Lia Tomás
The mythical time in Scriabin

Fifth Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies, Berkeley 1994

In his book Musical Poetics (1946:120), Stravinski asks a question which at the same time requires an answer and displays a great deal of admiration: «After all, is it possible to link a musician like Scriabin to any tradition? Where did he come from? Who are his predecessors?» In a way, the question put forward by Stravinski is a touchstone for all of those who look at the work of this intriguing composer. A mystic, a philosopher, a madman, or a genius? A visionary? Scriabin was all of this at the same time, a personality that combined contradictions.

In his first compositional phase, which lasted approximately until 1898, Scriabin was explicitly influenced by Chopin. After that, he started to be interested in philosophy, getting in touch with several systems, yet not delving deeply into any. Having read authors like Goethe, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Plato, and Schelling, Scriabin decided on systematizing a formulation of his own, which would reflect more his conception of the world. Wagner's idea of «Total Work of Art» attracted Scriabin's attention, as it met his early reflections. Like Wagner, Scriabin could not consider music as pure music, having itself a reference. That seemed absurd to him. Music had to express something. This conception of Gesamtkunstwerk was based upon a merger of philosophy, religion, and art, where a transubstantiation would be achieved through music, sound leading to ecstasy. Through this musical rite, he intended to recover the ancient history of magic powers (Bowers 1970,1:319).

And it is in «Prometheus, The Poem of Fire», his last symphony, that his project comes true. One of Scriabin's most daring compositions, it requires, besides the orchestral apparatus (orchestra, choir, and piano), a «tastiera per luce», a keyboard for light that projects predetermined colors in synchrony with the music. In the original score, there is a supplementary staff denominated «Luce», where there are musical notes corresponding to the colors determined by the composer. For Scriabin, this correspondence should occur in a synthetic manner. He suggests a colorful audition of the work. With this view, starting from an arbitrary, personal color scale, he matches the colors chosen with the fundamental notes of the inversions of the synthetic chord. Thus, the «Luce» staff accompanies the harmonic succession of the work.

Also with «Prometheus», Scriabin opens a new phase of his output and musical language, where basic concepts of traditional harmony such as the idea of tonality are replaced by preconceived harmonic nuclei that can generate the theme and unify the derivations of the chords in the composition. This generating nucleus was defined by Scriabin as the «synthetic chord», also known as tonality chord or mystic chord. It consists of a hexaphonic chord composed by a superposition of perfect, augmented, and diminished fourths: C - F# - Bb - E - A - D. This chord is continuously used throughout the composition and, besides serving as a basis and a unifying principle, will be the producer and propeller of all the musical discourse.

With a more careful reading of the composer's texts, it can be observed that they have an underlying thinking, an indicator that can lead to another key to the understanding of Scriabin's universe. This key is in another structure of thinking, which cannot be seen as false or deceiving, although its foundation lies on a setting other than the rational one: the mythical thinking.

According to Mircea Eliade (1989, 1985), myth is a complex cultural reality. Besides explaining the origin of mankind through a «sacred history» (therefore a true history), it reveals exemplary standards for all meaningful human activities through behavioral rules, symbols, and rituals. Therefore, if the myth always reports the beginning, the «creation» of something that started to exist later, whether it is the origin of the world or the consequences of its creation, one gathers that the myth only tells us about what really happened. However, access to this original knowledge requires more than mere understanding: it requires the proclamation of this knowledge through a celebration, so that one becomes impregnated with the sacred atmosphere where this creation took place. Ritual is not a mere commemoration, but a repetition, a reactualization of the past events, so that the present time is interrupted in order to retum to the mythical time. This conscious repetition of gestures, customs and habits only achieves a real meaning as an identity with the primordial action destroying the chronological time (present) and projecting into the cosmogonical, mythical time when the creation of the world took place.

Looking at Scriabin's philosophical and musical thinking from the standpoint of Mircea Eliade's theory, some questions complementary to Stravinski's come to mind: how to translate his philosophical conception into sound and at the same time make it understandable for a heterogeneous public, not necessarily familiar with his conception of the world? Scriabin resorted to a mythological character when naming his fifth symphony. Was there any implication in that choice? When reviewing the musical score, no explicit reference to the myth is found other than the title. The character is in the score, but where?

Scriabin intends to materialize his conception of the world and his imaginary man (Prometheus), both grounded on mythical thinking. He intends to actualize them as sound fabric. However, to make this complex materialization possible, it takes indications that enable the realization of this process; and it is through the reading of these indications that we will see how Scriabin intended to concretize his idea of «Total Work of Art».

It is known that there are certain conventions in music writings, whose aim is to standardize the graphic recording on a score, so that it becomes accessible to whoever masters this code and, thus, when written can be performed. In this set of conventions are the staff, the bar, clefs for the different instruments, durations, etc. Usually, the words that indicate the performing mood (the indications of expressions) are Italian: allegro, maestoso, forte (or f), pianissimo (or pp), among others. However, in the score of «Prometheus», besides using these musical conventions, Scriabin uses other indications, very peculiar and sometimes musically incomprehensible: terms like «contemplatif», «voluptueux, presque avec douleur» or «avec un éclat éblouissant», are completely out of the established standards, and at the same time their decoding is at another level.

Thus, to enable real occurrence of Scriabin's reinterpretation of Prometheus, myth in the present time, for it to happen in its totality and be reactualized in the time span of the performance of the work, it is necessary for the interpreter (the musician performing the score) to go through his present time (the time when he is playing) and become inserted in the mythical time. With this view, the personal indications Scriabin made in the score (most of which suggest states of mind or evocative images) are the ones that enable the crossing and the rupture between the two times the interpreter is inserted into: the interpreter's own time (the chronological measurable time) and the time of the work the interpreter is playing (the mythical time).

For this reinterpretation process to be realized in its completeness, Scriabin's not including an explicit narrative becomes evident. If he had only wanted to describe the successive stages of his imaginary character, he would have resorted to a naturalistic narrative (flutes representing birds, etc.) or to an explanatory libretto. However, if that had occurred, the actual composer would have made it impossible for the interpreter to realize his conception of «Total Work of Art», in terms of the time of the performance of the work.

Scriabin's Prometheus cannot be simply narrated by the interpreter; as a mythical character it needs materiality to leave the realm of the composer's imagination and be established as reality. Prometheus has to be experienced, reactualized in the present time; and to make this possible, the splitting of time is imperative.

It has already been said that Scriabin established an arbitrary relation between sounds and colors. This relation, included in the score, is accompanied by textual meanings as follows: Db-purple-Will of the Creative Spirit; A-green-Matter, and so on. Based upon the textual meanings and the «luce» staff in the score, Scriabin's biographers have tried to bring forth a probable «narrative» underlying the work. However, the creation of an explanatory text resembling an operatic libretto proves unnecessary, as Scriabin, knowing the complexity of his work, took upon himself the translation of the hidden, personal meanings he had intended for the lights.

At the beginning of the score, it can be observed that next the conventional indication of performance, «Lento», is another notation, totally different from the character of the first one, besides being in French: brumeux 'obscure'. Therefore, it can be said that brumeux is for the A note in the «Luce» staff (hidden, personal meaning: matter). However, for the interpreter reading the score and performing the music, the indications - «Matter» and «Will of the Creative Spirit» - are much more abstract and difficult to decode than «Obscure» or «Sublime». Although these indications also require a certain degree of subtleness in their interpretation and decoding, they are closer to the conventional indications; besides, they suggest the evocation of images and states of mind that provide the interruption of chronological time and insert the interpreter in primordial time.

Scriabin's Prometheus is interwoven in the sound fabric, once it is suggested by his personal indications. For such a recovery, the conventional indications proved insufficient. Scriabin's intention was new; his will, imperious. However, the old words seemed to be timeworn. Thus, the function of the «tastiera per luce» goes beyond the intention to create an environment suitable for his aim: the purpose of the instrument, a hypothetical one in Scriabin's days would be to translate nuances of temperament and character of this imaginary man plastically, through a profusion of colors. Also hypothetically, the lights would break the mathematical precision of the intervals of the tempered scale, upon which most of the musical literature has been built. According to reasoning, it could be said that the synthetic chord itself, the generating nucleus upon which «Prometheus» was built, bears the germ of the sonorous imprecisions intended by Scriabin. That is justified by the fact that the tritone, the dissonant interval, functions as the central polarizing axis as the work unfolds (Kelkel 1984,3:25).

It must be kept in mind that Scriabin conceived the world as a system of correspondences. His world, a balanced, transcendent one, was inhabited by imaginary heroes, demiurges, who sometimes needed to return to the present time in order to reestablish spiritual harmony and reiterate man's manner of existence along his historical path. Prometheus, ancestor par excellence, has this creative power, for he is «Men's Father». Latent in the musical discourse, he has to adhere his time to the present time to found the World in the Real, True Time. The interpreter, invited to the crossing, loses consciousness of his individual body, and dives into time. Their actions become an identity, as well as their bodies. The symbiosis is performed: Prometheus becomes the interpreter and the interpreter becomes Prometheus. The Center, the «mystic chord», is already determined. The Space, now sacred, is ready to receive die Primordial Time. Reality establishes in its totality; and just like the phoenix, the new man rises from the ashes of the sacred fire, sure that the «Infinite is a nameless place».


Lia Tomás


Bowers, Faubion

1970 Scriabin, a biography of the Russian composer, 1871-1915. 2 volumes. Tokyo/Palo Alto: Kodansha International Ltd.

Eliade, Mircea

1985 0 mito do eterno retorno. Translated by Manuela Torre. Lisboa: Edições 70.

1989 Aspectos do mito. Translated by Manuela Torre. Lisboa: Edições 70.

Kelkel, Manfred

1984 Alexander Scriabine, sa vie, l'ésoterisme et le langage musical dans son oeuvre. Paris: Edition Honoré Champs.

Tomás, Lia

1993 O Poema do Fogo: mito e mu/sica em Scriabin. São Paulo: Annablume.

Dr Lia Tomás teaches "Musical Aesthetics" and "History of Music" at the Universidade Estadual Paulista - Instituto de Artes - São Paulo, Brazil