“I am God! I am nothing, I am play, I am freedom, I am life. I am the boundary, I am the peak.”
— Alexander Scriabin, 1905
Like a messiah who is to change the world with his music or even to save it: that is how the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) saw himself. He considered his birth on Christmas Day as the ultimate sign of this vocation. In his three symphonies, Scriabin brought his personal, radical vision ever more intensively to the fore. The finale of his Third Symphony, also known as ‘Le Poème Divin’ (the divine poem), marked an important point in his development as a composer: "This was the first time I found light in music [...] the first time that I felt a stir, a liberation, knew the breathlessness of happiness".
Even the conservative Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was occasionally a bit of a rebel. Freed of a great deal of anxiety after the positive reception of his Second Symphony, he wrote his Violin Concerto in 1878, dedicated to the virtuoso Joseph Joachim. The violinist gave him tips and advice throughout the course of the composition process, but Brahms followed them only in part. He preferred to follow his own lights: in his Violin Concerto, the orchestra does not efface itself in favour of the violin. After the first performances, some even whispered that it is a ‘concerto against, not for the violin’.
Brahms composed his Violin Concerto during the summer of 1878 at his summer residence on the Wörthersee. The similarities with Beethoven’s violin concerto are striking: the work is in the same key (D Major), it has structural similarities, and most of all, it is not conceived as a demonstration of virtuosity. During the première on 1 January 1879 the audience were instantly able to compare the two, since both concertos were on the programme. Unlike most concertos, the soloist and orchestra are treated as equal partners, as two secondary characters that interact and thereby contribute to the musical drama. When she heard the first movement, Clara Schumann was immediately enthusiastic: "As you can well imagine, it is a concerto in which the orchestra blends flawlessly with the soloist; the mood of the movement bears a strong resemblance to that of the Second Symphony, also in D Major."
- Eduard Hanslick, 1879
While composing the work, Brahms sought advice from the Hungarian-German violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he had developed a close friendship since 1853 and to whom he dedicated the concerto. And yet Brahms did not always follow his friend’s advice. For him, the expression of his musical ideas took precedence over what was well suited to the instrument. The Violin Concerto is therefore a technically challenging work, with difficult double stops and great leaps in short succession at a fast tempo. Even the talented Joachim had difficulty with this unusual concerto. After the première, a critic noted that he “visibly had to struggle to preserve the technical difficulties and precarious equilibrium of the solo part.” But during the tour of European cities that followed, Joachim acknowledged to Brahms that he came to like the Violin Concerto more and more, and especially the first movement. And indeed, even the cadenza at the end of the first movement, improvised by Joachim, met with increasing success – and today this version of the cadenza is the one that is most often played.
Brahms had initially planned a concerto in four movements, but in the end, he limited himself to three – he replaced the original scherzo and andante of the middle with an adagio (he would later recycle the abandoned scherzo in his Second Piano Concerto, his next large-scale work). In the adagio, it is not the violin but the oboe that introduces the main theme. This led the 19th-century violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate to the stubborn refusal to perform the violin concerto: “I don’t want to stand on stage, violin in hand and listen to the oboe playing the only tune in the adagio." The most technically challenging movement is the finale, a lively rondo based on a Hungarian gypsy tune, in homage to Joachim. Here, too, virtuosity is not an end in itself, but is entirely at the service of musical expression.
“Is it possible to compare a composer like Scriabin with any tradition whatsoever?” Stravinsky wondered. His musical language is unique. Scriabin initially composed works mainly for the piano. Only later did he put his hand to major orchestral works, including his five symphonies, written between 1899 and 1910. These works display a clear evolution in his compositional style from a relatively late Romantic one to a modernist and radically innovative language. Along the way, Scriabin also came to be inspired by the poetry of the Symbolists and the philosophical works of Nietzsche, Kant and theosophists like Madame Blavatsky. They helped him better understand his place in the world.
Scriabin saw his Third Symphony, opus 43 as representing “the evolution of the human Spirit which, freed from the legends and mysteries of the past which it has surmounted and overthrown, passes through pantheism and achieves a joyful and exhilarating affirmation of its liberty and unity with the Universe.” With the addition of this extra-musical dimension, reinforced by the alternative title ‘Le Poème Divin’ (Divine Poem), this symphony is sometimes referred to as a tone poem in three movements.
In order to be able to lead the audience to another world, Scriabin felt the need to develop an entirely new musical language. His grandiose and particularly colourful Third Symphony still has one foot in the nineteenth century, but it also looks ahead to the changing tonalities of his later orchestral works. In three unbroken movements, Scriabin depicts in succession the struggle between humanity and God (‘Luttes’), the delights of a seductive passion (Voluptés’) and a ‘Jeu Divin’ in which the spirit gives itself over to the turbulence and lightness of an untethered existence.