Alexander Scriabin

Symphony No. 5 in F sharp major for piano, organ, chorus & orchestra ("Prometheus, Poem of Fire"), Op. 60

    Description by Robert Cummings

    This was the last orchestral work written by Scriabin, and it is widely regarded as his most radical large composition and one of his greatest masterpieces. From about 1903 onward Scriabin was drawn toward the study of theosophy, and he gradually became more daring stylistically as well. The Symphony No. 5 reflects his increasingly eccentric artistic persona: it attempts to take the first step toward uniting all art forms, as well as to express certain religious and philosophical ideas.

    The work's harmonic language is advanced -- but this was only another step along the way for Scriabin, who had already fashioned a style well beyond the average listener's comprehension in his own day. The composer never realized a crucial part of his conception: in the score he specifies that certain colors should flood the concert hall during performance, projected by a "clavier à lumières," a keyboard instrument not even in existence at the time. Scriabin associated keys with colors -- F major, for example, he linked with hell and saw as blood-red. At the March 15, 1911, premiere -- led by Koussevitsky -- the music was given without the accompanying color projections. A 1915 New York performance provided the colors for the audience, but by projecting them on a screen -- a disappointing compromise for the composer.

    The score also calls for a huge orchestra (eight horns, five trumpets, and other large sections), piano, organ, and chorus, whose members are instructed to wear white robes and sing with closed lips. Scriabin attempts to unify sound and color, as well as to convey his mystical and philosophical ideas via his Prometheus, a mythological character who symbolizes rebellion against God. The composer associates him with Lucifer, called the bringer of light, thereby introducing the element of bright color, infernal images, and much else into the work.

    Scriabin bases the composition on a single chord of six notes, from which emerges the opening theme on muted horns and virtually all subsequent thematic material. Prometheus begins with music depicting Chaos, and then turns to a variety of other subjects that include joy, eroticism, human passion, and ego. Near the end, when the music reverts back to the gray mists of the opening, there is a section entitled "Dance of the Atoms of the Cosmos."

    The whole work evokes ethereal and otherworldly images. The music has an aura of the surreal throughout, with thematic development taking unexpected detours and instrumental colors often brighter and more intense than the colors any machine could project in a concert hall. The expressive language of Prometheus lies somewhere between Stravinsky's The Firebird -- a work written at about the same time -- and some of the early 12-tone works. Still, this is tonal music, masterfully crafted and hardly offensive to the modern ear. It is also pure Scriabin from first note to last.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 Sony Classical 88985320352
    2016 Decca
    2015 RCA Red Seal 88875063922
    2015 Parnassus Records 96056
    2014 ABC Classics ABC 4811324
    2014 ABC Classics 4811322
    2014 Sony Classical 88843045052
    2013 Decca 4785437
    2013 Decca 4785093
    2012 Melodiya MYD 1001993
    2012 Analekta AN 29288
    2012 Entertainment Group 107389
    2010 Decca
    2009 Tudor Records 7025
    2008 Melodiya 1000190
    2007 ArtHaus Musik 101717
    2007 BIS 1669
    2007 Warner Classics 1145082
    2006 Finlandia
    2006 Fazer / Finlandia
    2005 Music & Arts CD1156
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Brilliant 92744
    2003 Decca 473601
    2003 Decca 000088102
    2003 Philips 000151119
    2001 Andante 2986-2989
    2001 EMI Music Distribution 567720
    2000 Boheme Music 908087
    2000 Angel Records 73737
    1999 Deutsche Grammophon 459647
    1999 Chandos 9728
    1999 Naxos 8 550818
    1998 Philips 446715
    1997 Finlandia 0630-17277-2
    1995 Pearl 9066
    1994 BIS 534
    1994 ASV 6054
    1994 Sony Music Distribution 53978
    1993 Russian Disc 11058
    1991 EMI Music Distribution 54251
    1988 London 417 252-2DH
    Vox 8170
    Russian Revelation 10073
    Music & Arts 967
    Boheme Svetlanov / Nikolaeva-Svetlanova 1520
    Arlecchino 32
    Russian Compact Disc (RCD) 16336