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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


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

The chief harmonic ingredient, the French sixth chord, remains recognizably a modified dominant chord in intervallic structure, but there is no longer any dominant function to perform. Where there is no dominant function, of course, there can be no complementary tonic function either. Hence the widespread view that Scriabin’s visionary achievement was the breakthrough into “atonality,” a concept (or at least a term) that he never knew, but one that excellently fulfills the old Hegelian promise of progress toward emancipation. What makes the view questionable for Scriabin was his continued reliance on the circles of thirds—major in the case of the whole-tone scale, minor in the case of the octatonic—that provide the symmetrical scales with a harmonic background that Scriabin continued to exploit for the sake of tonal coherence.

What Scriabin sought, then, and what he to a large extent achieved, was not atonality at all but a new (he might have said “higher”) kind of tonality, one that modulated by thirds rather than fifths through what might be called a musical hyperspace—space bent back into circles by the use of the closed /0 4 8/ and /0 3 6 9/ axes of transposition. Like traditional tonal harmony, and very much opposed in concept to atonality, Scriabin’s harmony was at all times firmly directed, subject to rules—its own rules, but consistent ones—of voice leading that made its progressions intelligible as such.

In Prométhée, for example, even the small amount of it visible in Ex. 4-18, almost all motivic and harmonic transpositions are by minor thirds or multiples thereof (designated t3, t6, and t9 in Ex. 4-18). That preference indicates a preference for the octatonic over the whole-tone as primary frame of reference, and this is confirmed by the melody, in which the B natural from the main harmony is leapt to and then inflected through a slur to B♭, as if resolving an appoggiatura. If looked upon that way, the inflection resolves the “mystic chord” to a chord that is wholly referable to the octatonic scale (Ex. 4-19).


ex. 4-19 The “mystic chord” with top note resolved

The chord thus arrived at, as a matter of fact, would function in Scriabin’s Seventh Sonata (“The White Mass”), op. 64 (1911), as a basic point of reference, much as the “mystic chord” had functioned in “Prométhée.” As the object of a resolution, the whole octatonic collection could be said to have assumed the role of tonic, much the way it had functioned in “Chez Pétrouchka”. The difference, of course, and what makes Scriabin at this point the more committed maximalist, was that he emphasized not the familiar triadic material that can be mined from the octatonic collection, but “unclassified” harmonies of a kind that had come to the fore in “Chez Pétrouchka” only once, at the Far Out Point.

Scriabin thus seems to hover constantly at Stravinsky’s FOP. The only exception comes at the very end of Prométhée, where a climactic resolution is made to the F♯ major triad, perhaps on an analogy with the blazing climax of the Poème del’extase. But resolving the “mystic chord” to an ordinary triad does not come this time as the fulfillment of a mounting agony of desire. Without a traditional harmonic function to fulfill, the chord is unexpected. It can seem arbitrary and even a bit anachronistic.

A much better illustration of Scriabin’s unerring sense of harmonic direction, even in the period of his so-called atonality, is Vers la flamme (“Toward the flame”), op. 72 (1914), a work that incorporates a sense of direction into its very title. It comes from the last full year of Scriabin’s composing career, and represents his style and technique at their most advanced. Yet even in a piece just as shy of “pure triads” as The Rite of Spring, Scriabin contrived to maintain a sense of forward momentum and eventual cadence and completion, in keeping with the implications of the title.

Like the much longer Poème de l’extase, the whole piece can be interpreted as a single consummatory gesture—what Ivanov, describing the spiritual qualities Scriabin’s music conveyed, called porïv, a word that literally means “gust” (as of wind, etc.) but can also mean “transport,” in the sense of a sudden access of rapture crowning a spiritual ascent. Its general effect can be instantly grasped by comparing the beginning, marked pianissimo and sombre (dark), with the fortissimo conclusion with the right hand approaching the very top of the keyboard. These are the two aspects of the piece’s starkly concentrated dynamic unfolding: from soft to loud and low to high.


ex. 4-20a Alexander Scriabin, Vers la flamme, Op. 72, mm. 1–11


ex. 4-20b Alexander Scriabin, Vers la flamme, Op. 72, mm. 129–end

At both ends of the piece, however, the bass note is the same, a recurrence that one expects in tonal music, and that contradicts the notion of atonality. Further, one notes that the chord built over E at the beginning (Ex. 4-20a) is held unchanging but for surface figuration for four measures, and the one at the end (Ex. 4-20b) is held, in block form and in a final arpeggio, for nine. These observations point to what is most constant and characteristic in the piece: a very slow harmonic rhythm accompanying a frenetically active and variegated surface. With the rate of harmonic progression so slow, every chord change registers as a large event. Plotting the changes is easy, and very revealing.4-20a

The first change, as shown in Ex. 4-20a, tells all. The opening chord, almost predictably a French sixth, moves after four measures to another French sixth a minor third away. After another six measures the process is repeated, placing the same chord now at a tritone’s remove from the opening, at which distance, as we know, the French sixth chord is invariant. The only differences in pitch content between m. 1 and m. 11 are to be found in the surface embellishment (here, in the appoggiaturas applied to the main chord: A♯ and C♯ in m. 1, A natural and C♯ in m. 11). Armed with these observations, we can more or less predict the harmonic events to come in terms of departure and return, just as we can in traditional tonal music. The specialness of the music, as in traditional tonal music, will lie in the specific strategies through which the composer realizes the foreordained plan.

Having observed the beginnings of a harmonic plan involving rotations around an /0 3 6 9/ axis of minor thirds beginning on E, we may make the prediction that the harmonic basis of the piece will consist of a matrix of chords, probably of “altered dominant” quality, with roots on E, G, B♭, and D♭C♯: call that the primary cycle. In Vers la flamme, as in “Chez Pétrouchka,” the whole matrix (or “complexe sonore,” as Stravinsky once termed it) will stand as tonic. For a dominant—a contrasting but closely related complex—Scriabin will shift, at times, to the /0 4 8/ axis of major thirds (E, C, A♭): call that the secondary cycle.

The whole first section of the piece, up to m. 40, is built around a rotation ascending through three of the four members of the primary cycle. The final progression, to C♯D♭, is withheld, however; in its place we get a sort of deceptive cadence to B minor (practically the only “pure triad” in the piece) that appears first in m. 19 and reappears four times thereafter, its highest voice doubled at the third to produce a seventh chord. (Beginning at m. 27 this chord is briefly promoted to full “structural” status, empowered to import its own /0 3 6 9/cycle; but after only one progression, to D in m. 30, the feint is dropped.) At m. 41—where according to the expression marks emotion is kindled in the form of “a veiled joy”—E is reestablished as root (Ex. 4-20c). The chord quality this time is of another altered dominant, the “dominant minor ninth,” alternating with something that might be called the “Tristan ninth”; and the harmonic path shifts over to the secondary cycle. Confining our field of vision momentarily to the “oompah” oscillations in the bass, we note the members of the /0 4 8/cycle passing in review: E at m. 41, C at m. 47, A♭ at m. 55, where Ex. 4-20c breaks off. Full circle is achieved at 64, whereupon the /0 3 6 9/primary cycle is reasserted, this time reaching the point withheld in the opening section. The first sounding of a harmony rooted on D♭ in m. 74 is an exhilarating moment, an apex; it palpably conveys the achievement of a new stage in our ascent.


ex. 4-20c Alexander Scriabin, Vers la flamme, Op. 72, mm. 41–55


ex. 4-20d Alexander Scriabin, Vers la flamme, Op. 72, mm. 97–103


ex. 4-20e Alexander Scriabin, Vers la flamme, Op. 72, mm. 108–111

Once E is regained in m. 77, the harmonic rhythm slows to a virtual crawl, but the surface is agitated into rapid oscillations that play on age-old conventions of fire imagery. The primary cycle is maintained to the end with only a single departure: the abruptly intruding chords rooted on D in mm. 97 and 101 (Ex. 4-20d), which in this context have the character of a Far Out Point, intensifying the sense of return when the opening thematic material is recapitulated transcendentally in m. 107. The most noticeable difference between this spot (Ex. 4-20e) and the beginning of the piece is the contrast in loudness and register. More subtle, but also more telling, is the transformation of the French sixths from the opening into dominant sevenths. The perfect fifths in the bass give these chords a solidity that reinforces the sense of arrival and approaching climax. What is perhaps most remarkable is the way our ears have been conditioned by all the harmonic rotations that have gone before not to expect any “tonal” resolutions. The dominant sevenths here have all the stability of a tonic.

But as members of a symmetrically disposed complexe sonore they are all functionally equivalent. How can one of them be further promoted to the status of first (that is, last) among equals? Its sheer statistical predominance might suggest E as the best candidate for selection (and we have already observed that E provides the final bass note). But Scriabin actually found a better way to signify the completion of his spiritual porïv. Like the first section, the final one withholds the last member of the/0 3 6 9/cycle. There is a distinct sense of stalling at 6 (i.e., B♭, the tritone antipode) in mm. 117–124. Lasting eight measures, it is the composition’s longest-sustained single harmony. After the stall, the return to E can seem a fallback, one reiterated in mm. 127–129 when B♭ again fails to pierce the implicit barrier.

All the greater, then, is the sense of breakthrough at the very top of the final arpeggio, already shown in Ex. 4-20b, when at last C♯, the very note withheld as a harmonic root, provides the melodic capstone. What gives the sense of finality here is not a gesture of reinforced return, as in a traditionally tonal composition, but a gesture of pattern-completion. As traditional tonal styles gave way to various maximalized idioms during the fraught decades of the early twentieth century, pattern-completion emerged as an effective alternative way of creating tonal expectations and achieving tonal fulfillments. Vers la flamme was a benchmark in this process.

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. 17 Nov. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004007.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 17 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004007.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 17 Nov. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-004007.xml