Jon Lee


Scriabin Sonata no. 2 in g minor, op. 19 “Sonate-Fantaisie”

Score Map

Source: Henle

Program Notes

Scriabin’s first encounter with the sea occured on a holiday trip to Latvia in 1892. The experience must have left a striking impression on the young composer, who began working on the “fantasy” sonata shortly thereafter in Genoa, Italy. What he wrote became the second movement, and its evocation of the sea is easy to hear, with low triplets rumbling over a deep, quiet, but powerful undercurrent.

The inspiration seemed to have a limit, however, as this sonata uncharacteristically took Scriabin a long time to complete. It took 4 years for him to write the first movement, and another 2 for him to be satisfied enough with the work to publish it.

The work is only two movements, which does not follow established Sonata form, and thus the title “Sonate-fantaisie”. The abridged form may be a reflection of Scriabin’s own frustration with the work, as he performed it in recitals showcasing his own works. He complained to his publisher and patron Mitrofan Belyayev: “I have admittedly finished the sonata, yet I am completely dissatisfied with it, even though it has been revised seven times.”1

We have Belyayev to thank for pushing Scriabin to complete the sonata.

Scriabin provides a program for his audience to the work:

The first movement represents the quiet southern night at the seashore. The development section is the dark, agitated, deep ocean. The E-major section represents the caressing moonlight after the first darkness of the night. The second movement represents the wide, tempestuous, agitated, vast expanse of the ocean.2

Liner notes from Hamelin’s recording by Simon Nicholls:

[Scriabin’s program] does not represent a turning away from personal emotion: the sea is an ancient symbol for the psyche, and the Sonata represents an early example of Scriabin’s later tendency to equate the phenomena around him with his own interior life. The piano writing has done away with the bombast of the First Sonata and returned to the delicacy and filigree of its youthful predecessor.

The brooding opening makes use of a motive, rhythmically the reverse of that in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which dominates the movement. At the move to B major the music has a subtlety and spontaneity of rhythmic articulation rarely heard before in Scriabin’s music, and the second subject is one of Scriabin’s happiest inspirations, a soaring melody placed in the middle of the texture, with glittering figuration around it like sunlight or moonlight playing on dancing waves. Scriabin saw colours when he heard music and erected an elaborate synaesthetic system on this basis. The key of E, in which this movement ends, an unusual departure from the norm for Scriabin, was to him bluish-white, the colour of moonlight.

The device of embedding the melody in the middle of an arpeggiated texture goes back to the virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg (1812–1871), whose speciality it was. Liszt, who played in competition with him in 1837, often made use of the device, most famously in the concert étude Un Sospiro. A favourite device of Scriabin, who liked to give the melodic line to his stronger left hand, it reappears in the slow movement of the Third Sonata, the end of the first movement of the Fourth, and in the Seventh and Tenth Sonatas. A further device used in the late style emerges in the Second Sonata’s opening movement: exposition, development and recapitulation all start with the same music. Not an unusual way of writing a sonata movement, but an essential aural signpost in the complex worlds of the Ninth and Tenth Sonatas. The initial motive also returns at the end of the movement, a feature of those works as well as of the Fifth.

The finale of the Second Sonata is a moto perpetuo; from this restless background emerges a heroically climbing, aspiring melody. Siegfried Schibli has pointed out that this theme is left incomplete until its final appearance near the end of the movement. Perhaps Scriabin had in mind the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata, where the second subject is treated in the same way. Characteristically, Scriabin was dilatory about taking the decision to send off the completed manuscript until practically ordered to by Belaiev, who had published the First Sonata in 1895. As a result, the metronome marks we see in the published score are not Scriabin’s, but were provided by Liadov.

Other resources

  1. Scriabin, Piano Sonata no. 2 g sharp minor op. 19 (Sonate-Fantaisie), Henle. 

  2. Дельсон В. Ю., Скрябин. Очерки жизни и творчества. (Victor Delson, Scriabin. Essays on life and work.) 

Hi! Have a comment, question, complaint, observation, or criticism about this post? Leave your comment below!