It is hard to find a more colourful personality than Alexander Scriabin when trawling through the history of pianist-composers. Trust me, I’ve tried. Born on Christmas Day, dying at Easter, and surrounded by controversy throughout his life, Scriabin himself did little to discourage people from seeing him as a kind of Messiah. He strongly believed that spiritual liberation could be achieved through art and the God experience attained through stimulation of various human senses.
For his very last piece, Mysterium, when Scriabin was preparing humanity for the final salvation, he wanted to synthesise all the human senses through one orgiastic performance of this piece. This was going to be the culmination of all his life-long visions. Naturally, the performance was planned to last seven days in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas, beginning with bells suspended from the clouds (just think of the production costs). But wait: they would also shatter the universe with their lethal vibrations, after which humanity was to be replaced by better, ‘nobler beings’. Sadly, he never completed the piece. Just as he was writing texts about death, death arrived for him. Scriabin died from an infected pimple on his lip.
Aside from his innovative ideas, he was no less wacky as a person. He liked elucidating his dreams while standing on chairs, as if floating in the air, and once attempted to walk on the waters of Lake Geneva; when failing this, he made do with preaching to the fishermen from a boat. Scriabin’s friends described his manner of walking as if he was ‘flying’: he would hop, race, skip and jump. In fact, he even carried out ‘flying experiments’ with his wife, attempting to transport his body through the air. Nothing wrong with that of course, but to some, he did seem positively nutty. ‘Isn’t he losing his mind perhaps?’, Rimsky-Korsakov once remarked after a concert.
He wasn’t always mind-less. His life started out quite normally, or apparently so. Born into a family of aristocrats, he was a contemporary of Rachmaninov and like him had lessons from the famous disciplinarian Zverev. He later went to the Moscow Conservatory to study piano and composition with Sergei Taneyev, as did Rachmaninov, with whom he formed a life-long friendship. While there, he strained his hand severely while learning Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy and Balakirev’s Islamey. This resulted in two compositions for left hand alone, Prelude and Nocturne Op. 9, the latter one of Scriabin’s most introspective pieces. Scriabin also trained his one uninjured hand hard and, from this moment on, most of his piano repertoire remained incredibly difficult for the left hand.
Despite fairly traditional Russian training, Scriabin’s music speaks its own language entirely and has no ‘Russian-ness’ or nationalistic traces in it. Some of the early compositions, like his Mazurkas, early Preludes and Etudes, and even his only Piano Concerto are said to be heavily influenced by Chopin but this seems an unfair comparison. While he did make use of forms that Chopin himself employed, his compositions are all through-and-through ‘Scriabin’; and if you listen carefully, they already carry the kind of dark undertones that envelop his later works.
What some might have found confusing is the unbelievable and speedy metamorphosis that his music and Scriabin himself went under: from the early 19th-century Romantic of graceful morçeaux to a mystical devil-worshipping avant-gardist. His ten piano sonatas are a case in point: with the First Sonata composed at 21 and the Tenth two years before his death, they are the thread that joins together his entire output and show off precisely this transformation at its best.
Scriabinophiles often focus on his late works, from about Op. 53 – the later the opus number, the more difficult and complex the audience will find his music. For the pianist, it is the opposite. I have always found his early to middle period as the most challenging from musical point of view, as the works reside somewhere between illusionary impressionism and outbursts of Romanticism, with a hint of darkness. His Second Piano Sonata-Fantaisie, Op. 19, is a good example. It is inspired by three different seas: the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Scriabin writes: ‘The first section represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitations of the deep, deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming after the first darkness of night. The second movement, Presto, represents the vast expanse of ocean stormily agitated.’
It is hard to find another work that is capable of recreating a complete emotional experience of a simple natural occurrence so vividly: the sounds, harmonies and textures manipulate the senses to the extent that you might be able to smell the sea air, taste the salt water and sometimes even feel the fresh breeze change directions. Scriabin was a master of such manipulation and there is possibly a good reason for it: it seems he had an unusual gift of using the medium usually responsible to stimulate one sense (in this case hearing), to stimulate and trigger responses from any of the other four, either singularly or in combination, causing all sorts of unusual sensations. A lot has been made of his colour-synaesthetic abilities (associating music with colours), not least because he included in his Prometheus (1910) a clavier à lumières which, played like a piano, projects coloured light into the concert hall. But that hardly scratches the surface of this phenomenon. The point is, he was thinking and feeling entirely in music while at the same time, inversely, he could use music as a medium to evoke any experience and any emotion that goes with it, in me and you. Even if he didn’t quite manage to suspend those bells from the clouds, it is not too far-fetched to think that an impression could have been created as if he did.
Still nutty? Possibly, but this effect has been described numerous times. One London critic for example wrote: ‘In my own case, on two occasions, I have seen radiant flashes of blinding coloured lights during performances of Scriabin’s music… It was totally different from the “thrill” of sensation or “tears” of pleasure… This experience convinces me that Scriabin’s music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner.’ Others describe visions of waves of light, golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of fire during performances.
Scriabin also introduced sex into music. He himself wrote that the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act – ‘I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation…’ – and even in his earlier works, like the Étude in D sharp minor, Op. 8 No. 12 (1894), which later became a trademark piece of Horowitz, one can find many suggestive erotic elements. While acknowledging Brahms’s romanticism and Wagner’s gardens of worldly temptations, Scriabin penetrated the subject further, when he wrote pieces entitled Désir (Desire), Caresse dansé (Danced caress), and, above all, the symphonic poem Poème de l’extase (Poem of Ecstasy). Scriabin accompanied Poème de l’extase with a written poem that leaves little to the imagination, while some of his score markings for the orchestral piece provide a naughty read: molto languido (as languid as possible), très parfumé (very perfumed) and avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic).
While procreation itself was greatly encouraged by the Soviet regime that came soon after Scriabin’s death, anything else surrounding the matter was heavily censored. Yet in order to make Scriabin’s greatness compatible with their brainwashed, uptight socio-realistic propaganda, they had no choice but to obscure and caricature him, and quite perversely so. In complete disregard of the explicit sexual and mystical contexts, Scriabin was made into a revolutionary, cosmonautic mascot. ‘A triumphant synthesis of the meaning of art and revolution’, the magazine Soviet Music summarised, and when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin performed the first flight into space in 1961, it was, quite inappropriately, the Poème de l’extase that was broadcast on All-Union Soviet Radio as an emphatic accompaniment.
Yet the Western perception of Scriabin hasn’t been flawless either. And therein lies the irony: while the Soviets were ‘ordered’ to misunderstand him, much of the audience in the West did so voluntarily. It could not be helped. The meanings behind his music often crossed over into madness – this, combined with its euphoric nature, often led to freakish opinions resulting in his audience appearing no less mad than the music.
From around Op. 58, Scriabin’s music starts to move away from tonal realms and unusual clusters of chords, presaging his famous ‘Mystic Chord’ (see style notes), begin to appear more frequently. The Sixth Sonata Op. 62 is the first without a key signature. The music becomes more chromatic, more nightmarish and mystical and the score markings begin to resemble black-magic spells, rather than instructions: l’épouvante surgit (surge of terror) and menaçant… sombre mysterieux. The kind of spirits Scriabin starts to appeal to become less and less friendly. In fact, Piano Sonata No. 9 Op. 68 is nicknamed ‘Back Mass’ – while the Seventh Sonata exorcises the demons, the Ninth is all about summoning them back into living Hell. This piece was conceived during an extraordinary period in the history of Russia, full of political turmoil foreboding the October Revolution of 1917. Uncertainty and fears about the future were reflected in the confused spiritual state of the people – the rituals implied in the Ninth Sonata vividly reflect acts of devil worship, sadism, necrophilia, cannibalism and all the other perverse, blasphemous ceremonies that were thriving all over Russia. There is no direct evidence that Scriabin was actively involved in any of the hardcore rites, even if he insisted that he was ‘practising sorcery’ whenever playing this sonata. But some of his friends certainly did: the painter Nikolai Sperling drank human blood and ate human flesh in order to achieve some sort of mystical experiences.
Leaving aside the peculiarities of his genius, just a quick glance at the great Scriabin-advocates such as pianists Sofronitsky, Horowitz, Ogdon and Richter, shows how there is something highly viral – poisonous, even – about his music that infects the listener no less than the performer, and spreads quickly. If you are not a Scriabin-zombie yet, do get a recording and be bitten soon. Life does not have the same colours without him.