Into the morning with Skryabin’s sound-painting

Turning point. © Charles Thibo.

Do you remember this strange composer who created a whole world around himself and declared “I am God”? Alexander Skryabin, the mystic among Russia’s most famous composers. I love his piano sonatas and to greet this beautiful day, I invite you to listen to Piano Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, Op. 19. It has two movements and a defined tonality – Skryabin wrote it between 1892 and 1897 while he was still a young man and remained loyal to the musical conventions of the 19th century. By the time he would write his tenth piano sonata, that we have discovered in an earlier post, he would have left all this behind.

The Baltic and the Black Sea

The composer called the piece a “Sonata-Fantasy”, and it is one of the more popular pieces that he wrote. The pianist Simon Nicholls, a retired teacher from the Royal College of Music in London, explains that the sonata was inspired by the sea, as he experienced it during a trip to Latvia in 1892. This sparked his creativity, however Skryabin would complete the work only five years later during his honey moon on the Crimean peninsula, on the shores of the Black Sea.

Here is what the composer noted with respect to the score: “The first part evokes the calm of a night by the seashore in the South; in the development we hear the sombre agitation of the depths. The section in E major represents the tender moonlight which comes after the first dark of the night. The second movement, presto, shows the stormy agitation of the vast expanse of the ocean.”

Plunging into the composer’s psyche

According to Nicholls the sea is an ancient symbol for the psyche, and the sonata represents an early example of Scriabin’s later tendency to equate the phenomena around him with his own interior life. Skryabin saw colours when he heard music and the key of E, in which the first movement ends, appeared to him bluish-white, the colour of moonlight.

Op. 19 was a turning point in the composer’s career. Up to then he had written exclusively pieces for the piano and his early style showed the influence of Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. From 1897 on Skryabin would write concertos, symphonic poems, symphonies and of course many more piano sonatas. Piano Sonata No. 2 has been recorded by the Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Have a great day!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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