Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (born December 25, 1871, Moscow, Russia — died April 14, 1915, Moscow, Russia) was a Russian composer and pianist known for his originality and mysticism. His career began with Romantic-style works in the vein of Chopin and Liszt, and his later works increasingly involved a personal brand of mysticism and a distinct “atonal” style, which he developed independently of Schoenberg and the Second Vienna School. He also wrote poetry and considered himself a philosopher and spiritual reformer, although these occupations were not met with the same widespread acclaim as his music.

Biography

Alexander Scriabin’s mother, Lyubov Petrovna Scriabina, was a successful pianist. She died when Alexander was one year old. Alexander’s father, Nikolai Scriabin, was a successful diplomat who spent most of his time abroad.

Scriabin was raised by his grandmother and aunts. He went to cadet school and studied music on the side. Later, he underwent rigorous musical training. He was taught first by the composer Georgy Konyus, and then by the famous teacher Nikolai Zverev. Scriabin learned alongside his contemporary Sergei Rachmaninoff, who also went on to become a famous composer. Scriabin later went to the Moscow Conservatory, still alongside Rachmaninoff, and they learned from Sergei Taneyev, Vasily Safonov, and Anton Arensky. It was under the tutelage of these composers and teachers that Scriabin began his career as a composer, producing works that notably followed in the footsteps of Chopin and Liszt. They also studied the works of Wagner, which Scriabin would later draw inspiration from in his own works.

Near the end of his schooling, Scriabin injured his right hand from practicing the piano too much. His hand was paralyzed to the point where he could hardly use it. He considered this event as a great tragedy and turning point in his life, wherein his faith in Orthodox Christianity was shaken. He developed a deeper interest in philosophy, reading Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others, and feeling especially drawn towards Nietzsche. During this period he composed his first sonata, featuring a tragic funeral march as its finale, as well as the famous Prelude Op. 9 No. 1 for the left hand only. He developed a strong musical ability with his left hand, which manifested itself in the complex left-hand parts of his future works.

Scriabin graduated from the conservatory in 1892 and embarked on his career as a professional pianist-composer. He also spent a lot of time socializing and became a notorious alcoholic. Later on he stopped drinking alcohol, but his former teacher Safonov remarked that he drank so much during this period that he became permanently drunk. Scriabin agreed with this remark, and added that he was drunk in a spiritual way.

Scriabin gave successful concerts in Russia and Europe. In 1897, he married Vera Isakovich, a successful pianist who supported Scriabin’s career and performed his pieces. In 1898, he became a piano professor at the Moscow Conservatory. He taught his pupils a style of playing that has been described as “neurotic”. He was known for criticizing some famous composers whose works he did not highly value: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, etc.; his fatigue with their music was one of the reasons his quit his post at the conservatory in 1902.

By the turn of the century, Scriabin had decisively split with Christianity and embraced a Nietzsche-inspired art-centric philosophy. He also began to conceive of what would later be called the “Mysterium”, a hypothetical perfect and all-encompassing synesthetic work of art that was intended to bring about universal salvation and enlightenment for mankind. His personal philosophy revolved around art, and especially his own art, as an embodiment of the divine and a means of liberation and enlightenment.

After leaving the conservatory in 1902, Scriabin moved to France in 1903. In 1904, Scriabin left his wife and their four children. Vera continued to perform Scriabin’s music until her death in 1920. Scriabin began a common-law marriage with Tatyana Schloezer, and he also had other affairs on the side. Scriabin and Tatyana had two children, including Julian Scriabin, who followed in his father’s footsteps by composing four piano preludes. Julian died young in a boating accident shortly after his father.

In 1905, Scriabin developed an interest in Theosophy. His idea of the Mysterium consequently changed. Previously, it had been conceived of as a one-man act that would be carried out by himself. After entering his Theosophist phase, Scriabin began to consider the Mysterium more as a collective project requiring everyone’s participation, although Scriabin would still have the central role. He also became more focused on creating the Mysterium, and began to think out the details. It was planned to take place in India at a special temple for the purpose, featuring synesthetic combinations of different arts and senses, and it would ultimately draw in all of mankind.

After leaving the conservatory, Scriabin’s music became increasingly “atonal” or “pan-tonal”. His last five sonatas are not written in any key. His music increasingly revolved around several chords, and especially the “Mystic Chord”. This chord is prominently featured in his orchestral work Prometheus from 1910. Prometheus was originally intended to be the Mysterium, but it ended up being published as a milestone instead.

Scriabin moved back to Moscow, Russia in 1910. During this latter part of his life he was increasingly preoccupied with the Mysterium. He began to work on the Mysterium’s first phase, called the Prefatory Act. He also drifted away from Blavatskian Theosophy, or was “driven away” entirely according to his friend Schloezer, due to the musical tastelessness and lack of appreciation of the arts among theosophists. Scriabin instead leaned more towards the Symbolist movement, and was particularly influenced by his symbolist poet friends. Among these were Vyacheslav Ivanov and Jurgis Baltrushaitis, who helped Scriabin improve the poetic text of the Prefatory Act.

Scriabin died suddenly in 1915 from septicemia as the result of a shaving cut on his lip. The text of the Prefatory Act was largely finished, whereas from the music only scattered fragments have come down to us. His death was widely mourned. To commemorate him, his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff performed a series of all-Scriabin concerts throughout Russia.

Synesthesia

Scriabin associated color with sound in a special way, and it has been debated whether he actually experienced synesthesia directly. He produced a scheme matching colors with tones, and eventually worked this into his Prometheus. Performances of Prometheus today sometimes feature color displays to accompany the music, but this was hardly done during his lifetime. A performance in New York City in 1915 before he died did include a “color organ”. Scriabin’s ambitions went much further than this, as he envisioned his final Mysterium involving every sense, including taste and touch, in a coordinated artistic whole.

Musical Style and Legacy

Scriabin is considered a pioneer of atonality, although he did not speak of his music this way or have any relation with Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Scriabin’s early music was most notably influenced by Chopin and Liszt. Wagner also influenced him during his middle period, during which he produced three symphonies. During his later “atonal” period, he went in a more original direction driven by his personal mystical vision. This music revolved around several chords, and especially the “Mystic Chord”, or as Scriabin called it, the “chord of the pleroma”. This chord consists of C, F♯, B♭, E, A, and D. It is made up of fourths, and has been interpreted in a variety of ways.

Scriabin considered himself to have substantially achieved his musical goals, which he described as “expressing the inexpressible”. He regarded his music as vastly superior to that of other composers. He said that “melody is harmony unfurled”, and reflected this in his later music by blurring the distinction between the two.

Scriabin’s philosophical, spiritual, and mystical ideas are expressed in his musical instructions and in poems he wrote to accompany some of his pieces. Scriabin considered artistic creativity to be inherently linked to sexuality. Eroticism and sensuality prominently feature in some of his music, and most notably in his “Poem of Ecstasy”, which was originally called “Orgiastic Poem”. Other such pieces include “Desire” and “Danced Caress”. Other pieces of his have been described as “dark” or even “satanic”, such as his sixth and ninth sonatas, whereas his seventh sonata has been described as an “exorcism”.

Scriabin wrote five symphonies (including the Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus), ten sonatas, and dozens of preludes, “poems”, and etudes. His music is widely performed and appreciated to this day. Composers notably influenced by Scriabin include Nikolai Roslavets, Samuel Feinberg, and Alexander Nemtin. Nemtin produced his own interpretation of the Mysterium based on Scriabin’s sketches.

References

Scriabin: A Biography (New York: Dover Publications, 1996), by Faubion Bowers,

The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers (New York: Dover 1996), by Faubion Bowers

Scriabin: Artist and Mystic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), by Boris Schloezer, trans. Nicolas Slominsky

“Scriabin and Russian Symbolism.” Comparative Literature 31, No. 1 (1979), Ralph Matlaw

The Mysterium of Alexander Scriabin, by Zebulon Goertzel (Dissertation for Marlboro College)

 

Article written by me for Lunyr (https://lunyr.com/article/Alexander%20Scriabin)