Alexander Scriabin: one of the most influential composers of modern music. The Russian composer and pianist, who lived from 1872-1915, either crazy or a genius (or both), influenced prominent 20th century composers (such as Igor Stravinsky and Prokofiev). Scriabin is known for his harsh dissonance and atonal music (music that does not have a tonal center or harmonic structure; read more here), which style of music was actually way ahead of his time! (Side note: composers were starting to get more and more into chromaticism [i.e. Wagner], which might be one reason why Scriabin decided to pursue atonality.) AND interestingly enough, even though he was super famous when he was alive, his fame drastically decreased after he died, and we don’t hear his music as much anymore. Click here to listen to an example of his more atonal piano music.
So. Today I want to share with you his Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor, op. 20, which is – surprisingly – wholly harmonic and incredibly moving.
This is Scriabin’s only piano concerto. Written in 1896, it surprised and delighted listeners due to its un-atonalness and distinct Chopin influence (Frédéric Chopin was a Polish composer who lived from 1810-1849 and is known for beautiful, soaring melodies and fioritura, which is a fancy term for extremely florid embellishments and ornaments in the music. Read more here and expect more posts on him soon). And, interestingly, this is Scriabin’s first published orchestral piece. The composer himself premiered and continued to perform the work.
There are so many elements to discuss regarding Scriabin’s op. 20. The whole work is very precise; Scriabin was careful to place notes and rhythms and harmonies exactly where they were supposed to go. And he masterfully orchestrated the piece so the piano is enhanced, yet the orchestra also shines on its own. AND he created his own sound based on Classical and Romantic roots injected with his own style.
The first movement is Classically inspired – in a type of sonata form – combined with Romantic era embellishments and emotion. This movement has three main ideas in the exposition: the first beginning at 0:17 with the piano entrance is a Chopin-esque melody continued with and developed by the orchestra; the second starting at 1:50 is a dance-like duet between the piano and the clarinets; and the third starts at 2:09 with a lovely flowing piano part accompanied by soft strings and horns. The development section begins at 2:49 with the return of the first theme. This section is full of soaring lines and the mixing and passing of motifs between instruments while the piano part interjects in a beautiful (yet calculated and smart) way. The impressive coda starts around 6:50, where the sound builds and builds to a very climactic ending of five repeated fortissimo F-sharp minor chords. See below:
One of my favorite moments in this whole concerto happens from 1:18-1:27; the long lines in the strings emphasized by accented triplets in the piano supported by lush harmonies is gorgeous (it also happens again from 4:52-5:04, but this time the orchestra takes on the long lines and the accented triplets, while the piano echoes the triplets a beat later). Also, listen to the interplay between the strings/winds and the piano from 7:09-7:19. The two groups enter together with the same motif, but the next rendition of that motif is staggered – the piano enters in one beat after the stings/winds, providing a sense of turbulence and off-balanced longing. The excerpt below shows 7:12-7:19:
The second movement is also gorgeous, but in a different way. Beginning at 7:42, the lush, lilting strings carry out the main theme, which sounds characteristically like a Russian folk tune. The rest of the work proceeds as a theme-and-variations-type movement. The piano enters with the first variation at 9:16 with flowing arpeggios playing against a solo clarinet. The second variation begins at 10:53, marked by a tempo change and a mood shift to dramatic chords. The piano carries the theme while the orchestra provides harmonic accents, and overall it is upbeat Russian-folksy sounding. The third variation, a sort of slow funeral march, starts at 11:26. The key changes to minor, and the heavy chords are reminiscent of Chopin’s funeral march (the third movement of his 2nd piano sonata) and his Prelude in C minor op. 28 no. 20. This variation is interplay between the piano (written strictly in bass clef except for the last two chords – a ii minor 7th chord, for you theory whizzes out there) and the strings (where the strings only interject the piano part with a sad, arching line).
Variation four begins at 13:18 after the strange ending of the previous variation and is full of complex and detailed ornamentation in the piano part, but it’s a beautiful duet between the piano and the clarinet with the strings carrying the melody underneath. The coda sneaks in much like the first variation at 14:47 with the melody in the strings, and the whole movement ends with an F-sharp major chord followed by two C-sharps (which is interesting because C-sharp is the dominant of F-sharp, which kind of leaves the sense of unfinished-ness):
The third movement begins with a bang at 16:16. A sort of frenzied polonaise (a Polish dance typified by march-like characteristics), the movement is full of contrasts and sweeping lines. The piano sets the polonaise tone from the beginning with a dotted triplet rhythm, and the orchestra picks it up while the piano does a sweeping arpeggio (listen to 16:16-16:24 and see the excerpt below).
And remember the echo/staggered motif idea from the first movement? Well this movement is crammed full of that idea as well. Listen to 16:33-16:50, as the clarinet picks up the theme, passes it on to the piano. Then the triplets alternate with the strings, and the oboe comes in with the main theme one beat before the piano does. This is just a small excerpt of the alternating/echoing that occurs in this movement.(Listen for the echoed triplets from 25:58-26:05.) 17:49 introduces the second theme of the movement, which is much more lyrical than the previous theme, and it pulls from the emotion of the first movement. The rest of the piece builds around these two themes. The work ends with four fortissimo F-sharp major chords, which is reminiscent of the first movement, is reflective of the whole musical journey of the piece, and leaves a sense of finalization:
Music theory tidbit: I find it interesting that Scriabin ends this movement (and the whole piece) with a plagal cadence instead of an authentic cadence (27:01-27:15).
Overall, this is a wonderful work that should be more known. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I do. 🙂
*Featured image: Klavierkonzert mit Alexander Skrjabin unter Leitung von Sergei Kussewitzky (Piano concerto with Alexander Scriabin conducted by Sergei Koussevitzky) by Robert Sterl (1910)