NEW! A comment from Ms. Okashiro, "Scriabin, Theosophy and Madness"

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"Prometheus, Glenn Gould and Scriabin"


A Comment from Chitose Okashiro  


As you could hear in my Prometheus CD, the sound is created three-dimensionally. Recording and mixing of this project was done by an engineer, Mr. Carl Talbot, whom I have worked with for a long time, going back to my days with Pro Piano Records. Mastering was done by an engineer, Mr. Andreas Meyer, who is famous for his remastering work of Glenn Gould’s recordings. These men were truly stupendous; they worked with me based upon their deep understanding of my musicality and the sound that I had been particularly looking for in Scriabin. Without them, this Prometheus project could never have been achieved, both in terms of the technical end and the musical creation of the 49-track overdubbing recording technology. I appreciate them from the bottom of my heart. 


Since I don't want to put all of my cards on the table (laugh), I would avoid commenting on the details, but I received a very lovely compliment from Andreas, who is an expert on Glenn Gould and his recording techniques and has written fine, informative liner notes to his own Glenn Gould CDs. What I achieved in my Prometheus CD is the same as Glenn Gould’s approach to mixing in his Scriabin recordings, and it corresponds to his concept of his sound creation. However, what I achieved in my Prometheus recording is far more complicated than what Glenn Gould did, because in Gould's age technology couldn't yet keep up with what he wanted to achieve. Mr. Meyer told me that my Prometheus is just like "Glenn Gould on steroids!" (laugh) Even though he is my idol, I had no knowledge about how Gould actually worked on his mixing and mastering in the studio, so Andreas’ comment made me surprised and extremely happy at the same time. I would like to show you the video Andreas told me about, from which you can catch a glimpse of how Gould did his mixing. Around 7:52 in the video, the scene starts where Gould is working on his mixing with engineers in the studio. When I saw this, I immediately thought "Oh yes, I certainly did this with Carl!" Moreover, I have something which this project made me realize afresh; what I am seeking in Scriabin's sound is the total opposite to what people normally look for in sound, something that I hadn't realized before. Musicians and listeners in the classical music field are usually fond of a lot of reverb, recreating the sound in a classical concert hall ambience as picked up by distantly located microphones. Musicians are normally taught by their teachers to play neatly with a beautiful sound, and we normally look for a beautiful sound. However, I want a far "dirtier" and more direct sound in Scriabin, for in my view a sound like Monet's pastels is not suitable for Scriabin at all. I wanted to have much more different sound.

Sample video from Prometheus CD!




27-page liner notes contain Ms. Okashiro's own theory and her harmonic analysis with sample score (a picture on the left is a proofread before printing).



"Scriabin, Theosophy and Madness"                     by Chitose Okashiro


 I would like to write about several issues here, which I could touch upon only lightly in my liner notes to the “Prometheus” CD due to the space limitation within the booklet. In his early works Scriabin began in the romantic compositional style, heavily influenced by Chopin. Unlike his early, approachable pieces, Scriabin’s late period works are executed in a drastically changed compositional style. It looks like these pieces have the general image that they are possessed with the fixed, unshakable and excessive image of Scriabin = Theosophy = Prometheus = occult = madness, which always seems to pertain to him. Where did this come from? It seems that the original source of this comes to us from writings by Leonid Sabaneyev, especially his "Reminiscences of Scriabin" which is the most famous of his books. While it's an undeniable fact that Sabaneyev's writing is an invaluable source of information, on the other hand it is said that it’s the prevailing view in Russian musicology that Sabaneyev's writings also contain a lot of information of which the credibility is very questionable. Alina Ivanova-Scriabina, Scriabin's great grandniece, writes on this issue at the following site:

She mentions the Russian term 'sabaneyevschina' as well.  According to her, "adding the suffix ‘shchin’ to the surname of the critic characterizes the phenomenon of similar works with a hint of disapproval, the ending -shchina being pejorative. E.g. Zhdanovshchina – ‘the Zhdanov business’, Khovanshchina – ‘The Khovansky affair’, etc."


Speaking of questionable credibility, the most notorious example of an unreliable Scriabin source is probably Faubion Bowers (1917-1999). Unfortunately, and incomprehensibly, Bowers wrote several biographies of Scriabin in which there is rarely or no mention of citations or sources. It should be noted that he didn’t write about Scriabin from a scholar’s point of view, but instead sensationally splashed about stories in an amusing fashion, of nonexistent gossip that Scriabin was "gay and mad," taking advantage of the fact that the public image of Scriabin was still in the dark and had not been yet established at the time that Bowers lived. In those days, the true value of Scriabin's works was about to get re-evaluated since Scriabin's existence was forgotten for some years after his death. Bowers also wrote prefatory notes to the Eulenburg and Dover edition scores of Prometheus. However, except for a few footnotes in Dover, there is no mention, citation or sources given in these editions as well, especially regarding Bowers’ thematic analysis. As I touched on it slightly in my liner note, "Scriabin's Key-Colour Scheme," the famous chart with circle of fifths shown in Bowers’ prefaces was not devised by Scriabin himself, but by Irina Vanechkina and Bulat Galeyev in 1975; there is a footnote that it's designed by Galeyev in the Dover edition. What Scriabin wrote himself in 1913 in the margin of a copy of the first published score of “Prometheus” from 1911, is archived in a single surviving copy in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. In terms of the relationship between color and sound, what Scriabin wrote in his published score is almost identical with what Sabaneyev wrote in his articles and is also identical with "Scriabin's Key-Colour Scheme.” (※1). However, things like the chart of the circle of fifths (※2), and terms drawn from a Theosophical perspective, such as "Will (Human)," were just added by Irina Vanechkina and Bulat Galeyev. When we read this preparatory note, it creates a misunderstanding as if Scriabin composed Prometheus with this circle of fifths chart in his mind, and that could lead to a great deal of misinterpretation. In addition, of "thematic analysis" contributed by Faubion Bowers, he states that "Prometheus is the most densely Theosophical piece of music ever written." Bowers then continues with a Theosophical thematic analysis, often employing the phrase "Scriabin said this." However, since there is no description at all, it is totally unclear as to where Bowers’ own analysis starts and ends, which part is alleged as representing Scriabin’s point of view, where the citation starts and ends and what work or source is being cited if there is any. As this thematic analysis appears to be in wide circulation, it seems to me that the misunderstanding may lie here as well, as the preface is laid out in a way that suggests Scriabin himself might have written it. Please refer to the liner notes in my Prometheus CD for more details, as I discuss the matter more in those pages.


My understanding of Scriabin's personality is that he was the kind of person who never talked about, nor wrote, of his own compositional technique and the harmonic language most important to him in his works, apart from giving a few hints to Sabaneyev. Then, where did the Theosophical thematic analyses -- such as what Bowers wrote of -- come from? If you could allow me to write about my speculations here, it probably originated with a detailed thematic analysis included with the program note that was given out for the premiere performance of Prometheus in 1911. I presume that this is one of the sources of current thematic analyses of the work now widely in circulation. It seems that this was not written by Scriabin himself, but I suppose it was by Sabaneyev and Scriabin gave his consent to have it printed (※3). Furthermore, based on Sabaneyev's writing, the Theosophical thematic analysis of Rosa Newmarch – a British poet and music writer who knew Scriabin personally -- was published in The Musical Times after she added her own interpretation and analysis of the piece. Furthermore, Arthur Eaglefield Hull contributed further to the Theosophical thematic analysis of Prometheus after he added his own interpretation and analysis, and so on. It seems that various people wrote Theosophical thematic analyses of Prometheus one after another, after adding their own interpretations, and I presume that these writings are mistakenly misrepresented as material that Scriabin himself wrote.


While it is an indisputable fact that Theosophy had significant effect on Scriabin, there is a possibility that it was exaggerated by the people around him. As for the public image of Scriabin, there is a possibility that unreliable descriptions of his personality were in circulation, and such incorrect representation has been widely believed -- as a result, it may be misunderstood even now. For me, Scriabin is a composer of the isolated soul who pursued his harmony eminently, and then opened up new possibilities of modernism comparable to Schoenberg. Yet he kept seeking his inner sound and harmony of ecstasy that he believed into the utmost extent, without being infatuated with the practical system of his musical language. The view of Scriabin the composer and pioneer of modern music and his fixed image as a mad person obsessed with Theosophy contradicts one another, and this remains a controversial subject even today. It might be necessary for us to reexamine all of this now once more.


※1  I haven't seen Scriabin's handwritten notes as entered to the first published score of “Prometheus” as archived in Bibliothèque nationale, so the comments that follow reflect my personal opinions, based on readings I have made of the various writings by scholars on this subject. 


 ※2  I would like to write in more detail about circle of fifths chart just to clarify. The following is the wording of the note-color list of both what Sabaneyev wrote in his books, and "table of lights" (Parisian Score) that is what Scriabin wrote himself in 1913 in the margin of a copy of the first published score, archived in National Library of France. 

"C, G, D, A, E, H, Fis=Ges, Des, As, Es, B, F"

The above notes are written in the order of circle of fifths, and colors such as "red" are attached to them in these lists. On the other hand, in the "Scriabin's Key-Colour Scheme" chart that Irina Vanechkina and Bulat Galeyev wrote, "key signatures" written on a staff with indication of " major keys" are newly added by them and organized into a chart, even though Prometheus exists outside of tonality.  How did it happen? Scriabin believed that he himself had sound-to-color synesthesia, and it seems, his sensation was that he felt visualization of color toward tonality. So, the lists of note-color by Sabaneyev and Myers were compiled to put together all of the information about which colors Scriabin felt on what keys. Therefore, driven by tonality and key signatures, the list is written in the order of circle of fifths. Then, when Scriabin created his color organ part of Prometheus, he applied the color he felt corresponded to the tonality on the keyboard of the color organ; for example, C Major (C Dur) = red, so the red-light shines when C is pressed on the keyboard. I feel the problem here is that the color he associated with a particular tonality is applied directly to the root of the chord, which is the foundational concept of the color organ. There is no tonality in Prometheus; if the root of the chord in Prometheus plays the role of conventional tonality, then the theory could be established. However, you’ll know that doesn’t make the case once you conduct harmonic analysis of Prometheus. In Prometheus, there is a function equivalent to a "role" -- not tonality itself – of conventional tonality, although it's not a root itself. Moreover, even if a color is applied to a function equivalent to a role of conventional tonality, isn't a color sensed in a tonal piece and one in a piece without tonality different? This is the reason why I cannot help feeling that the color organ part was added after the completion of the music in Prometheus. For further details of how the color organ part is composed and structured, please refer to the liner notes in my Prometheus CD. 


※3  Please refer to my liner notes in the CD of Prometheus as to my premise. Regarding Arthur Eaglefield Hull -- whom I didn’t mention in my liner note -- I think the following statement in the foreword of his book says a lot. Please note that Arthur Eaglefield Hull addresses himself in the third person in his foreword. “The author has been greatly indebted to the writings of Mr. Leon Sabanieff as well as Mr. Eugen Gunst; to his correspondent Miss Ellen von Tideböhl of Moscow; and also to his friend Mr. W. Bray for much help with translations, etc. These acknowledgments apply mainly to Chapters III to VI. For the rest – analysis, technique, and aesthetics – he takes the full responsibility on this own shoulders.” (Arthur Eaglefield Hull, Foreword vii, A Great Russian Tone-Poet Scriabin, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd, 1918.)


While I apologize for making a quotation within a quotation, I would like to quote the words of Heinrich Neuhaus, whom Alina Ivanova-Scriabina quotes on the website listed above. "Mystics and obscurantists like Sabaneyev and Schloezer were extremely harmful for Scriabin; they created an unhealthy atmosphere of [the] unrestrained worship around him, attaining the level of a cult" (Heinrich Neuhaus, Notes on Scriabin, on the 40th anniversary of his death, Sovetskaya muzyka, 1955, N0.4)  While there is no doubt that the articles and books Sabaneyev wrote are invaluable source of information relating to Scriabin, I think we'd better refer to them keeping in mind that his information is mixture of the good and the bad.


©2022 Chitose Okashiro