Artist Jean Delville’s title page for Scriabin’s Promethée, originally a section of the Mysterium
When he died in 1915, the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was still working on some tunes intended to bring about the end of the world. The Mysterium and its prelude, the “Prefatory Action,” were, in the words of Scriabin’s biographer Faubion Bowers, “cataclysmic opuses to end the world and its present race of men.” If all went according to plan, the first and only performance would immanentize the eschaton, thereby annihilating space and melting reality; no one would have to pay the band.
The composer tended to describe his vision in gentler terms: “the whole world,” Scriabin said, would be invited to the performance. “Animals, insects, birds, all must be there.” Artists of all kinds would contribute to the seven-day ritual; the audience’s senses would be dazzled by lights, incenses, textures, music and poetry. Together with fellow Theosophist Emile Sigogne, Scriabin “worked on an absolutely new language for the Mysterium. It had Sanskritic roots, but included cries, interjections, exclamations, and the sounds of breath inhaled and exhaled.”
All this may sound life-affirming, but Bowers’ words are unequivocal. “The universe would be completely destroyed by it, and mankind plunged into the holocaust of finality.”
Scriabin’s drawing of part of the Mysterium set
Scriabin died young, and he only left sketches of the musical component of the “Prefatory Action.” Russian composer Alexander Nemtin set about finishing it in 1970. He delivered the “Prefatory Action” in 1996, just three years before his own death. Bowers describes Scriabin’s vision of the full show, as the composer planned to stage it in India:
“The Prefatory Action would [...] be a stage work of immense proportion and conception. Bells suspended from the clouds in the sky would summon the spectators from all over the world. The performance was to take place in a half-temple to be built in India. A reflecting pool of water would complete the divinity of the half-circle stage. Spectators would sit in tiers across the water. Those in the balconies would be the least spiritually advanced. The seating was strictly graded, ranking radially from the center of the stage, where Scriabin would sit at the piano, surrounded by hosts of instruments, singers, dancers. The entire group was to be permeated continually with movement, and costumed speakers reciting the text in processions and parades would form parts of the action. The choreography would include glances, looks, eye motions, touches of the hands, odors of both pleasant perfumes and acrid smokes, frankincense and myrrh. Pillars of incense would form part of the scenery. Lights, fires, and constantly changing lighting effects would pervade the cast and audience, each to number in the thousands. This prefaces the final Mysterium and prepares people for their ultimate dissolution in ecstasy.”