Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus, The Poem of Fire (1909–1910)

Program Notes for The University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra Performances
Hancher Auditorium, September 24, 1975

James Avery, Piano
Lowell Cross, Laser Projections
The University of Iowa Kantorei, Don V Moses, Conductor
James Dixon, Conducting the Combined Forces

(Alexander Scriabin, 1872–1915)

Prometheus prgm

Prometheus program cover

During the last decade before his premature death in 1915, Scriabin was absorbed in plans for the Mysterium, an ultimate, apocalyptic megawork of cosmic proportions. The Mysterium proper was to have been preceded by a grandiose Preliminary Action, itself lasting the obligatory seven days, wherein the fusion of all art forms and total sensory experience would prepare the assembled multitude for the final turning point in world history. Giant bells suspended from the clouds would summon the faithful from all over the earth to the chosen Site, a semi–circular temple with stage and reflecting pool erected for the occasion in the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling. Scriabin himself would occupy center stage, seated at the grand piano, framed by the temple (with the reflecting pool completing the divine circle), and surrounded by performers and activities of all imaginable types. Across the water one would find the thousands of spectator–participants, their proximity to Scriabin determined by the degree of their artistic and spiritual advancement.

The Preliminary Action was envisioned as an all–encompassing performance spectacle, embracing music, sound, and non–human noises; color and light (including the seven sunsets and sunrises); dance; processions; eye motions, mime, and gestures; fires, incense, perfumes, and pungent odors; tastes, caresses, pain and other tactile experiences; and various theatrical effects and actions—all interspersed with poetic declamations symbolically recounting the whole of evolutionary history. On the twelfth hour of the seventh day, the Preliminary Action would dissolve into the final “suffocation of ecstasy” of the Mysterium. The universe would then be totally destroyed and transformed (while deploring war, Scriabin viewed the tragic events of 1914 as a prelude to the Preliminary Action and the Mysterium). Out of the mythical, mystical, and awesome processes of the cataclysm—death, dematerialization, rebirth, and metaphysical transcendence—a new, exalted race of men would be born—Scriabin, of course, among them. Then the Mysterium would be repeated over and over again, each time on an exponentially loftier plane.

When he died of blood poisoning at the age of 43, Scriabin had completed only the text and a few dense musical sonorities for the Preliminary Action. Prometheus, The Poem of Fire (1909–10), with its extravagantly glittering and voluptuous music, its theosophical program, and its seldom–realized lighting effects, is as close as we can ever come to penetrating into Scriabin’s inner visions of a world transformed through art. The universality of the Promethean legend offered Scriabin an excellent vehicle for incorporating his philosophical notions into a quasi–abstract musical program. His philosophy was mostly a result of his own megalomania, yet it was derived in part from the doctrines of theosophy current in fin de siècle Europe and Russia. Theosophy, established by Mesdames Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91) and Annie Besant (1847–1933), teaches that 1) the intuitive and revelatory gifts of the perceptive, chosen few produce a wisdom far superior to that obtainable from historical religion, empirical philosophy, or pragmatic science, 2) theosophical enlightenment is the means for discovering the innate meaning of the cosmos, and 3) intuitive revelation leads to the determination of one’s own individual destiny. Scriabin certainly identified himself with this heady stuff, and his unfulfilled longings for the Himalayan foothills were kindled further by the connections to Indian philosophy upon which the theosophical dogmas were originally based.

The Poem of Fire opens with the celebrated “mystic” or “Promethean” chord (G – D–sharp – A – C–sharp – F–sharp – B), symbolizing primordial chaos. The soulless creatures “without Karma” are heard stirring about in limbo with the entrance of the muted horn motive. Following further mysterious slitherings and gropings in the woodwinds, the music becomes animated by a series of trumpet calls in fourths, punctuated by an ascending trumpet solo. In short succession, we have witnessed Prometheus’ gift of fire to man, human self–cognizance (the trumpets in fourths declaiming “I am”), and the rising self–assertion of “the Will.” The contemplative passage that follows symbolizes “the Dawn of Human Consciousness and Reason.” Man the individual, who is represented by the piano throughout, makes his entrance forcefully as we hear ascending passagework initially reminiscent of the trumpet motto, only to be subdued again by the contemplative theme of Reason. A dance–like “Joy of Life” motive is heard in the piano interspersed with hazy tritone sonorities in the winds marked “avec langueur.” The activities become “very animated” and “sparkling,” then “voluptuous, almost with pain,” followed by expressions of “delight,” “intense desire,” “ravishing emotion,” and “veiled mystery.” The procreative life processes have thus been set in motion in the “exposition” section of the music. The ensuing action of the long “development” section has to do with the joys, terrors, conflicts, and victories of Life. A sublime return to the Reason theme signals a musical recapitulation of sorts. The music quickly becomes “more and more luminous and flamboyant,” sweeping past with “sharp lightening” and “luminous waves” until an even higher state of ecstasy is reached as wordless, infantile murmurings like those of a newborn child are heard at the long–delayed entrance of the chorus. A frenetic dance then begins, descending into vertigo, and Prometheus ends all too suddenly with the ascending fourth mottoes in the trumpets (“I am” becoming “we are’”) symbolizing the unification of mankind with the cosmos.

The symbolism of the music is supplemented by a compelling cover design for the orchestral score (reproduced on the cover of tonight’s program) by the Belgian theosophist, painter, and symbolist poet, Jean Delville. The cover is orange, the color of fire, with the androgynous face of Prometheus (representing the union of male and female) glowing out of a “World–Lyre” and surrounded by a womb–like lotus blossom—“the Mind of Asia.” The piercing eyes represent “the Will” and are set off by the stars, spiraling galaxies, and comets of primeval chaos. To Scriabin, Prometheus was a kindred spirit: the satanic Lucifer–figure and fire–bringer, the archetypal rebel and source of mankind’s creativity.

Scriabin’s mature “Promethean” musical language, the anathema of 20th century neoclassicists, is characterized by motivic rather than thematic horizontal usage, the insistent application of the tritone as a structural element, and a suspended chromaticism lingering somewhere between atonality and the unrelieved tensions generated by a succession of richly scored, unresolved dominant ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords. An influential and erroneous early attempt to explain the foundations of this complex style came from Scriabin’s close associate Leonid Sabaneiev, who claimed to find its basis in the overtone series or “chord of nature.” The six–note “mystic” chord (found in other works besides Prometheus) was presumably formed from the eight, ninth, tenth, eleventh, thirteenth, and fourteenth harmonics of a given fundamental frequency. We see this attempted explication today as overly simplistic and devoid of any thorough understanding of acoustics or turning systems. Scriabin himself saw the harmonic identity of the “mystic” chord neither as a sonority built up in fourths, fifths, and tritones nor as an application of the harmonic series, but as a special distribution of the elements of a dominant thirteenth chord with A as root and the fifth, E, omitted. The harmonic and motivic existence of Prometheus falls almost completely outside of the tonic–dominant tonal system. The only triad in the entire 20–minute work is the final F–sharp major chord, which arrives more with a jolt than with a feeling of tonal repose after the long pedal point and eleventh chord on G–flat preceding it.

Scriabin is history’s first major multimedia artist. The Gesamtkunstwerk propounded by Wagner is much farther removed from today’s multimedia explorations than Scriabin’s works (especially Prometheus) could ever be. Wagner’s music–dramas were epic, narrative, and (obviously) dramatic, with the action unfolding under the proscenium and the orchestra in the pit. Scriabin’s milieu was mystical, symbolic, abstract, and philo–(theo–)sophical. One saw psychedelic posters of Scriabin in the San Francisco head shops of the 1960’s identifying him as “the first flower child.” He not only wanted the chorus for Prometheus to be dressed in white, but the “participating” audience as well. (This reminds us that the unrealizable Preliminary Action and Mysterium are actually early examples of conceptual art. Their common premise of the transformation of man through art is still with us.) And—of course—there is the seldom–realized part for the “tastiera per luce” or “clavier à lumières” in the score of Prometheus. Only one attempt was made—and an unsatisfactory one at that—to perform the “luce” part during Scriabin’s lifetime. This was at the American premiere in Carnegie Hall on March 20, 19l5 by Modest Altschuler and the Russian Symphony Orchestra. The composer—who had been the pianist for Prometheus under Serge Koussevitzky, Sir Henry Wood, and other conductors who chose to dispense with the lighting—was back in Russia in March, 1915, where he was to die the following month with the colored projections having existed only in his imagination.

One of the many quirks in Scriabin’s nature was his association of colors with musical tonalities. His correlation was not the simplistic one of A. W. Rimington (one of the inventors of the “color organ” ) and other predecessors and contemporaries who equated the color spectrum (red, orange, yellow, etc., through violet) with the chromatic [sic] half–steps of the octave C, C–sharp, D, etc., through B. Scriabin’s color/tonality associations were made via the circle of fifths with a few non–spectrum colors thrown in for good measure:

C red
F–sharp/G–flat intense blue
G orange–pink C–sharp/D–flat purple
D yellow G–sharp/A–flat red–purple
A green D–sharp/E–Flat “steely”
E whitish–blue A–sharp/B–flat “with a metallic shine”
B similar to E F dark red.

The “tastiera per luce” part, set in traditional musical notation at the top of the score, is played continuously throughout the piece. No explanation of the color–to–pitch relationships is given in the score; one must read Sabaneiev or other Scriabinists to find this information. The part is limited usually to two pitches (or colors): one always “doubled” in the orchestral writing, changing metrically with the music; the other lasting over very long durations (color organ pedal points?), expressing the breathing in and out of the Cosmic Life Force. There are programmatic color correlations as well as those relating to pitch. The opening depiction of chaos is blue–green, as though the soulless creatures were drifting about in a vast ocean. Just before the awarding of fire, a “steely” metallic color is seen, followed immediately by a green glimmering at the instant of fire–giving. The voluptuous passages are associated with dark red and red–purple. As we are swept toward one of the “victorious” climaxes, the sun–color, yellow, prevails.

Scriabin wanted much more than mere projections of colored spotlights on a screen in synchronization with the music. By making the kinetic imagery of the laser deflection system directly related to the energy of the music, by bringing in three–dimensional visual effects at specific points in the score, and by deploying all of Scriabin’s vast musical requirements, we hope to make this performance of Prometheus one that might have fulfilled the expectations of a visionary artist whose dreams were far in advance of the means for their technical realization. Those who wish to read more about the life, loves, and times of Alexander Scriabin, his exquisite piano music, his philosophy, the Preliminary Action, the Mysterium, and the “Divine” Poems of Ecstasy, earth, air, Fire, and water, should investigate (as has the compiler of these notes) the two–volume biography, Scriabin and The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers by Faubion Bowers (1917–1999), whose interest in our performances on September 24, 1975 brought him to The University of Iowa campus.

The laser deflection system of the Center for New performing Arts, VIDEO/LASER III, was constructed during 1971–72 by Lowell Cross on this campus and by Carson Jeffries at the University of California, Berkeley. Their earlier collaboration with David Tudor led to the installation of VIDEO/LASER II at Expo ’70 (Osaka, Japan, 1970). The CNPA system is a much more sophisticated version of its predecessor, and despite recurring imitations such as the “Laserium,” VIDEO/LASER III remains the most advanced laser–art system in existence. One aspect of the system’s sophistication is its set of design criteria for audience safety (viewing the projections is as safe as watching a motion picture).

Laser beams are intense, collimated sources of pure spectrum colors, capable of being deflected and projected by small mirrors scanning in response to audio–frequency information. For the Prometheus performance, the imagery of VIDEO/LASER III is being complemented by additional projections whose origins are derived from the laser system.

Update, 1980: With funding from a grant by The University of Iowa Foundation, VIDEO/LASER III was converted from four–beam to six–beam operation.

Update, 2005: VIDEO/LASER III is in storage, awaiting reassembly and restoration.