Scriabin’s Preludes

Alexander Scriabin

This week I had the pleasure of a “house concert” at my home, during which the pianist Anthony Hewitt played Alexander Scriabin’s Preludes, Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 on my lovely antique Bechstein. This was an opportunity for Tony to put the programme before a small invited audience of friends ahead of public concerts and a recording. It was a very enjoyable evening of “music amongst friends”, enlivened by beautifully rich, textural and colourful playing.

Scriabin was following in a great tradition of prelude writing which stretches back to Bach, and beyond to the Renaissance, when musicians would use an improvisatory Praeludium (Prelude) as an opportunity to warm up fingers and check the instrument’s tuning and sound quality. Keyboard preludes began to appear in the 17th century as introductory works to keyboard suites. The duration of each prelude was at the discretion of the performer and the pieces retained their improvisatory qualities.

German composers began pairing preludes with fugues during the second half of the seventeenth century, and of course the most famous of these are Bach’s ’48’ from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which influenced many composers in the following centuries, most notably Fryderyk Chopin who based his 24 Preludes op 28 on Bach’s model, traversing all the major and minor keys. Chopin freed the Prelude from its previously introductory purpose, and transformed these short pieces into independent concert works, which are widely performed today, both in programmes and as encores, and remain amongst Chopin’s most popular and well-known pieces.

Other notable composers of Preludes were of course Debussy and Rachmaninov, as well as Olivier Messaien, whose Huit Preludes hark back to Debussy in atmosphere and titles, but also look forward to his later piano music in their colourful harmonies and unusual chords. Shostakovich followed both Bach’s and Chopin’s models by writing sets of Preludes and Fugues and Preludes, and Nikolai Kapustin has written 24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Op 53, and a set of Preludes and Fugues. It seems the genre is alive and well.

Scriabin wrote some 85 Preludes, and his Op 11 set (1896) follow Chopin’s in their organisation (cycling through all the major and minor keys) and even make direct reference to Chopin’s music. Indeed, such is their closeness to Chopin’s model in style, texture and harmonies, many could easily be mistaken for Chopin’s own music. Some appear to “borrow” directly from Chopin – one opens with the unmistakable motif of the Marche Funebre from Chopin’s B-flat minor Piano Sonata – while others seem more akin to Chopin’s Études in their technical challenges and sparkling passagework. The Opp 11, 13, 15, 16 and 17 are sometimes called The Travel Preludes, though they were not explicitly a travelogue by the composer; rather examples of how his travels around Europe allowed him to absorb different musical styles. (It is easy to forget, given Russia’s turbulent history in the 20th century, that at the end of the 19th century, the country was a major player in western European culture.) These Opuses also demonstrate how rapidly Scriabin’s musical style was developing at that time. The later Preludes are more redolent of Scriabin’s piano sonatas and show the influence of French music in their sensuous colourful harmonies and lush textures. All share one distinct characteristic: they are, in true Prelude style, short works, some so fleeting they last barely a minute.

In our house concert, Tony presented the Opus 11 set in the first half of the concert, and the Opp 13, 15, 16 and 17 in the second. As my husband commented afterwards, what was so charming about this programme, was that one was able to enjoy a huge variety of music in one sitting, and the programme was sufficiently involved not to require any additional material, such as an Etude or other short work.

Anthony Hewitt performs Scriabin’s Preludes at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, on Tuesday 18th March. Further details here. He will also be recording the complete Preludes of Scriabin, for release in 2015, the centenary of the composer’s death.

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