Aleksandr Skryabin (1872–1915)
Prométhée, Op. 60 (1908–10)
In the years between Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs and the composition and performance of Holst’s Sāvitri, several developments in England reinforced the use of dramatic vocalization. Originally planned for the morning of 4 October 1912 at the Triennial Festival at Birmingham under Henry Wood, the English premiere of Aleksandr Skryabin’s Prometheus, op. 60, written throughout the summer and winter of 1909, for orchestra, wordless chorus, and tastiera per luce (light organ), was “abandoned” due to lack of rehearsal time.1 The London premiere was given by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra on 1 February 1913, and played twice in order that it might be better understood.2 The work was again performed at Queen’s Hall on 14 March 1914, with Skryabin performing the piano part.3
Skryabin, like Holst, was interested in theosophy. During his trip to London in 1914 he met with prominent British theosophists at Cambridge, and even inquired into purchasing a plot of land in India. Herbert Antcliffe argues that the story of Prometheus attracted Skryabin due to its theosophical characteristics—the relationship between mankind and the Eternal.
Mankind, being physically, emotionally and psychically incomplete, yet desires a fuller life. This is not possible without a spark of the divine fire by which creative power and intelligence are conferred. Prometheus the Heaven-stormer seizes some of this fire and brings it to man, thus raising him to a stage above the animals and leading him on towards the Godhead.4
In a program note the composer describes the episode with chorus as follows:
The Poem ends in a vertiginous dance of atoms, a delirious fragmentation of the world’s wisdom. The chorus singing vowel sounds and humming, represents Man now become Mankind or myriad forms of life in multiplicity.5
Hugh Macdonald gives an alternate interpretation of the meaning of the chorus:
The choir, whose wordless voice is heard in the closing pages, perhaps represents inarticulate humanity, but more probably they are merely a further sonority, with the organ and the solo piano, to add to the already vast range of orchestral sound.6
According to the original instrumentation page, “Prometheus may be performed without color organ and without chorus.” 7
By 1919, British appreciation of Skryabin had waned considerably. According to a review by Alfred Kalisch of a 1920 performance:
At the last London Symphony Orchestra’s concert, on March 8, the principal feature was Scriabin’s “Prometheus,” remembered by most people because Sir Henry Wood on one occasion played it twice at the same concert on the ground of its unintelligibility. It seemed more intelligible this time, but not more impressive—indeed, the general opinion even of Scriabin’s admirers is that it is not the equal of the “Poème de L’Extase” either in wealth of color or expressive power. The composer’s dogma appears to have hampered rather than stimulated his imaginative powers. He had become its servant instead of its master.8
However, the performance of a work as large and “mystical” as Prometheus, and the use of wordless chorus, paved the way for future English works such as Holst’s The Planets, and others by Vaughan Williams.
(Nauman 2009, 155–57)