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Piano Sonata No 7 'Messe blanche', Op 64
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The Sonata No 7, Op 64 (‘White Mass’, 1911), was actually finished before No 6, to which it is the counterpart. Scriabin loved the work; its nickname was his own invention and he associated it with ‘mystical feeling … total absence of … emotional lyricism’. He depicted bells, clouds, perfume, a ‘fountain of fire’. The movement is headed ‘Prophétique’ in the manuscript, but Koussevitzky, who by this time had become Scriabin’s publisher, altered it to the somewhat more prosaic ‘Allegro’. A symbol, this, of the composer’s growing Messianic pretensions: his plan was to write a ‘Mystery’ involving every conceivable art and sensation which would bring mankind to a new stage of awareness. Koussevitzky, whose feet were firmly planted on the ground, was of the opinion that the composer and his friends would simply have a good dinner and then go home.

The Seventh Sonata is a work of thrilling sonorities: the fanfares and hieratic gestures of the opening are complemented by repeated chords which flicker like lightning, and solemnly chiming bells lead into the second theme associated with it, a powerful motive of invocation. Bells have been potent symbols for Russian composers from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, through Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko to Rachmaninov’s choral setting of Poe. The contrasting second subject symbolizes an unworldly peace; it is associated with arpeggio figures which drift languidly like clouds of incense. The development is concerned mainly with alternations of the two principal themes but also introduces a new, ‘sparkling’ motive like a glimpse of distant light. At the lead-back to the recapitulation, where the first theme appears in the ‘Thalberg’ scoring with astonishing effect, bell-chimes and lightning flashes combine in a veritable storm of sonority. After the recapitulation, a second development, increasingly dominated by the new theme from the main development section, becomes a vertiginous dance, ‘the ultimate dance before the moment of dematerialisation’ according to the composer. The bells peal wildly, culminating in a huge chord extending over five octaves to the top note of the keyboard. The effect of this climactic multiple crossing of hands is like a rippling flash of blinding light. That Scriabin’s ‘dances’ had their own symbolism is shown by his interpretation of the final dissolving trills as images of ‘enervation’, ‘non-existence after the act of love’.

from notes by Simon Nicholls © 1996

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