Scriabin’s ten sonatas mirror the composer’s stylistic development in full scale: from the First Sonata, written at the age of fourteen, while he was at the Cadet Corps in Moscow to the last three works, composed in 1913 on a Russian country estate.
The musical language and form of the first three sonatas grew out of the Romantic legacies of Beethoven and Liszt, who had diminished the formal and generic boundaries between the sonata and the fantasy. The Fourth sonata heralded a new creative period, one in which Scriabin re-defined the piano sonata in his own terms.From the Fifth sonata onwards, Scriabin eschewed the multi-movement structure and dispensed with key signatures altogether.
Scriabin’s piano sonata not only constitute the backbone of his oeuvre, but also staple of Russian piano literature. Prokofiev once wrote ‘my fingers ache from playing Scriabin’. Horowitz and Richter were also champions of Scriabin’s works.
Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, Op. 19 (1892-7) was inspired by the sea, which Scriabin first experienced on a trip to Latvia in 1892. Its completion was probably spurred by Scriabin’s honeymoon on the shores of the Black Sea in 1897. The composer wrote a short programme for the sonata:
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 ocean.
Sonata No. 4, Op. 30 (1903) was conceived amidst personal crises: Scriabin had lost mentor and publisher, Belyayev and his marriage to Vera Ivanova Isakovich was about to break down. Scriabin penned a poem as the programme:
Thinly veiled in transparent cloud
A star shines softly, far and lonely.
How beautiful! The azure secret
Of its radiance beckons, lulls me …
Vehement desire, sensual, insane, sweet …
Now! Joyfully I fly upward toward you,
Freely I take wing.
Mad dance, godlike play …
I draw near in my longing …
Drink you in, sea of light, you light of my own self …
The first movement faintly echoes Chopin and brings Scriabin closer to the camp of Wagner and Liszt. The harmony is often left suspended, unresolved, floating over an aerial texture. It is immediately followed by the second movement, a dazzling dance in the spirit of Debussy capped by a blazing coda typical of Scriabin.
Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907), was written in a frenzied manner within a week. Scriabin considered it his best composition at the time. Again he provided an extract from his Poème de l’Extase as the programme:
I call you to life, mysterious forces!
Drowned in the obscure depths
of the creative spirit, timid
Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity!
The sonata, like its symphonic counterparts oscillates between the fantastical, the sensual and the ecstatic. It is worth noting that the ‘mystic’ chord (a chromatically altered dominant chord arranged in fourths), which predominates Scriabin’s late style, makes its appearance at the heart of the piece (marked ‘con delizia’ by the composer).