Coincidences in Scriabin’s third sonata

I have long been fascinated by the question of coincidence when it comes to composers being influenced by one another. We know that there is no coincidence when we hear Beethoven’s influence on Brahms, or Schubert’s influence on Bruckner, but is this always the case when we hear echoes of one composer in the work of another? Could it be that we think we hear the influence of composer A on the work of composer B, when in fact composer B wasn’t even aware of the work of A? This question dawned on me as I was working on Scriabin’s third sonata. 

Scriabin (1872-1915) occupies an intriguing place on the timeline of romantic music. Working at the same time as Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Strauss, he started out writing sumptuous and fervent late-romantic music, only to abandon it for a quasi-modernist style of writing in his later years, following a short transitional period (which contains some of his most iconic works, such as the fifth sonata and the Poem of Ecstasy). His earlier tonal works have a peculiar quality to them: a lack of any interest in folk music. This is especially uncharacteristic of a Russian composer, as Russian music relies heavily on folk influences. Paradoxically, however, these same works of Scriabin are greatly influenced by Chopin, who, of course, had a great interest in folk music. Moreover, Scriabin wrote cycles in Chopin’s most personal genre, the mazurka—a genre folkish by nature. 

The third piano sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 23, bears resemblance to a great work of Chopin, the third sonata in B minor, Op. 58. The parallels between the two works are many: both have four movements, emphatic and dramatic first movements, scherzo-like second movements in E-flat major, and expansive slow movements in B major. What strikes me as a parallel between the two opening movements is the abundance of octaves and dotted figures. Therefore, I don’t think the resemblance is coincidental. 

But there is another underlying connection in Scriabin’s third sonata which I find less obvious, and hence more intriguing. The fiery last movement, marked Presto con fuoco, begins in F-sharp minor, has a lyrical second theme in the expected relative key of A major, and following a tumultuous development section, the second theme returns as expected (and desired) in F-sharp major. So will the work end triumphantly in F-sharp major? It seems like it might, as Scriabin builds a monumental climax in F-sharp major following a long pedal point on the dominant, after which the theme of the slow movement grandiosely enters in F-sharp major. But just as we think the work is to end in major, the composer wrests that illusion from us, and ends the work abruptly in F-sharp minor after a tornado of upward figures in the right hand. 

The reaching of this epiphanic moment in major which is swiftly undercut by the return of the minor key is not something I’d associate with any composer in Scriabin’s “vicinity,” but it is something I do strongly associate with Schubert. Such a major-to-minor moment lends itself perfectly to Schubert’s emotional swings and fatalistic combination of triumph and torment. We hear it in many of his last movements—in the sonatas in A minor, D. 845, and C minor, D. 958, and in the famous Death and the Maiden string quartet. These parallels are hard to ignore: Scriabin’s ending is essentially Schubertian. 

Here comes the curious part: given that in the 1890s, knowledge of Schubert’s music was limited (especially in non-German circles, so much so that Rachmaninoff admitted in 1928, a century after the composer’s death, that he wasn’t aware Schubert wrote piano sonatas), would Scriabin have known these endings? It seems unlikely to me, but of course I could be wrong. Indeed, I didn’t look into it, because I enjoy the possible coincidental nature of this parallel. And so, I like thinking of this ending as Schubertian, even though I’m well aware that the composer himself would have likely balked at that idea. 

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