The appraisal of Alexander Scriabin’s place in Music History has been the subject of many fluctuations since his untimely death in 1915. Considered a genius by many and a deranged megalomaniac by others, his music and its performance have seen periods of neglect as well as of revival and heightened curiosity.
Scriabin is a complex personality, the likes of which tend to be controversial. He was a visionary composer, a poet, a mystic, and a solipsist, whose musical genius did not guarantee that each and every single work would turn out to be a masterpiece. He is one of those artists in which frailties, even artistic shortcomings, do not ultimately menace their legacy, but instead form part of a “human” whole in which imperfections add to a certain uniqueness.
Born in Moscow on Christmas Day 1872, having been motherless since the age of 1 and deprived of the presence of his father due to his diplomatic duties abroad, Scriabin was given to the care of his aunt Lyubov Alexandrova. His musical talent was prematurely revealed, and by the time he was 12, Scriabin was sent to study with Nikolai Zverev, Moscow’s foremost piano pedagogue at the time, who counted Rachmaninoff, Siloti and Goldenweiser as some of his pupils.
Scriabin, who lived a very significant part of his life outside of Russia (having also settled in Brussels between 1908 and 1909), was connected to some of the most important Russian artists and intellectuals of the time, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Mitrofan Belaieff (his patron and owner of a music publishing house), Diaghilev, Koussevitzky, or the revolutionary Georgi Plekhanov. By the time of his passing, Scriabin was recognized in Russia as one of the country’s most distinguished artists.
Scriabin’s oeuvre eludes simple descriptions and classifications due to the very significant transformations his language undertook throughout his 28-year career. His work is traditionally divided in three periods: an early, ‘Chopinesque’, one; a middle one, with Liszt and Wagner as the main musical influences and Theosophy as a powerful philosophical inspiration; and a late period, in which his music and philosophical ideas reached a stage of assured originality. But even this classification ends up artificially segmenting what is essentially a continuum of exploration and change, a wealth of musical innovation fueled by a philosophy that posited Art as a catalyst for the refinement of mankind.
That is perhaps the most adequate way to describe Scriabin’s creative activity: as constantly striving for individualization and transcendence.
Scriabin’s affinities with Theosophy and the writings of Madame Blavatsky, which he adapted into his own personal blend of mysticism, cannot be underestimated, as they provide an important key to understanding the philosophical meaning of his music. As Bowers (1973) points out, “Over the years, Scriabin's philosophy underwent certain changes, but it retained a curiously steadfast, almost monotonous consistency whose central ingredients were monomania, megalomania and mysticism, in the sense that the power of the mind is unlimited and all worldly manifestations are either subject to its control or even created by it."
Starting around 1903, and fueled by his contact with Theosophy, Scriabin progressively adopted a messianic attitude towards Art, believing his music was capable of pushing humanity over its existential threshold to a higher dimension.
In Scriabin’s own words, "I have an idea to create some kind of a Mysterium. I need to construct a special temple for it, perhaps here or perhaps far from here, in India…But people aren’t ready for it. I must sermonize. I must show them a new path. I have even preached from a boat, like Christ…I have a little group of people here who understand me. They will come with me.” ²
The Mysterium, a projected magnum opus of cataclysmic repercussions, would be an all-encompassing ritual which would include a multitude of artistic manifestations to arouse the five senses of the participants through the incorporation of dance, caresses, colors and perfumes. Mysterium would not have an audience but rather active participants, which by entering a state of trance and ecstatic bliss would lead to the dematerialization of all things and provoke their fusion into the Universal One. Scriabin died without realizing this work, leaving us only draft of his ideas for the L’Acte Préalable, an initiation to the Mysterium.
Scriabin’s symphonic works, and the same can be said for his piano sonatas, are fundamental milestones in his oeuvre, as they reflect, in their structure, instrumentation and poetic program, different stages of his creative development and distinct philosophical aspirations.
Scriabin’s Symphony No.1 in E major op.26, a colossal six-movement piece, was his first attempt at a big-scale work with a universal philosophical message. The symphony’s finale, following closely Beethoven’s Ninth, features a choir and soloists, but while Beethoven’s masterwork delivers a radiant message of brotherhood, Scriabin’s music sings the more platonic praise of Art. This detachment from worldly preoccupations and the involvement with more ‘sublime’, metaphysical matters would become, as described earlier, a growing concern of Scriabin.
His Symphony No.2 op.29 in C minor, composed in 1902, is the last work of his early period, after which Scriabin started exploring the gradual weaking of tonal functions. By comparison with his first symphony, the second is a more concentrated work, composed of 5 movements. The first two movements as well as the last two should be played uninterruptedly, and can therefore be seen as forming two bigger structures surrounding a central Andante. The symphony showcases Scriabin’s craftsmanship at thematic transformation, by developing the same material throughout the different movements while changing its character and context, as for instance the transformation of the initial dark and mysterious first movement theme into the joyous hymn of the finale. This last movement, whose texture, harmony and rhythm are atypical in Scriabin’s music (indeed more akin to Wagner’s Meistersinger), disappointed even the composer, who later lamented it: “Instead of the light which I needed, I got stuck with a military parade on my hands.”
Both the first and second symphonies, and even later the third, were generally not well received by the public at the time of their premieres, mostly due to their weak finales. Scriabin’s recognition as an accomplished symphonic composer had to wait until Le Poème de l’extase, a work he composed in 1908, and which has definitely entered nowadays’ standard symphonic concert repertoire.
Although an imperfect work, Scriabin’s second symphony is a work filled with beautiful moments and melodies, tragic moods, and brimming with Scriabin’s characteristic flight motives. It is a work well deserving of critical reassessment by the public, in a year that marks the 150th anniversary of this most fascinating composer.
¹ Leonid Sabaneeff, Vospominaniye o Skryabinye (Reminiscences of Scriabin), Muzsektor, Moscow, 1925, p.139.
² Bowers, Faubion. Scriabin, a Biography. Dover Publications, 1996, Volume II, p.50.