional relationships in the Poème de l’extase are thus reduced to a single essential dualism: an almost infinitely extended, graded, and variegated dominant that in its ceaseless flux and nuance is almost palpably sensuous, and a crushingly asserted tonic, tantalizingly glimpsed and tasted in advance, but for the most part withheld. Indeed the dualism is more than just a harmonic functional relationship. It is the interaction between two planes of consciousness.

The one, represented by the whole-tone scale, begins inchoate, undifferentiated, selfless, but—as the trumpet’s increasing prominence and the ever longer, more insistent dominant pedals announce—coalesces and concentrates itself into an overwhelming manifestation of desire. The other, represented by the diatonic scale, suggests Ivanov’s breakthrough to universal consciousness. Since we are constantly reminded that the whole-tone, functionally undifferentiated harmonies are in fact elaborations and prolongations of a single primal function—the dominant function, the most directed harmonic tension of all—the reconstitution of the ego at the same time presages the transcendence of desire. The ecstatic climax at the end of the symphony is in fact the dawn of satiety and quiescence, as Scriabin’s later compositions would bear out.

The opening of the Poème de l’extase is given in harmonic abstract in Ex. 4-15. (The point of the abstract will emerge most clearly if it is followed while listening to a recorded performance.) The music recapitulates some of the cadential gestures encountered at the beginning of the Divine Poem (Ex. 4-12). A series of unusual chromatic chords, each a subset of a whole-tone scale, are quietly resolved by semitone to the C-major triad, thus establishing C major as tonic, thereby foreshadowing and planting expectation of the ultimate breakthrough. The first such resolution, shown in the first “measure” of the abstract, is complete and unambiguous. The second, in the second “measure,” leaves a dissonant seventh sounding; tension is not fully discharged, and it will continue to accumulate until the final shattering gesture of consummation.

Ecstasy, and After

ex. 4-15 Alexander Scriabin, Le poème de l’extase, Op. 54, harmonic abstract of beginning

A third cadential gesture now begins, which lasts until the end of the abstract. Its tension is augmented by the first full simultaneous presentation of the whole-tone collection (as shown in the box in Ex. 4-15), to which notes from the complementary collection are then added, creating a real sense of clash. The first of these clashing tones is A. It begins in the flute but is immediately taken up by the trumpet making its bow as protagonist. It is sustained through a crescendo, which is another way of building tension, while the bass instruments force the issue by sounding G, the traditional dominant of C major. Under this pressure, the notes of the one whole-tone scale give way to those of the other scale in a fashion that approximates a traditional dominant preparation. At the height of the crescendo, the trumpet, after a pair of attention-grabbing leaps, makes the final approach to the dominant, dramatically resolving E to D♯, which functions in this context as the augmented fifth of a dominant-ninth chord on G, another chord that consists of five of the six notes of a whole-tone scale. The pressure toward resolution has by now grown intolerable.

It is resolved, however, in only one voice, albeit the most important one. The bass resolves dominant G to tonic C along the circle of fifths, but the tones of the augmented dominant ninth remain suspended over the tonic. The trumpet’s D♯ returns in the cellos at the downbeat of m. 22 (the end of Ex. 4-15), having been introduced by a full whole-tone scale, sounded by a harp glissando. The clarinet, at the same time, makes a dramatic leap to a high A, the ninth of the ninth chord. We are left, so to speak, with a mixed color—augmented dominant ninth over tonic anticipation (or rather, eventually, a tonic pedal)—arising out of a mixed function, one of those finely graded sensuous nuances for which the Poème de l’extase is famous. The mixture produces a sense of disorientation in the listener, and will be exploited for that purpose throughout the composition, becoming one of its most characteristic harmonies. It could even be called the Extase-chord, as indeed Scriabin seems to have recognized when he used it, a short time later, to end a piano piece called Désir (“Desire;” Ex. 4-16).

Ecstasy, and After

ex. 4-16 Alexander Scriabin, Désir, Op. 57, no. 1, final chord

Let us take a walk around this chord. Like so many Scriabin harmonies, it contains a French sixth—the top four notes if the dominant-ninth component of the chord is laid out in close spacing as it is at the end of Ex. 4-16—which to Scriabin was the invariant harmony par excellence when inverted or transposed. Taking our cue from its presence, let us invert the chord and transpose its members. The obvious axis for such an inversion is the top note, A, the note strategically spotlit by the clarinet’s leap at the end of Ex. 4-15. Ex. 4-17 shows what happens when we perform the operation.

Ecstasy, and After

ex. 4-17 Manipulations of the Extase chord

Scriabin never used the fascinating chord thus arrived at in the Poème de l’extase. Yet he must have performed the operations shown in Ex. 4-17 at some point, for the chord formed by inverting the Extase-chord is the most famous Scriabin chord of all, the one christened the “Chord of Prometheus” by the composer’s disciple Leonid Sabaneyeff in a famous article (translated by the painter Wassily Kandinsky and edited by Arnold Schoenberg) published in Berlin in 191214 and known in the English-speaking world since around 1916 as the “mystic chord” (so renamed by Arthur Eaglefield Hull, Scriabin’s first English biographer).15 Sabaneyeff and Hull pitched the chord up a third from the pitch shown in Ex. 4-17, presumably so as to represent it as if “in C” (i.e., neutrally as to “key”), but the pitch level shown in the example is in fact the one employed at the very outset of Scriabin’s Fifth Symphony, subtitled Prométhée: Le poème de feu (“Prometheus: The poem of fire”), op. 60 (1910), where it sounds steadily throughout the main thematic exposition (Ex. 4-18).

Scriabin had his own name for the chord. At an early rehearsal of Prométhée, his friend and fellow pianist-composer Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), stunned at the sound of it, asked “What are you using here?” Scriabin answered, “The chord of the pleroma.”16

The pleroma, a Christian gnostic term derived from the Greek for “plenitude,” was the all-encompassing hierarchy of the divine realm, located entirely outside the physical universe, at immeasurable distance from man’s terrestrial abode, totally alien and essentially “other” to the phenomenal world and whatever belongs to it. Scriabin would have encountered the word in Mme Blavatsky’s compendium The Secret Doctrine (1888), the theosophists’ bible, where it is associated with Promethean concepts like “Spiritual Fire” and “Astral Light” and with angelic androgyny (unisexism). What we know as the “mystic chord,” then, was designed by the composer to afford instant apprehension of—that is, to reveal, in the biblical sense—what was in essence beyond the mind of man to conceptualize.

Its magical stillness was a mystical or gnostic intimation of a hidden otherness, a world and its fullness wholly above and beyond rational or emotional cognition. In terms that poets as far back as Baudelaire had prized above everything else, Scriabin had created in the “chord of the pleroma” a genuine musical symbol: something that establishes a nexus between external phenomenal reality (what Ivanov called realia) and the higher noumenal reality that Ivanov called realiora, the “more real.”17 In the words of Simon Morrison, a historian of Russian musical maximalism, Scriabin’s harmony established “a relationship between the mobile, temporal world of perceptible phenomena” in which we actually hear the chord as a sound, “and the immobile, non-temporal world of essences.”18

But what produced this uncanny stasis? It arose out of the same conditions we have already observed in the final harmony of the Prelude, op. 74, no. 1 (Ex. 4-6a), where, as in the “mystic chord,” a French sixth chord, which contains two tritones, acts as a nexus between the whole-tone scale, which contains three, and the octatonic scale, which contains four. Unlike Debussy’s music, where the whole-tone scale interacts with the diatonic, or Stravinsky’s music, where the octatonic scale interacts with the diatonic, Scriabin’s late music inhabits a realm from which the diatonic scale, with its functionally differentiated degrees and its strong drive to resolution, has been virtually eliminated.

Ecstasy, and After

fig. 4-2 Autograph page from Prométhée (1910).

Ecstasy, and After

ex. 4-18 Alexander Scriabin, Prométhée, abstract of beginning

Its presence may be felt at times behind the scenes, directing some vestigial harmonic progressions along the old circle of fifths, but for the most part we have proceeded, according to Vyacheslav Ivanov’s famous formula, a realibus ad realiora, (“from the real to the more real”): from the phenomenal world of human senses and desires, long and effectively represented by the functions of diatonic harmony, to the world of spiritual revelation, the world of the pleroma, represented by a unique musical idiom in which there is a strong sense of harmonic fluctuation and root movement—walking, indeed darting, around and between chords and scales—but in which any sense of harmonic direction and potential closure has been weakened to the point of virtual extinction.


(14) L. Sabanejew, “‘Prometheus’ von Skrjabin,” Almanach der blaue Reiter, eds. W. Kandinsky and F. Marc (Munich: Piper Verlag, 1912).

(15) Arthur Eaglefield Hull, Scriabin: A Great Russian Tone-Poet (1916); (2nd ed., London: Kegan Paul, 1927), p. 106.

(16) Igor Boelza, “Filosofskiye istoki obraznego stroya ‘Prometeya,’” Razlichnïye aspektï tvorchestva A. N. Skryabina (Moscow: Scriabin Museum, 1992), p. 19.

(17) See Andrey Bely, “Realiora,” Vesï V, no. 5 (May 1908): 59.

(18) Simon Morrison, “Skryabin and the Impossible,” JAMS LI (1998): 314.

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. 30 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004006.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004006.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 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004006.xml