Scriabin

Born: 1872

Died: 1915

Alexander Scriabin

You can divide Scriabin’s career into two halves. Before about 1900 he was a latter-day Russian Chopin, writing the sort of piano pieces that Chopin might have written had he lived longer; after that, he increasingly came to believe that he was God.

You can divide Scriabin’s career into two halves. Before about 1900 he was a latter-day Russian Chopin, writing the sort of piano pieces that Chopin might have written had he lived longer; after that, he increasingly came to believe that he was God. This makes him and his music not uninteresting. His music broke with all previous forms and traditions. It has enormous originality and the ideas and theories he had were truly messianic but he did not have Wagner’s determined pragmatism or a long enough life to see his grandiose schemes come to fruition.

The teachers who developed Scriabin’s prodigious gifts were the best in Moscow – men like Conus, Zverev, Taneyev and Safonov. Scriabin was a fellow student with Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory and destined to be a great pianist like him, until he damaged his right hand trying to outdo the pianistic feats of another Safonov pupil, Josef Lhévinne (thereafter, Scriabin never quite regained the keyboard fluency he had enjoyed and played only his own works in public). He stayed on at the Conservatory to study fugue with Arensky but never completed the course. By this time he was writing his first pieces in the manner of Chopin and was taken up by the publisher Belaieff, who offered him a contract. A successful European tour ensued and by the late 1890s he was giving concerts devoted entirely to his own music.

In 1897 he married a fellow pianist, Vera Isakovich, with whom he had three children; and from 1898 to 1903 he taught piano at the Moscow Conservatory. So far, so conventional. About 1898 a shift in style emerged. The classical outlines became blurred, the harmonies cryptic and unusual; he turned out two huge symphonies incorporating the germs of his new creative thoughts, and started reading Nietzsche and the mystic musings of Helena Blavatsky. He devised the so-called ‘mystic chord’ (C, F sharp, B flat, E, A, D) and worked out entire pieces based on this. He abandoned key signatures and the music became more dissonant.

In 1908 Scriabin acquired another wealthy patron in the person of conductor Serge Koussevitzky. His publishing house was devoted to Russian composers and Russian music. Scriabin, controversial and provocative, was exactly what Koussevitzky needed and Scriabin, in turn, needed money and a publisher. They toured together as soloist and conductor and, though the relationship did not last long, Koussevitzky continued to support the Scriabin cause, including giving the first performance of his last major work for orchestra, Prometheus. In March 1914 he was in London for a concert conducted by the adventurous Sir Henry Wood (the Piano Concerto and Prometheus were included) and he gave his last recital in Petrograd just over a year later in April 1915. In London a boil had developed on his upper lip but healed without medical attention. Back in Moscow after the Petrograd recital, Scriabin developed a fever and before long gangrene covered his entire face. Within a few days he was dead.

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