Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Scriabin
Aleksandr Nikolaevich Scriabin once boasted that, “only my music expresses the inexpressible.”
A Russian composer, Scriabin (also Skriabin and Skryabin) was one of the founding fathers of modernism in music. With his ten sonatas he conjured a whole new dimension of colors, textures and expression with breathtaking skill. Scriabin’s works hint at what new worlds he may have conquered. Although we can only ponder what might have been in his all too brief life, we may rejoice in the glorious music that poured from his fervent mind before his untimely death at the age of 43.
Scriabin’s music contains eroticism although he preferred to call it ecstasy. He envisioned that the end of the world would, in fact, be a grandiose sexual act - a universal orgy. Like Elgar (an English composer) and Britten (an English composer, conductor and pianist), he wanted everyone to agree with him and he promoted cults and aspects of spiritualism (some of which were exposed as fraudulent) that were dangerous doctrines. He was a cult figure himself. During his lifetime, Scriabin was not thought of as a composer but a pianist. Stravinsky said that his only ability was his phenomenal playing. The pianist Vasily Safonov adored him and called him Russia’s Chopin. Scriabin’s style, like Beethoven and Schönberg, and unlike Mozart or Brahms, changed enormously as he progressed. His early works were romantic, fresh and easily accessible, while his later compositions explored the farthest reaches of harmony.
“The music is the man. Scriabin was mad or, to be charitable, mentally ill and as strange as his music.” - Dr. David Wright
Scriabin came from a military family of some nobility. His mother was a gifted pianist, but she died when Aleksandr was only a year old. Scriabin’s father was in the Foreign Service, serving in Greece and Turkey, and hence seldom at home. Alexandr was cared for by an aunt (his father’s sister) who was only 20 when the boy was born. Throughout his life, Sasha, as he was affectionately known, blamed his effeminacy on the fact that he was surrounded by women as a child. The Scriabin family members were decidedly common and embarrassed by Aleksandr’s “weird” behavior and mannerisms. He was always short of stature, just over five feet tall, and, like many little men, acted big and arrogant to compensate for his lack of height.
Scriabin dreamed of a career in the military. In 1982, at the age of ten, he put on a uniform and joined the Cadets. But he was ridiculed and bullied because he was small, effeminate and weak. By this time he had already begun to show the signs of mental instability, which were to remain with him throughout his life.
As to his obsession with music, he showed some early talent. He started to play at the age of four. When he was eight he fell in love and wrote parts of an opera called “Lisa” named after the little girl he regarded as his sweetheart. The previous year he had been taken to St. Petersburg and had heard the pianist Anton Rubinstein.
Aleksandr remained in the Cadet Corps where, at a school concert, he played some pieces written by his father’s second wife and improvised a piece of his own. His fellow cadets were somewhat impressed and treated him more favorably thereafter. But it was obvious that he would never be a soldier.
Scriabin began his studies in 1884 with Sergey Taneyev (a famous Russian composer), whose other star pupil was Sergey Rachmaninov (who would also become a famous Russian pianist). He started out as a prodigy pianist, studying with the celebrated Moscow pedagogue Nikolay Zverev. Interestingly, Rachmaninov started out as a composer and ended up a pianist, while Scriabin started out as a pianist and ended up a composer.
Alexandr entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1988, studying with Anton Arensky (a Russian composer and pianist), Sergey Taneyev and Vasily Safonov (a famous Russian conductor, pianist, teacher and director of the conservatory from 1989-1905). Scriabin became a noted and prodigious pianist despite his small hands that could barely grasp a ninth. In 1892 he graduated with a Little Gold Medal in piano performance, but did not complete a composition degree because of strong differences in personality and musical tastes with Arensky and an unwillingness to compose pieces in forms that did not interest him (Arensky’s signature is the only one absent from Scriabin's graduation certificate).
During his Conservatory years, a hand injury, suffered supposedly while over-practicing the “Don Juan Fantasy” by Franz Liszt and “Islamiya” by Miliy Balakirev forced Scriabin to turn to composition. Two of the most famous left handed pieces in the piano repertoire, the Nocturne and Prelude Op. 9 were a direct result of this, and later, also the 1st Piano Sonata. Although he eventually returned to the concert stage, his right hand was never quite the same and this may explain why in so many of his compositions the left hand is technically the equal to (and often surpasses) the right hand.
Cesar Cui, in a review of a concert performed by Scriabin in 1905, complained that Scriabin’s left hand actually overwhelmed the right.
Scriabin described his injury in a diary entry from 1891: “Twenty years old: the injury to my hand has developed. The most important event in my life. Fate sends me forth on my mission. The obstacle to the achievement of the goal so highly desired: fame, glory. An obstacle, in the words of the doctors, that is insurmountable. The first serious failure in my life. The first serious meditation: the beginning of analysis. Doubts about the impossibility of getting well, but the gloomiest state of mind. The first meditation on the value of life, on religion, on God. A continuing strong belief in Him (Jehovah rather than Christ, it seems). Ardent, heartfelt prayer, visits to the church… Cried out against fate, and against God. The composition of my first sonata with a funeral march.”
Mostly inspired by Chopin, Scriabin’s early works include nocturnes, mazurkas, preludes and etudes for piano. Typical examples of Romantic music for the piano, these works nevertheless reveal the composer's strong individuality. Toward the end of the century Scriabin started writing orchestral works, earning a solid reputation as a composer.
Some writers and musicologists wrongly state that Scriabin wrote five symphonies. He wrote only three. His other orchestral works were a “Symphonic Poem in D Minor” (1897), “The Divine Poem” (1904), “Poem of Ecstasy “ (1908) and “Prometheus” (1911). Scriabin is best known for these symphonies. He also wrote 85 piano preludes and 10 sonatas.
Scriabin graduated from the Conservatory in 1892 with the minimum prerequisites. For the next few years his occupation was “socializing” which, in common parlance, meant consuming alcohol and engaging in one-night stands. He met the pianist Josef Hofmann, who became his rival, particularly when a woman Scriabin was in love with preferred Hofmann to himself. He would drink himself silly and endure awful hangovers while claiming that being drunk was sublime spiritual ecstasy. This condition is often represented in the incoherency of his music. When he was drunk his already serious mental instability was worsened. In a drunken state, he would claim that his own power was greater than God’s power as seen in creation; God was not omnipotent - he was. Eventually, however, Scriabin overcame his alcohol addiction.
In 1894 Scriabin gave his first concert as a pianist in St. Petersburg and that same year he embarked on an international concert career. He performed successfully in Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy and other countries.
Scriabin’s intense character and narcissism were problematic and caused many to dislike him. When he played excerpts for friends, he would stare off into the distance away from the piano, as if watching effluvium rise from the floor and out of the walls around him. He seemed frightened and sometimes shuddered. His mood directly reflected the incomprehensible, unformed chaos of the dark beginning - the void. One of Scriabin’s works, which found few admirers, was his Piano Concerto in F Sharp Minor Op. 20. It is a seriously flawed piece and Rimsky-Korsakov (a famous Russian composer and expert on orchestration) said that the orchestration was very poor and re-orchestrated it in part. Sergey Prokofiev called the concerto “lack luster” and refused to play it, as did other famous pianists.
In 1897 Scriabin married Vera Isakovich. Vera was an excellent pianist and performed with Scriabin, but her character was diametrically opposed to her husband’s. There were great financial troubles in the family, which had to rely on handouts from friends.
Scriabin was offered a professorship of piano at the Conservatory in September 1898, which he took but did little work as he only had about twelve pupils. In 1902 he decided to stop teaching. He was not a good educator with his injudicious remarks and scathing comments on Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms.
Scriabin abandoned his wife and their four children and embarked on a European journey with a young admirer, Tatyana Schloezer. During his sojourn in Western Europe, which lasted six years, Scriabin started developing an original, highly personal musical idiom, experimenting with new harmonic structures and searching for new sonorities. Among the works composed during this time was the “Divine Poem” (1904). The Scriabins finally parted in 1904, but Vera initially refused a divorce. She continued to play his music until her death in 1920.
In 1905 Scriabin began living with Tatyana Fyodorovna Schloezer, whom he had known since she was fifteen. He eventually persuaded Vera to divorce him and married Tatyana, which was his reason for self-exile. They had two girls and a boy, Julian, who wrote four piano preludes.
From 1903 to 1908 Scriabin lived abroad, first in Paris and then in Belgium, where he met the notorious theosophist Helena Blavatsky. Theosophy is a cult of various philosophies that professes that one can know God through spiritual ecstasy, direct instruction or a special virtual relationship with Him. In 1905, theosophical teachings became the intellectual foundation of Scriabin’s musical and philosophical efforts. In true Romantic tradition, he sought to situate his work as a composer in the wider spiritual and intellectual context of his age. Previously influenced by Nietzsche's ideas on the advent of a superhuman being, Scriabin embraced theosophy as an intellectual framework for his profound feelings about humankind's quest for God.
Works from this period, exemplified by the “Poem of Ecstasy” (1908) and “Prometheus” (1910), reflect Scriabin's conception of music as a bridge to mystical ecstasy. Blavatsky embraced every faith and cult and all the claims of saints, mystics and cult leaders. She claimed that she could prevent a group of strong men from lifting a table by the power of her mind. Scriabin accepted all this nonsense and even after Blavatsky was proven to be a fraud in 1914, he continued to believe. He also absorbed anthroposophy. Clearly his mental deficiencies enabled him to assimilate such falsities. In London he even visited the room in which Blavatsky died.
During his years with Tatyana his madness increased. He said that he was greater than Christ and tried to emulate Him by walking on Lake Geneva as he was sure of his miraculous powers. Having been rescued he began preaching to fishermen from a boat. He believed that as Christ preached communism, which he did not, that Christ was, in fact, a Communist.
It was in London that Scriabin became ill. It began with a pimple on his upper lip under his moustache. The pimple was infected with streptococcus staphylococcus blood poisoning. The illness led to his death. His family was left with little money and Rachmaninov, among others, came to their aid. Scriabin's son, Julian, seemed a prodigious copy of his father. He too died early and tragically in 1919; he drowned in the Dnieper River at only eleven years of age.
Scriabin died amidst the immense conflagration that was gripping all of Europe at that time, the Great War, which he thought would purge mankind and usher in a glorious new era of mystical wonder. Inspired by Wagner’s ideas concerning Gesamtkunstwerk (often translated as universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, all-embracing art form, total work of art or total artwork), he planned on composing a mammoth piece, the “Mysterium,” to commemorate this cataclysmic event.
“The performance of this piece was to take place in a half-temple to be built in India. Bells suspended from clouds would summon the spectators from all over the world. A reflecting pool of water would complete the divinity of the half-circle stage. Spectators would sit in tiers across the water. Scriabin would be seated at the piano, surrounded by hosts of instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. Costumed speakers reciting text in processions and parades would form part of the action along with the dancers, whose choreography would include eye motions and touches of the hands in conjunction with odors of both pleasant perfume and acrid smoke. Pillars of incense would form part of the scenery. A light show, bathing the cast and audience in changing effects would also be included.”
Unfortunately he died before completing this work. Only a fraction of this revolutionary piece, the “Prefatory Action,” was sketched out. It was later completed by the Soviet composer Aleksandr Nemtin.