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About this Piece

Strange, obsessive, enigmatic, uncanny – adjectives swarm around the music of Scriabin, though much of his music is still unfamiliar to concert audiences. In fact, no study of the musician existed in English until 1967, when Faubion Bowers published his enormous two-volume biography, and with the exception of a few champions, pianists in the west didn’t often venture into this alien terrain. He has been labeled a mystic, a megalomaniac, and a visionary. The eerie trills and atonal disjunctions of his later works, the outwardly improvisatory, though minutely calculated, structures of his mature piano sonatas, and the gigantic color-imbued orchestral pieces have all contributed to this reputation.

But the earliest phase of Scriabin’s music, from which tonight’s program draws, gives us a different impression. To be sure, there are indications of the experimental directions which lay ahead, but for the most part we are reminded that Scriabin was a classmate of that ultimate romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Moscow Conservatory, receiving rigorous training in composition and piano until graduating with him in 1892. Scriabin, we must remember, represents the continuation of a heritage defined by figures such as Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Chopin.

In his mature years, the composer promulgated a system in which each musical key was associated with a specific color, going so far as to include in the score of his last tone poem, Prometheus, a part for a yet to be invented keyboard which could project illuminated colors into the performing space. This fascination with color is found even in his youthful correspondence.

Just out of his teens and in the year of his graduation, Scriabin travelled to the Baltic coast and had his first unforgettable encounter with the sea. In a letter to his sweetheart he wrote:

“Everything glowed with magnificent majesty on the horizon. First a clear purple, then it turned rose-colored, and finally silvery flecks stained the surface of the sea…. The green of the sea blended with the blue reflection of the sky. There was such a play of colors and shades as I've never seen. It was a picture, a triumph of colors, a festival of truth.”

It was also the inspiration for his Second Sonata, though it would be another five years and several more oceanside trips before the fastidious composer would send a completed manuscript to his impatient publisher. In 1897 the Sonata was published with the title “Sonata-Fantaisie.” Scriabin provided his own description of the two-movement work:

“…the first movement represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitations of the deep, deep sea. The E-major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming after the first darkness of the night. The second movement, Presto, represents the vast expanse of ocean stormily agitated.”

In the color scheme Scriabin would devise later, the key of E major is a light cool blue.

- Grant Hiroshima