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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Alexander Scriabin: An Attempt at an Overview

This music was written by one of the true individuals in music history, someone who has his fanatical admirers and his almost-as-fanatical detractors. In the middle are, I suspect, the majority who, like me until I started researching the man, tend to put this composer into the too-hard basket. What follows is at best an attempt at an overview of the life and work of this unique genius.

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was one of the most gifted pianists of his time, and he left a rich legacy of piano music, in addition to a small number of unique orchestral works. He was unique in many ways, and in this article I want to survey his life and share a few of his most significant works, to try and put this enigmatic musician into some sort of context.

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin

Have a listen to this. [listen]

Sounds a little like Chopin-meets-Tchaikovsky, doesn't it? That was a Nocturne published by Scriabin in 1890 as part of his opus 5 but written some years before when he was a student of the famous Russian pianist Nikolai Zverev. The Scriabin story, though, starts somewhat earlier.

Scriabin was born in Moscow on Christmas Day, 1871 (to use the Old Style dating that was current at that time). His father, Nikolai Alexandrovich Scriabin, was studying law but broke off his studies soon after marrying Lyubov' Petrovna Shchetinina. She was one of the first women in Russia to establish a recognised musical career as a pianist and as a composer. Her talents drew high praise from Tchaikovsky, among others.

Scriabin's mother gave a major piano recital five days before he was born. His father resumed his legal studies but had to abandon them a second time a few months later when his wife became seriously ill. The couple travelled to Italy but Lyubov' Petrovna never recovered, and died there the following year. Nikolai Alexandrovich returned to his studies but soon embarked on a diplomatic career and rarely saw his son. Scriabin's upbringing was entrusted to two adoring grandmothers and an aunt who worshipped him. The aunt, an amateur musician herself, soon gained total control over the boy.

A very young Scriabin (1870s)

From his earliest years Scriabin showed a fascination for music and was also described as frail, delicate and of a nervous disposition. Despite this, he himself chose to undertake five years' training in the Army Cadet Corps, continuing a long family tradition of military involvements. But soon, music won out.

Scriabin received his first formal music lessons in 1883 when he was twelve. He was eventually prepared for entry into the Moscow Conservatory by Sergei Taneyev, best-remembered today as one of Tchaikovsky's closest friends, and it was through Taneyev that the young Scriabin met Nikolai Zverev. Zverev was one of the most famous and influential piano teachers of the day; he insisted his teenage pupils live with him in his house and that they be subject to a rigorous discipline of practice and personal habits. (One of those living in the house at the same time was Sergei Rachmaninov.) In Zverev's house Scriabin also learnt other skills: French, German, the manners of high society, he encountered great literature and he learned how to drink vodka.

Sergei Taneyev

The Nocturne we heard earlier was written during this time and initially dedicated to Zverev, although when published the dedication was omitted. Zverev actually tried to dissuade Scriabin from composing at all. The work Grove describes as Scriabin's first significant composition was written in 1886 when he was 15, an étude in C sharp minor, published as part of his opus 2. In this work we're already hearing a more individual voice, one starting to push the boundaries of convention. [listen]

Nikolai Zverev and his students. Scriabin is second from the left, while Sergei Rachmaninov is fourth from the right.

Scriabin entered the Moscow Conservatory in January 1888; his reputation as a pianist had preceded him. The institution's director, Vasily Safonov, was his piano teacher, and Taneyev taught the polyphony class. Both men exerted a great influence on his playing and composing. His nervous disposition had him living on an emotional knife-edge for most of the 1890s, and the tensions, jealousies and disagreements - as well as the successes - of his student years (which ended in 1892) no doubt played their part in this.

Shortly after graduating, Scriabin wrote his first piano sonata, which like Beethoven's first official sonata, is in F minor. The ten piano sonatas chart a course through Scriabin's development as a composer in the same way as Beethoven's sonatas chart his personal journey. They remain a great landmark - and an enormous technical challenge - in the piano literature. This is the first sonata's third movement. [listen]

Scriabin seems to have sensed his inability to productively discipline his own life and to have craved the imposed framework of a military career. But in 1893 he was deemed unfit for military service, so he lived in Moscow and led a pretty wild social life. It was at this time he developed the habit of all-night drinking sessions, which, thankfully, he was able to curb later in life.

In 1893 Scriabin was 21 and he fell in love with a 15-year old year old girl before the affair was prohibited by her parents. (Scriabin's intense passion for women never left him and was to cause great difficulty in later years.) The following year, 1894, he met Mitrofan Belyayev, one of the most important and influential figures in Russian music at the time. Belyayev established his own music publishing business to help promote Russian composers, and he founded a publishing house in Leipzig so as to secure proper fees and performance rights for Russian composers in western Europe. Belyayev agreed to publish Scriabin's music. But more than being a publisher, Belyayev was a mentor and friend to the young virtuoso, and often a source of much-needed money as Scriabin was hopeless at managing his personal finances.

Repin: Mitrofan Belyayev (1886)

Travels in Europe in 1895 led to the set of 24 preludes published by Belyayev as Scriabin's opus 11. These often bear the inscription of where they were composed and show the young Russian's horizons expanding both in terms of his experience of the wider world and in his compositional language. This is the fourth prelude of the set. [listen]

Belyayev took Scriabin to Paris in late 1893, where the young Russian made his successful European debut in January 1896. After Belyayev returned to Russia, Scriabin continued on in Paris, then went on to Rome (where he visited his father). After more time spent in Paris he returned to Russia. Once he was back he composed his only piano concerto. This was the first orchestral work he brought to completion, a work suggested in the first place by Vasily Sofonov (a prominent pianist, teacher and composer) as something which would help advance the young virtuoso's career. What is amazing to consider is that the whole work, which takes nearly half an hour in performance, was sketched in five days and fully completed within a month. This is the third movement. [listen]

In August 1897 Scriabin married the pianist Vera Ivanovna Isakovich, whom he met through his friendship with the musicologist and writer Boris de Schloezer. Almost everyone he knew advised him against it but he ignored them. Shortly after the marriage he was yet again financially destitute - a common refrain in his life - and Belyayev helped him out with grants and payments to get him through (again, a common refrain). Vera and Scriabin gave a joint recital featuring his works, including the newly-completed second sonata; during his career as a solo pianist, he virtually never performed anyone's works but his own.

The couple had their first child, a daughter, in July 1898. A few weeks later he met Boris de Schloezer's sister, Tat'yana, then aged 15. In September Scriabin finally had a period of financial security when he took up a piano professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, during which he continued to compose and perform. In mid-1899 he composed his first symphony which was premiered in St Petersburg in November 1900. It's a large-scale work in six movements with a choral finale, based on but extending the classical symphonic form. I provided a link to the fifth movement at the beginning of this post; in the sixth movement the chorus and two soloists (mezzo and tenor) sing a hymn in praise of art. [listen]

By the time this symphony was performed, the Scriabins had a second daughter, and after travelling again to Paris, Scriabin returned to Russia where he accepted an additional job while still on the staff of the Conservatory, as Inspector of Music at St Catherine's Institute. He also worked on an opera at this time, which he never finished. Despite this, the opera enabled him to begin to develop his grand concept of the Misteriya, which would become an obsession towards the end of his life.

Relations between Scriabin and Belyayev were always rocky; they had major disagreements, usually over money and Scriabin's plans for particular works which he demanded Belyayev publish. In 1901 the composer presented his publisher with the completed second symphony, something Belyayev had not at all expected. It was premiered in St Petersburg in 1902 and performed in Moscow the following year. In both cities it was a dismal failure, a response which left Scriabin shattered.

Although not as religiously mystical as his later orchestral works, the second symphony shows an unmistakable move away from convention and towards the more personal - and modern - musical language he was developing. [listen]

Scriabin left his post at the Conservatory in May 1902, but remained at St Catherine's. Belyayev had promised a larger stipend and this gave him the time to start work, later that year, on the third symphony. Also that year Vera gave birth to their fourth child, a son. In the summer of 1903 the couple spent time at Obolenskoye where their neighbours were the Pasternak family. Leonid Pasternak, the famous painter, made a drawing of Scriabin around this time, and the composer became a musical mentor to the painter's son, Boris (later to achieve fame as the writer of Doctor Zhivago and much else besides). Boris Pasternak's memoir of Scriabin is one of the best sources of information we have on the composer.

Leonid Pasternak: Self portrait (1908)

During the summer of 1903 Scriabin saw much of his friend Boris de Schloezer and, more importantly, his sister Tat'yana. Now 20, she was captivated by the composer and they became lovers sometime during the second half of 1903. This affair inspired a passionate outpouring of extraordinary piano music from him, the opuses 30 to 42, starting with the fourth sonata. [listen]

Scriabin and Tat'yana de Schloezer (1909)

In December 1903, Mitrofan Belyayev died, aged 67. Scriabin had lost his mentor and most patient supporter and was grief-stricken. Turmoil ensued. His finances became chaotic, and even worse, he seduced a former student who was still in her teens, forcing him to resign from St Catherine's Institute and leave Russia. In March 1904 Vera and their children joined him in Switzerland, where they set up house. Wanting to continue the affair with Tat'yana, though, he arranged for her to live nearby in an adjoining village. Only some time after this did Vera eventually realise what was going on and she left her husband, taking the children with her. Tat'yana then moved into Scriabin's house and they began living together.

How on earth Scriabin managed to compose in the midst of all this is astounding, but compose he did. The third symphony was completed at the end of 1904 and premiered in Paris six months later, to a mixed reception. Its performance in St Petersburg in 1906 was far more successful and, according to the composer, it was this work, which he called "The Divine Poem" which first outlined what he called "my new doctrine". It falls into three sections: "Struggles", "Pleasures" and "Divine Play". It describes a heady mix of sensuality, spirituality, eroticism and philosophy. [listen]

When he returned to Moscow from Paris, Scriabin was offered another post at the Conservatory, an offer which helped him enormously as, once again, he was running out of money. He was overcome with guilt when his and Vera's eldest child died, and one can only imagine the mixed feelings he felt when, shortly after, Tat'yana gave birth to their first child. In the years that followed they would have two more children together.

After a journey to America in 1906, Scriabin returned to Paris. His domestic situation had caused many to shun him in both New York and Paris, but he continued to compose, with his next major work being The Poem of Ecstasy. Sometimes described as his fourth symphony, this single-movement work breaks the bounds of simple classification. There is no formal program, but it picks up where the third symphony left off in its voluptuous sensuality. [listen]

In 1907 Scriabin discussed his growing interest in the connections (as he saw them) between colour and music with composers from different generations: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninov. His next and final orchestral work, Prometheus, would attempt to combine the sensations of sound with those of colour. He connected certain notes with certain colours, and in turn to certain vowels. An instrument called the tastiera di luce (a "keyboard with lights", sometimes called a colour organ), was devised to project particular colours into the performing space throughout the score. This superficial parallel with the psychological condition we now called synaesthesia has given him a certain trendy mystique in some circles. Suffice to say, he was very serious in these ideas, ideas which he mixed with his mystical religious ideas derived from, among other sources, Theosophy. These all blended into a plan which grew larger and larger in his mind, an all-embracing salvation for mankind, if only they could hear and see and sense what he wanted them to hear and see and sense. Prometheus - part tone poem, part piano concerto - was premiered in Moscow in 1911. [listen]

The principles Scriabin articulated and clarified in Prometheus led to his final series of extraordinary piano works. From 1909 onwards he was finally accorded widespread fame in his native Russia and in 1912-13 he composed - among other works - the last three piano sonatas. This is the tenth and final sonata. [listen]

Still more visionary piano works appeared, including Vers la flamme (Towards the Flame) [listen], but Scriabin was obsessed at this time with mounting a massive event, the Misteriya, which would (with him at the centre, of course) be performed on land he had bought in India, in the shadow of the Himalayas.

He described the Misteriya (or "Mysterium") in these terms:

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.

The delusions of grandeur didn't end there. He even envisaged bells hanging from the clouds. This week-long event would be followed by the end of the world, and the replacement of the human race with "nobler beings". Rather like Wagner in planning the Ring, Scriabin decided the Misteriya needed a preparatory event, the "Preparatory Act", but all that remained of this at his death were the completed text and some musical sketches.

Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim, India (in the Himalaya region)

While in London in 1914, Scriabin was afflicted by a lesion on his upper lip. This recurred after he returned to Moscow in 1915 and before long he was seriously ill with an infection. Blood poisoning set in and he died on 14 April 1915. He was only 43.

By the time of his death, Alexander Scriabin was immensely famous and popular in Russia. During the Soviet era he was posthumously embraced, then shunned, according to the whims of the Party. On the wider musical front, he founded no school and left no disciples, but he influenced almost every Russian composer of the 20th century, and in recent years he has started to be reassessed and appreciated by the musical world at large.

Leonid Pasternak: Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1909)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2015.

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