Scriabin's "Extase" Chord and Some Relatives


Early twentieth century harmony was characterised by (among other things) the whole-tone scale. Here I consider one idea, from Alexander Scriabin's Poem of Ecstacy, involving some chords that will be familiar to jazz musicians but in a somewhat different context, and of course expanding the idea to see where it takes us.

Here's the Poem of Ecstacy, with a reduced score:

Music like this is still functionally tonal but instead of the quick, clipped V-I cadences of Mozart (or bebop) the dominant is often prolonged as far as possible, presenting many shades and flavours of irresolution; and the I might be obscured, soured with added notes or skipped altogether. The recording above ends with a huge cheer -- you can hear the audience's relief at having finally reached resolution.

Like other composers of the time, Scriabin liked to use dominant material drawn from the whole-tone scale: 1, 2, 3, #4, #5, b7 which in the key of C comes out as C D E F# G# Bb. The idea is to play four or five of those notes, suspended over some other bass note. The results can often be thought of as jazz chords like 7b5, 9#5 and so on, but with the tonic in the bass promising but witholding that final resolution back to the I.

There aren't many possibilities so we may as well look at them all. Here they are in the simplest form I could manage (I did this by hand so please check carefully that I haven't missed or duplicated any!):

The first five-note chord is Scriabin's so-called "extase chord", but the others seem worth a look, especially the three-note options that will probably work out better on guitar.

As my title suggests I would personally think of these as coming out of the Neapolitan scale, which is just the root note plus a whole-tone scale starting on the b2: 1 b2 b3 4 5 6 7. This scale always seems to me to be "Melodic Minor only more so", and you can think of it as a Melodic Minor with a b2, so something like "Phrygian Melodic Minor" would also work. For me, finding the whole-tone scale a semitone above / below is an easy way to play it melodically. But this hasn't helped me pull any interesting chords out of Neapolitan as yet, so I'm thinking of exploring these a bit more.

Here are some practical voicings of the three-note versions with C in the bass; from these some patterns emerge that are easy to follow around the fretboard if you know your whole-tone scale. In the process you'll discover far more possibilities than these:

I'm deep in the weeds with some Superaugmented material at the moment but these chords complement that quite nicely; even though I'm not really doing tonal harmony at the moment some "dominant-type" sounds would be a welcome addition to my arsenal.