Hidden Gems – Scriabin: 4 Preludes, Op. 22

I view Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915) as one of the true successors to Chopin as a composer of preludes, as he emulated both the brevity and poetry of those works. Despite having written eighty-three individual preludes, he gets less recognition than Chopin or even Rachmaninoff. Granted, some of these pieces are quite brief, and are dispersed across so many small sets that perhaps pianists have trouble making a selection. I think the most fascinating thing about this body of work is that Scriabin wrote preludes throughout his whole development as an artist, from the Chopinesque Op. 2 all the way to the mind-blowing dissonances of Op. 74. There is so much to explore that I will surely feature another set in a later post (if only to mention more about Scriabin’s mystical side and grandiose ambitions).

Scriabin composed the Op. 22 set in 1897, in the middle of a fruitful period; around this time he had completed a successful piano concerto and was also working on his second and third piano sonatas. A confident style was emerging, grounded in Romanticism but with strategically raised intervals, advanced harmonic sense, and some of the most purely dreamy, lower-case-R-romantic rhetoric in all music (see Sonata No. 3: III. Andante or Symphony No. 1: I. Lento).

One of my piano teachers made a memorable comment once when I was working on a Rachmaninoff piece: “Most composers build to a climax as the pitch gets higher, but Russian composers like to build as the pitch gets lower and deeper.” That observation certainly applies in the haunting Prelude in G-sharp minor of this set. Scriabin’s bass arpeggio texture gradually sinks to lower and lower registers as it builds to a final climax, where it rings out ominously. The right hand plays a one-note line that would seem plain if not given context by the constantly changing arpeggios. I like Scriabin’s decision to end on the dominant fifth, keeping a sense of wonder and mystery.

Prelude No. 2 in C-sharp minor is a bit creepy. If Prelude No. 1 depicts, say, a haunted house, Prelude No. 2 is a mysterious stranger warning you not to enter the haunted house. But aside from the oddness, this piece has a nice 6/8 lilt and actually fits pretty well in the hands, aside from the occasional big stretch. Once again, Scriabin uses a Russian-style climax that descends lower and lower. It cadences in the tonic of C-sharp minor, but a sense of mystery is still preserved.

The consummately beautiful Prelude No. 3 in B Major clocks in around one minute duration, yet Scriabin somehow packed in enough dreamy yearning to fill several pieces. The Allegretto marking implores the pianist to keep moving forward, not stopping to linger at any of the harmonic flowers. In this way, and coupled with a melody line that keeps sneaking around the edges of each chord, Scriabin achieves a sense of teasing and restraint that makes it all that much more breathtaking.

No. 4 in B minor is built in waves. Over a wandering (and possibly finger-twisting) bass, staccato eighth chords ascend up into uncertain territory before tumbling down. The music becomes slightly more rhapsodic near the middle, but then it’s already heading for a quiet coda. Just like the prelude before it, this one seems to end way too fast. We want to hear more of the musical world Scriabin has opened up. But as a skilled miniaturist, Scriabin gives us the most economical form possible, leaving a work that’s approachable for pianists and instructive for composers.

Where to find it:

55 Piano Preludes by 8 Composers (G. Schirmer, Inc.)

Scriabin: 16 Preludes for Piano (G. Schirmer, Inc.)

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