Tradition and innovation in the twenty-four preludes, Opus 11 of Alexander Scriabin

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Lee, Hwa-Young

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The Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872-1915) is best known today for a number of highly experimental pieces written in the later days of his career. In contrast, his early music is less well known and less frequently studied because it is considered too derivative of Romantic composers, especially Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). While it is true that Scriabin most certainly was influenced by Romantic composers, even during the early stages of his career Scriabin began to cultivate his own characteristics, especially in harmonic and rhythmic treatment. The Twenty-Four Preludes, Opus 11, one of Scriabin’s most important early works, demonstrate the emergence of an original voice in pieces that are normally considered to be imitations of Chopin. The present study investigates the interplay in these preludes between Scriabin’s debt to tradition and his desire to develop an original style of his own. This treatise begins by introducing relevant pieces of the historical background: Scriabin’s early biography; Chopin’s influence on Russian music; and Chopin’s conception of the prelude for piano as attested by his Twenty-Four Preludes, Opus 28. The bulk of the study proceeds piece-by-piece through Scriabin’s Op. 11 to discuss the traditional and innovative features in his preludes. There are indeed many similarities to Chopin: the number of preludes; the tonal ordering of the set; the concept of the prelude as a small-scale independent piece; the styles and forms in individual pieces; and even certain harmonic details. Scriabin, however, clearly shows the beginnings of own compositional style in various ways, as his treatment of rhythm, his harmonic language and his treatment of left-hand technique and pedaling all stand out even in his early works.