Death and the Grave Digger, a symbol-laden painting by Carlos Schwabe, completed at the end of the nineteenth century and used on the cover of the book being discussed (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Last month the University of California Press released the second edition of Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement by Simon Morrison. I was first drawn to Morrison through his books about Sergei Prokofiev, so I was curious about the broader framework of this book. I had not seen the first edition; but, after reading the Acknowledgements, I was not worried about that matter. Morrison describes the second edition as the result of rewriting the first edition. He also refers to his “unhealthy obsession with the Russian ‘mystic’ Symbolists.” I sympathize, particularly where that first quoted word is concerned.
My own familiarity with Symbolism has to do with its French origins in an article in Le Figaro published in September 18, 1886 under the banner “Le Symbolisme.” The article was published by Jean Moréas and associated three poets with the movement, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine. Much of my knowledge of all three of these poets is through the music of Claude Debussy. He set texts by both Baudelaire and Verlaine. The poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” (the afternoon of a faun) was written by Mallarmé; and Debussy’s “prelude” was intended to introduce a reading of that poem.
It is worth establishing, for context, that Symbolism has nothing to do with the symbol-based thinking of semiotics. That word can be traced back to John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; but the idea of making symbols an object of study probably originates, also late in the nineteenth century, with the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, later to be followed by the semiology of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. For both Peirce and Saussure, a symbol was an abstract construct that is capable of carrying meaning through a process called “signification.” The signification of a symbol can be anything in the phenomenal world of Immanuel Kant; but it can also be anything in the noumenal world of mental, rather than physical, objects.
I offer this background to clarify one of the key points about the Symbolists that Morrison makes in his Introduction:
To be a Symbolist, the composer must depart from fixed musical systems, which assign a grammar and syntax to music, placing a definable extramusical cover over its indefinable content. Hence the vagueness: scientific descriptions of musical expression avoided, or negated, the mysticism. The Symbolists cared about Music, the metaphysical experience, as opposed to music, the art or craft of composition, which put composers in a bind: How could the little m be joined to the big M? Might it be best, in this murky forest, merely to suggest such a connection?
One may draw a similar distinction between “Symbol” and “symbol.” The “little s” is an artifact that serves as a vehicle for meaning. The “big S,” on the other hand, is an object of “metaphysical experience” unto itself.
This then raises a problematic issue at the heart of this book. The world of the “little m” is one of artifice; and, as such, it fits comfortably into other worlds of artifice, such as the world in which operas are staged and performed. Where is there a meeting between the fundamental artifice of opera and the metaphysical experience of “the big M?” I would propose that it exists only in the mind of the individual experiencing the performance. That experience may be shared through conversations with others that have their own individual experiences. However, because it is a personal experience, it is noumenal, rather than phenomenal, and is connected to the phenomena of the performance itself only through the ideation of the individual.
Let’s go back to Mallarmé. Think of all the ways that his poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” undermines the effort of the reader to endow the text with semantics. Now think of what happens when the reader is replaced by a “real-time” listener attending a reading of that poem. In that context one can appreciate the ways in which Debussy’s music establishes a mindset for those about to experience listening to the poem being read.
Conceivably, one could approach the experience of opera in terms of first establishing a mindset. Having seen Einstein on the Beach, I think I can say one or two useful things about how to do this! Unfortunately, Morrison never really ventures into this territory; and, as a result, he never really gets beyond the world of that “little m.”
Ironically, the closest he gets to “the big M” is in his Scriabin chapter. My guess is that no one reading this has to be reminded that Scriabin never wrote an opera. This is consistent with the title of Morrison’s chapter, “Theurgy: Scriabin and the Impossible.”
The “impossible” is Scriabin’s final project, called the Mysterium. His description of this effort is quoted on its Wikipedia page as follows:
There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours.
He subsequently specified that the performance would take place in the foothills of the Himalayas, that it would last for a week, and that it would conclude with the end of the world and the human race. (I guess that means that no one will be left to write a review, let alone read one!)
Scriabin had sketched 72 pages of music for a prelude to the Mysterium by the time of his death. This was called the Prefatory Action, and Morrison discusses it at considerable length. In all of that length, however, he overlooks the 28 years that Alexander Nemtin spent turning those 72 pages into something that could be performed. The result was a three-hour composition in three parts entitled “Preparation for the Final Mystery.” A performance conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy was recorded in 1996, and it was included in the Decca anthology Scriabin: The Complete Works.
In the context of Morrison’s book, however, there is a punch line that sort of gets swept under the rug. Most likely the major influence behind the very idea of the Mysterium had less to do with that “big M” than with another source. That source was the Spiritualism of Helena Blavatsky. This was a world in which symbols were, at most, vehicles for ritual; and any distinction between upper-case and lower-case was irrelevant. Blavatsky’s world was one of esoteric experiences, and the Mysterium was one of those experiences magnified to incorporate the entire human race.
Thus, at the end of the day (and the end of reading Morrison’s book), I had to agree with the author that the book was the product of an “unhealthy obsession.” Nevertheless, reading the book introduced me to a wide variety of operas about which I previously knew nothing. If I ever have the opportunity to see one of them staged, and least I know I can go the the performance with some useful background knowledge. On the other hand, given my current workload, I am in no rush to fill in any gaps in my past listening history!