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Scriabin, Alexander (Nikolaievich)

Scriabin, Alexander (Nikolaievich)

Scriabin, Alexander (Nikolaievich), remarkable Russian composer whose solitary genius had no predecessors and left no disciples, father of Marina Scriabine; b. Moscow, Jan. 6, 1872; d. there, April 27, 1915. His father was a lawyer; his mother, Lyubov Petrovna (née Shchetinina), was a talented pianist who had studied with Leschetizky at the St. Petersburg Cons.; his mother died of tuberculosis when he was an infant, and his father remarried and spent the rest of his life in the diplomatic service abroad. Scriabin was reared by an aunt, who gave him initial instruction in music, including piano; at 11 he began regular piano lessons with Georgi Conus, and at 16 became a pupil of Zverev; in 1885 he commenced the study of theory with Taneyev. When he entered the Moscow Cons. in 1888, he continued his studies with Taneyev, and also received instruction in piano with Safonov. He practiced assiduously, but never became a virtuoso pianist; at his piano recitals, he performed mostly his own works. Graduating with a gold medal from Safonov’s class, Scriabin remained at the Moscow Cons. to study fugue with Arensky, but failed to pass the required test and never received a diploma for composition. Upon leaving the Cons. in 1892, he launched a career as a concert pianist. By that time he had already written several piano pieces in the manner of Chopin; the publisher Jurgenson brought out his opp. 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7 in 1893. In 1894 Belaieff became his publisher and champion, financing his first European tour in 1895; on Jan. 15, 1896, Scriabin gave a concert of his own music in Paris. Returning to Russia, he completed his first major work, a Piano Concerto, and was soloist in its first performance on Oct. 23, 1897, in Odessa. In the same year, he married the pianist Vera Isakovich. They spent some time abroad; on Jan. 31, 1898, they gave a joint recital in Paris in a program of Scriabin’s works. From 1898 to 1903 Scriabin taught piano at the Moscow Cons. His first orch. work, Rêverie, was conducted in Moscow by Safonov on March 24, 1899; he also conducted the first performance of Scriabin’s first Sym. (March 29, 1901). Scriabin’s second Sym. was brought out by Liadov in St. Petersburg (Jan. 25, 1902). After the death of Belaieff in 1904, Scriabin received an annual grant of 2, 400 rubles from the wealthy Moscow merchant Morosov, and went to Switzerland, where he began work on his third Sym., Le Poème divin; it had its first performance in Paris on May 29, 1905, under the direction of Arthur Nikisch. At that time Scriabin separated from Vera Isakovich and established a household with Tatiana Schloezer, sister of the music critic Boris de Schloezer, who subsequently became Scriabin’s close friend and biographer. In Dec. 1906 he appeared as a soloist with Modest Altschuler and the Russian Sym. Soc. in N.Y.; also gave recitals of his works there and in other U.S. music centers. Tatiana Schloezer joined him in N.Y. in Jan. 1907, but they were warned by friends familiar with American mores of the time that charges of moral turpitude might be brought against them, since Scriabin had never obtained a legal divorce from his first wife and Tatiana Schloezer was his common-law wife. There was no evidence that such charges were actually contemplated, but to safeguard themselves against such a contretemps, they went to Paris in March 1907. Altschuler continued to champion Scriabin’s music, and on Dec. 10, 1908, gave the world premiere with his Russian Sym. Orch. of Scriabin’s great work Le poème de l’extase; the first Russian performance followed in St. Petersburg (Feb. 1, 1909). In the spring of 1908, Scriabin met Serge Koussevitzky, who became one of his most ardent supporters, both as a conductor and as a publisher. He gave Scriabin a 5-year contract with his newly established publishing firm Editions Russes, with a generous guarantee of 5, 000 rubles annually. In the summer of 1910, Koussevitzky engaged Scriabin as soloist on a tour in a chartered steamer down the Volga River, with stopovers and concerts at all cities and towns of any size along the route. Scriabin wrote for Koussevitzky his most ambitious work, Promethée, or Poème du feu, with an important piano part, which featured the composer as soloist at its premiere in Moscow (March 15, 1911). The score also included a color keyboard (clavier à lumière or, in Italian, luce) intended to project changing colors according to the scale of the spectrum, which Scriabin devised (for at that time he was deeply immersed in the speculation about parallelism of all arts in their visual and auditory aspects). The construction of such a color organ was, however, entirely unfeasible at the time, and the premiere of the work was given without luce. A performance with colored lights thrown on a screen was attempted by Altschuler at Carnegie Hall in N.Y. on March 20, 1915, but it was a total failure. Another attempt was made in Moscow by Safonov after Scriabin’s death, but that, too, was completely unsuccessful. The crux of the problem was that the actual notes written on a special staff in the score had to be translated into a color spectrum according to Scriabin’s visualization of corresponding colors and keys (C major was red, F-sharp major was bright blue, etc.). Perhaps the nearest approximation to Scriabin’s scheme was the performance of Promethée by the Univ. of Iowa Sym. Orch. on Sept. 24, 1975, under the direction of James Dixon, with a laser apparatus constructed by Lowell Cross; previously, the pianist Hilde Somer made use of the laser to accompany her solo piano recitals of Scriabin’s works, without attempting to follow the parallelism of sounds and colors envisioned by Scriabin, but nonetheless conveying the idea underlying the scheme. The unique collaboration between Scriabin and Koussevitzky came to an unfortunate end soon after the production of Promethée; Scriabin regarded Koussevitzky as the chief apostle of his messianic epiphany, while Koussevitzky believed that it was due principally to his promotion that Scriabin reached the heights in musical celebrity; to this collision of 2 mighty egotisms was added a trivial disagreement about financial matters. Scriabin left Koussevitzky’s publishing firm, and in 1912 signed a contract with Jurgenson, who guaranteed him 6,000 rubles annually. In 1914 Scriabin visited London and was soloist in his Piano Concerto and in Prometheus at a concert led by Sir Henry Wood (March 14, 1914); he also gave a recital of his own works there (March 20, 1914). His last public appearance was in a recital in Petrograd on April 15, 1915; upon his return to Moscow, an abscess developed in his lip, leading to blood poisoning; he died after a few days’ illness. His 3 children (of the union with Tatiana Schloezer) were legitimized at his death. His son Julian, an exceptionally gifted boy, was accidentally drowned at the age of 11 in the Dnieper River at Kiev (June 22, 1919); Julian’s 2 piano preludes, written in the style of the last works of his father, were publ. in a Scriabin memorial vol. (Moscow, 1940).

Scriabin was a genuine innovator in harmony. After an early period of strongly felt influences (Chopin, Liszt, and Wagner), he gradually evolved in his own melodic and harmonic style, marked by extreme chromaticism; in his piano piece Désir, op.57 (1908), the threshold of polytonality and atonality is reached; the key signature is dispensed with in his subsequent works; chromatic alterations and compound appoggiaturas create a harmonic web of such complexity that all distinction between consonance and dissonance vanishes. Building chords by fourths rather than by thirds, Scriabin constructed his “mystic chord” of 6 notes (C, F-sharp, B-flat, E, A, and D), which is the harmonic foundation of Promethée. In his seventh Piano Sonata (1913) appears a chordal structure of 25 notes (D-flat, F-flat, G, A, and C, repeated in 5 octaves), which was dubbed “a 5-story chord.” These harmonic extensions were associated in Scriabin’s mind with theosophic doctrines; he aspired to a universal art in which the impressions of the senses were to unite with religious experience. He made plans for the writing of a “Mysterium,” which was to accomplish such a synthesis, but only the text of a preliminary poem (L’Acte préalable) was completed at his death. Scriabin dreamed of having the “Mysterium” performed as a sacred action in the Himalayas, and actually made plans for going to India; the outbreak of World War I in 1914 put an end to such a project. Scriabin’s fragmentary sketches for L’Acte préalable were arranged in 1973 by the Russian musician Alexander Nemtin, who supplemented this material with excerpts from Scriabin’s 8th Piano Sonata, Guirlandes, and Piano Preludes, op.74; the resulting synthetic score was performed in Moscow on March 16, 1973, under the title Universe; a species of color keyboard was used at the performance, projecting colors according to Scriabin’s musical spectrum.


orch.: Piano Concerto, op.20 (1896; Odessa, Oct. 23, 1897, composer soloist); Symphonic Poem (1896–97); Rêverie, op.24 (1898; Moscow, March 24, 1899); Andante for Strings (1899); 3 syms.: No. 1, op.26 (1899–1900; Moscow, March 29, 1901), No. 2, op.29 (1901; St. Petersburg, Jan. 25, 1902), and No. 3, op.43, Le divin poème (1902–04; Paris, May 29, 1905); Le poème de l’extase, op.54 (1905–08; N.Y., Dec. 10, 1908); Promethée, or Poème du feu, op.60 (1908–10; Moscow, March 15, 1911, composer soloist). CHAMBER : Romance for Horn and Piano (1890); second Variation for Variations on a Russian Theme for String Quartet (1899; in collaboration with 9 other composers). Piano : Canon (1883); Nocturne in A-flat major (1884); Valse in F minor, op.l (1885); Sonate-fantaisie (1886); Valse in G-sharp minor (1886); Valse in D-flat major (1886); Variations on a Theme by Mile. Egorova (1887); 11 sonatas: in E-flat major (1887–89), op.6 (1892), op.19, Sonata-Fantasy (1892–97), op.23 (1897–98), op.30 (1903), op.53 (1907), op.62 (1911), op.64, Messe blanche (1911), op.66 (1913), op.68, Messe noire (1913), and op.70 (1913); 3 Pieces, op.2 (1887–89); Feuillet d’album in A-flat major (1889); 10 Mazurkas, op.3 (1889); Mazurka in F major (1889?); Mazurka in B minor (1889?); Fantasy for 2 Pianos (1889?); Allegro appassionato, op.4 (1892; based on the first movement of the Sonata in E-flat major); 2 Nocturnes, op.5 (1890); Deux impromptus à la Mazur, op.7 (1892); Douze études, op.8 (1894); 2 Pieces for Piano, Left-Hand, op.9 (1894); 2 Impromptus, op.10 (1894); 24 Préludes, op.ll (1888–96); 2 Impromptus, op.12 (1895); 6 Préludes, op.13 (1895); 2 Impromptus, op.14 (1895); 5 Préludes, op.15 (1895–96); 5 Préludes, op.16 (1894–95); 7 Prüludes, op.17 (1895–96); Allegro de concert, op.18 (1896); Polonaise, op.21 (1897); 4 Préludes, op.22 (1897); 9 Mazurkas, op.25 (1899); 2 Préludes, op.27 (1900); Fantaisie, op.28 (1900); 4 Préludes, op.31 (1903); Deux poèmes, op.32 (1903); 4 Préludes, op.33 (1903); Poème tragique, op.34 (1903); 3 Préludes, op.35 (1903); Poème satanique, op.36 (1903); 4 Préludes, op.37 (1903); Valse, op.38 (1903); 4 Préludes, Op.39 (1903); 2 Mazurkas, op.40 (1902–03); Poème, op.41 (1903); Hwit e’tedes, op.42 (1903); Deux poèmes, op.44 (1905); 3 Pièces, op.45 (1904–05); Scherzo, op.46 (1905); Quasi-valse, op.47 (1905); 4 Préludes, op.48 (1905); 3 Pièces, op.49 (1905); Feuille d’album (1905); 4 Pieces, op.51 (1906); 3 Pieces, op.52 (1906); 4 Pieces, op.56 (1907); 2 Pieces, op.57 (1907); Feuillet d’album, op.58 (1910); 2 Pieces, op.59 (1910); Poème-nocturne, op.61 (1911); Dewx poèmes, op.63 (1911); Trois études, op.65 (1912); 2 Préludes, op.67 (1912–13); Deux poèmes, op.69 (1913); Deux poèmes, op.71 (1914); Vers la flamme, op.72 (1914); Deux danses, op.73 (1914); 5 Préludes, op.74 (1914).


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—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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