Holding up your end in a musical discussion: Why you must hear the Poem of Ecstasy

Alexander Scriabin

By Ron Samuels

 Late in his life, Russian composer Alexander Scriabin hoped to create a vast, multimedia work fusing music, dance, theater, painting, poetry and perfume.  He intended for the performance to last seven days and nights in the foothills of the Himalayas.  The work, to be called Mysterium, would be a “celebration of collective joy,” a “grandiose religious synthesis of all arts” and would “herald a new world.”  Only Armageddon could follow the performance of the work, with humanity replaced by “nobler beings.”  It hardly needs to be said the work never came to fruition.  

We hope to pack not the Himalayas but Heinz Hall on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, January 11, 12 and 13, to experience a collective joy performing and listening to a work of Scriabin’s that did come to fruition, the brilliantly colorful Poem of Ecstasy(1908). Our program also includes music of Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Busoni.  Scriabin’s rapturous score clocks in at around twenty minutes, mercifully less than seven days and nights.  But those twenty minutes have had an inestimable impact on the course of music history.  Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Claude Debussy’s Jeux, and Arnold Schoenberg’sPierrot Lunaire, all seminal works completed four years later in 1912 that shattered the norms of rhythm, form, and harmony, respectively, were partly anticipated by Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.

The crux of the music is creativity itself.  Scriabin set out to unshackle himself from the bounds of standards, expectations and goals, seeking revelation instead.  He originally planned to title the work Orgiastic Poem, though he eventually settled on the less specific, if not more ambiguous, Ecstasy.  Musical instructions in the score, however, still suggest the former:  “very perfumedwith a feeling of growing intoxication; and with a sensual pleasure becoming more and more ecstatic.”  The piece builds toward two climaxes, the second featuring one of the Deagan tower chimes rescued by principal percussionist Andrew Reamer in 2017.  (See: https://blogs.pittsburghsymphony.org/2017/05/tower-chimes-get-second-life-at-heinz-hall/ )

Leo Tolstoy described Scriabin’s music as “a sincere expression of genius.”  American author Henry Miller liked to listen to a recording of Poem of Ecstasywith the volume turned high, describing it as “a cosmic itch…divinely fouled up…like a bath of ice, cocaine and rainbows…”  

Like his music, Scriabin himself was a dense mix – synesthetic, theosophical, mystical, egomaniacal, innovative, controversial.  And according to his definitive biographer, Faubion Bowers, “No one was more famous during their lifetime and more quickly ignored after their death.” His Poem of Ecstasy, however, lives on, and for anyone interested in experiencing the breadth of orchestral music, it is required listening.

The PSO will perform the Poem of Ecstasy, along with Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto January 11th, 12th, and 13th.