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Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin

The composer and pianist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1871-1915) was a striking representative of the early modern school of Russian music. The romantic symbolism of his late work often obscures his genuine innovations.

Alexander Scriabin was born in Moscow on Dec. 25, 1871. His musical talent was discerned at an early age. He studied piano and, at the age of 14, took theory and composition instruction from Alexander Taneev. Scriabin entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1888; one of his classmates was Sergei Rachmaninov. Scriabin graduated with the Gold Medal in 1892. His accomplishment as a pianist outweighed the value of his early, Chopin-like compositions for piano, and it was as a performer that he began appearing abroad. Except for a 6-year term (1897-1903) as a piano teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, he spent most of his mature years in the West, years in which his zest for living brought him almost as much attention as his art.

From about the turn of the century Scriabin began to cast away both his tonal and formal moorings: he is often lauded for the former and criticized for the latter, but the phenomena are inseparable. The steady progression is seen in his numerous short piano pieces—nocturnes, mazurkas, études, and preludes—and becomes focused in the last sonatas (Nos. 6-10, 1912-1913) and the remarkable orchestral works: the Third Symphony (Divine Poem; 1905), the Fourth Symphony (Poem of Ecstasy; 1907), and the Fifth Symphony (Poem of Fire or Prometheus; 1910).

In pushing away from tonality Scriabin developed chords from superimposed fourths, including the "mystic chord." He handled form in erratic time segments; some of his études are only seconds long. Overlaying this technical and expressive development was a highly personal, egocentric, verbose, quasi-devout mysticism which has led some biographers to judge Scriabin insane. Indeed, sketches for a final, unfinished work, Mystery, seem musically senseless; it was to be performed as a "multimedia" event on a Tibetan mountain by thousands of supplicants and, in Scriabin's imagination, was to bring the world to a close.

On April 14, 1915, Scriabin died in Moscow. His family, whom he legitimized at the end, was left with little money, and Rachmaninov, among others, came to their aid. Scriabin's son, Julian, seemed a prodigious copy of the father; he, too, died early and tragically in 1919.

Scriabin stands somewhat aside from the mainstream of musical development and seems unclassifiable in either Russian or Western terms. His contribution may best be seen in his small piano pieces. He wrote no chamber music, no opera, and very little vocal music, so his influence is uniquely limited. The innovative sophistication and mysticism of his later works were not appreciated by the ideologists of the young Soviet Union, and this, too, was a limiting factor. Like many of his generation, he moves in and out of vogue. But his legacy, though limited, is of lasting value.

Further Reading

Biographers either fight shy of or linger dotingly on some of the extramusical sensations in Scriabin's life. The soberer accounts are those of Arthur E. Hull (1916) and Alfred Swan (1923). The works by Leonid Sabaneev (1923) and Faubion Bowers (2 vols., 1969) are less restrained; the Bowers book is unusually entertaining though not altogether accurate. Chapters on Scriabin appear in M. Montagu-Nathan, Contemporary Russian Composers (1917); M. D. Calvocoressi and Gerald Abraham, Masters of Russian Music (1936); David Brook, Six Great Russian Composers (1946); and William Austin, Music in the Twentieth Century (1966).

Additional Sources

Bowers, Faubion, Scriabin, a biography, New York: Dover, 1995. Schloezer, Boris de, Scriabin: artist and mystic, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. □

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