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Prometheus, Poem of Fire

For Prometheus, Alexander Scriabin conceived a visual dimension: a “color organ” that would correspond to the work’s musical content.

Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin was born in Moscow on January 6, 1872 (December 25, 1871, Old Style), and died there on April 27, 1915 (April 14, 1915, Old Style). He began Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, Opus 60 (also known as the Symphony No. 5) in 1908 and completed it in 1910. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere, with Scriabin as piano soloist, on March 2, 1911, in the Great Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility in Moscow. Koussevitzky also conducted the first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance, with the Cecilia Society Chorus and piano soloist Alexander Steinert, on March 27, 1925.

The score of Prometheus calls for piano solo, optional tastiera per luce (color keyboard), piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, chimes, bells, celeste, two harps, organ, strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses), and an optional mixed (SATB) chorus. The piece is about 20 minutes long.

For Serge Koussevitzky, Scriabin’s massive, mystical and mythical Prometheus marked a milestone in music history, nothing less than “a fact of history.” In preparation for its eagerly anticipated 1911 Moscow premiere, Koussevitzky (1874-1951), at the time a relatively inexperienced conductor, scheduled no less than nine rehearsals, sparing no expense or effort in coordinating the required enormous forces (gigantic orchestra with extra brass and percussion, piano solo, chorus). He even ordered the construction of a new instrument to sound the pealing bells for the tumultuous and ecstatic finale.

Not surprisingly, considering its adventurous form and harmonic experimentation, initial public and critical reaction to what Scriabin called “my beloved composition,” a work he described as “no longer music but that something else,” ranged from ecstatic appreciation (“a conquest by man’s genius”) to distaste (“it makes the air heavy and irritates the nose”). Koussevitzky’s enthusiasm for Prometheus did not waver, however. Fourteen years after the premiere, during his first season as music director of the Boston Symphony (1924-25), he again presented Prometheus, demonstrating at the start of his long tenure at the orchestra’s helm that he would challenge his audience with innovative and ambitious fare. Prometheus’s unconventional form and sonic maelstrom puzzled Boston critics, too. One expressed fear that “Scriabin may become as popular here as he is in Russia.”

But missing from both of these early performances in two different countries was the most unusual and innovative element of Scriabin’s vision: the constantly changing colored lighting effects accompanying the music, indicated on the score’s top line, and designed to be executed by a color keyboard (tastiera per luce). Long interested in the connection between color and the harmonic flow of music, Scriabin had worked with Alexander Mozer, an electrical engineer, to create such an instrument. But Scriabin was dissatisfied with the primitive result and withdrew it before the first performance, which proceeded with music only.

Scriabin’s futuristic conception of Prometheus—“a spectacular ‘dual symphony’ of light and sound”—exceeded what was technically feasible in 1911, and even for many years afterwards. One of the problems is that the indications for the color keyboard in the first published score (brought out in 1913 by Koussevitsky’s own influential Éditions Russes de Musique) contained no detail about how the lighting effects were to be achieved, and how they would be coordinated with the music. In 1913, Scriabin prepared a new score with much more precise instructions for the lighting designer, but that edition remained unpublished, and was rediscovered only in 1978. Subsequent performances have relied on this score to create the titanic light-and-music extravaganza that Scriabin had in mind. Scriabin scholar Dr. Anna Gawboy and Broadway lighting designer Justin Townsend collaborated on what is now considered the most definitive multimedia version of Prometheus, which received its premiere in Woolsey Hall at Yale University with the Yale Symphony Orchestra in 2010.

The story of Prometheus, giver of fire, has inspired scores of intellectuals and creative artists (Liszt, Beethoven, and Goethe among them) ever since the Greek poet Hesiod first recorded it around 800 B.C. Even Karl Marx approved, calling Prometheus “the most noble saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” One of the Titans in Greek mythology, Prometheus defied the Olympian gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humans, as a symbol of enlightenment, progress, and creativity. For his transgression, Prometheus was bound to a rock, where every day an eagle (symbolizing Zeus, king of the gods) pecked out his liver, which would then regrow, leading to a ceaseless round of torment.

For Scriabin, Prometheus was a powerful symbol of his long-held philosophical and spiritual belief in the power of man’s free will, as expressed in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. As Russian musicologist Viktor Delson has written, Prometheus embodied the composer’s image of “the heroism of man as creator,” while fire symbolized the poetic expression of “the impulse for action.” In a booklet prepared for the 1911 Moscow premiere, Scriabin wrote: “The fire is light, life, struggle, increase, abundance, thought.”

In conceiving the ideological plan of Prometheus, Scriabin drew heavily upon his attraction to the movement of spiritual philosophy known as Theosophy, and especially upon the ideas of its best-known proponent, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), a Russian-born mystic who later moved to the United States, where she founded the Theosophical Society. Theosophists believed that knowledge of God could be obtained through spiritual ecstasy and by transmitting knowledge gained from ancient wisdom, along with Hindu and Buddhist teachings. In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky connected Prometheus with Lucifer/Satan: “He is Fire, Light, Life, Struggle, Effort, Thought, Consciousness, Progress, Civilization, Liberty, Independence.” Originally, Scriabin’s Prometheus was planned to be part of a larger project, the Mysterium, which would be Scriabin’s crowning achievement, encompassing a vision of “apocalyptic ecstasy and the end of the world,” but he died before he could realize it.

Prometheus’s exact program remains somewhat vague, but moves from the primeval condition of the world, at the murky birth of time, to a deafening climax—an apocalyptic vision in blue flame. In its eclectic form, Prometheus combines several different elements: a tone poem for large orchestral forces, a piano concerto, a cantata for wordless chorus, and a symphony of light. Like his idol Richard Wagner, Scriabin created leitmotifs, musical fragments associated with particular actions or ideas that evolve and intertwine. A sustained opening six-note chord (the “mystic chord”) structured in stacked intervals of augmented, diminished and perfect fourths (A-D-sharp, G-C-sharp, F-sharp-B) depicts the impenetrable world of Original Chaos (avec mystère), and serves as the source of harmony and thematic material throughout. A is the central key, with F-sharp as the secondary tonality.

The first dreamy theme of the “creative principle” slowly emerges in the horns, followed by the heroic “theme of free will,” announced by the trumpets and flutes in a fiery salute answered by the piano. At the marking “contemplatif,” the dominant ascending main theme, the “Dawn of Human Consciousness,” appears, followed by a contrasting fast subsidiary theme. After another short transitional theme, the development section begins, where the various themes collide in kaleidoscopic, explosive fragments, like atoms in a smasher. As in many of Scriabin’s works for piano, trills represent sexual ecstasy, here amplified by the sparkling, celestial sounds of two harps, triangle, bells, and celeste. Scriabin scholar Hugh Macdonald has noted that the “tinkling, slithering, heaving and fluttering depict a conception monstrous to some ears, masterly to others, but unarguably of superlative workmanship and extreme modernity, even for 1910, when the future of modern art seemed so rich.”

As Prometheus progresses, descriptive images of fire emerge as the music gains in intensity and volume. The themes transform in various combinations and juxtapositions, building towards a thrilling climax of complete “ecstatic possession” with the orgasmic entry of the chorus (robed in white along with the audience in Scriabin’s original vision), organ, and chimes. The last marking in the score, dans un vertige (“in a state of vertigo”), takes us into a world of cosmic Nirvana where all contours of the themes “shatter and splinter,” as Faubion Bowers writes. With Prometheus, Scriabin showed his masterful gifts as an orchestrator and established himself as one of the great innovators of the form of the symphony or tone poem.

In his 1913 emendations to the score, Scriabin provided exact instructions for how the colored lighting he envisioned would change with the music. “The colour underlines the tonality,” Scriabin told the British psychologist Charles Myers in 1915, “it makes the tonality more evident.” On the top of the score, two lines indicate how the lighting effects should change as Prometheus progresses. The upper line denotes the root of the harmony, and changes constantly, with a color corresponding to the harmonic “tonic” at any given moment according to the following schema: C=red, G=orange, D=yellow, A=green, E=sky blue, B=pale blue, F-sharp=bright blue, D-flat=violet, A-flat=purple, E-flat=glint of steel, B-flat=steel, F=dark red. This faster moving luce line stresses the notes of the “mystic chord.” Scriabin’s friend and biographer Leonid Sabaneev noted that the composer at first “recognized clearly no more than three colors—red, yellow, and blue, corresponding to C, D, and F-sharp respectively. The others he deduced rationally, as it were, starting from the assumption that related keys correspond to related colors; that in the realm of color the closest relationship coincides with proximity in the spectrum; and that as regards tonalities it is connected with the circle of fifths.”

The lower line moves much more slowly, by whole tone intervals, to symbolize what Anna Gawboy has called “involution and evolution, the sustaining breathing in and out of the cosmos.” This line “articulates the form, and segments the piece into episodes relating to the work’s program.” Changes in lighting also illustrate dynamics (loud-soft); provide “foreshadowing and reminiscence” of particular moments in the score; and help to tell the story through special effects and symbolism.

Anna Gawboy and Justin Townsend have attempted to remain as close as possible to Scriabin’s 1913 notes in constructing their light show, with the help of lasers and LEDs that were not available to him at the time. Even now, they admit, what they have created is an approximation (and a brilliant one at that) of Scriabin’s intentions, and could even be improved in the future by further development in lighting and digital technology. Scriabin’s grandiose vision of Prometheus, and the unrealized Mysterium of which it was to be a part, was of a multimedia gesamtkunstwerk (to use Wagner’s term for “total art work”) that was, Gawboy concludes, “no mere sound and light show, but rather something else entirely—a work of art that would change the world as we know it.” What we are seeing and hearing in Symphony Hall comes closer to realizing Scriabin’s futuristic intent than any previous attempts to “illuminate” his rich and profoundly moving score, still astonishing 113 years after its creation. Serge Koussevitzky would surely be proud.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Symphony, Musical America, and Opera News, and program essays to the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival and Metropolitan Opera.

The first American performances of Scriabin’s Prometheus, Poem of Fire were given by Frederick Stock with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, without lighting effects, on March 5, 1915. The first performance in the U.S. with the “color keyboard” was given by the Russian Symphony Orchestra, Modest Altschuler conducting, just two weeks later, on March 20, 1915, at Carnegie Hall.

Serge Koussevitzky led the first BSO performances of Scriabin’s Prometheus, Poem of Fire in his first season as BSO conductor at Symphony Hall in March 1925, with pianist Alexander Steinert and the Cecilia Society Chorus, followed by performances at Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall again, and back at Symphony Hall.