Scriabin’s Messiah complex: was he an eccentric or simply misunderstood?

Scriabin is known today for his bizarre behaviour and outlandish visions – but his thinking was very much of his time, says Daniel Jaffé

Scriabin

Scriabin appears today a perfect example as to why listeners should not confuse a composer’s work with his biography. Once revered, then subsequently reviled both in his own country and abroad, his late Piano Sonatas – concise, intense and eerily atmospheric – are now recognised as extraordinary masterpieces ahead of their time.

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Did Scriabin really believe he was the Messiah?

Scriabin is regularly regarded today, even by several aficionados of the composer, as an embarrassment. This is, above all, for his apparent delusion that he was the Messiah – a concept seemingly the more ludicrous given his effete, bourgeois appearance and the fact he stood little more than five foot tall.

It does not help that by Russia’s pre-Revolutionary Julian calendar (which, by the 20th century, ran 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the rest of Europe), Scriabin was born on Christmas Day. His one-time close friend and biographer Leonid Sabaneyev added to the mythology by carelessly (or mischievously) claiming he died on Easter Day – Scriabin in fact died more than three weeks later.

In 1904, while in Switzerland during his self-imposed exile from Russia, Scriabin admitted to preaching to Swiss peasants on the shore of Lake Geneva while he stood on a boat (having, some wags have added, failed to walk on water). In that same year, he confided to his friend Yulii Engel of his dream of creating an all-embracing Mystery ‘which could replace the old outdated Gospel’. Scriabin, recalled Engel, elaborated: ‘“A special temple has to be built for it, maybe here,” – and without looking he took in the panorama of mountains with an undefined gesture – “but maybe far from here, in India”.’ This, it appears, was his first confession of his ambition to write his notorious and never fulfilled final magnum opus.

Less than a year later, Scriabin was reading HP Blavatsky’s The Key to Theosophy in French translation, a book which seemed to further fuel his ambition for his Mystery project. Early in 1906, while in Bogliasco on the Italian coast, he met the Marxist philosopher Georgii Plekhanov, who had moved to Italy for the sake of his health. Plekahnov’s wife, Rozaliya, witnessed a lively conversation between her husband and Scriabin during one of their walks; as they approached a bridge, which spanned a river much reduced by the warm weather, the composer claimed that he could jump off the bridge and, through ‘power of will’, not be dashed on the rocks below, but would float unharmed in mid-air. To which Plekhanov dryly responded, ‘Try it!’

Scriabin did not oblige, though perhaps not simply due to pragmatism overruling a delusional idea. Scriabin and Plekhanov had, in the words of Rozaliya, held their discussions in a ‘teasing’ and ‘jocular manner’ and Scriabin’s proposal on the bridge was a Symbolist concept – an example of the artistic/philosophical movement by which emotions are expressed by metaphorical images and language. Much later, Plekhanov confessed: ‘Our daily arguments at every meeting not only did not alienate us from each other, but even contributed a good deal to our mutual closeness.’

Clearly there was a strong mutual respect, though their respective philosophies were utterly different – albeit, both in their different ways wished to find redemption for their fellow men. Plekhanov remembered: ‘It was very pleasant to dispute with Alexander Nikolaevich [Scriabin] because he had the ability to assimilate his opponent’s thought with surprising speed and fullness. When I met him in Bogliasco, he was completely unacquainted with the materialistic view of history of Marx and Engels. I drew his attention to the important philosophical significance of this view. When I met with him in Switzerland a few months later I saw that, while he had by no means turned into a supporter of historical materialism, he had managed to understand its essence so well that he could work with this doctrine considerably better than many “hard-boiled” Marxists both in Russia and abroad.’

It is rather sad, if revealing, that such a testimony came from what might be thought a disinterested source, whereas the most damning portrayal originated from someone who had, for a time, wholeheartedly shared Scriabin’s dreams and outlook in life. Leonid Sabaneyev was a close friend and associate of Scriabin’s in the final five years of the composer’s life, visiting him almost every day. Indeed, the pianist Alexander Goldenweiser, another friend of Scriabin’s, described Sabaneyev as ‘not just a passionate disciple but, so to speak, a Scriabinite prophet’.

A man of considerable intelligence who had had some compositional training, Sabaneyev was in a better position than most to understand Scriabin both as a thinker and as a composer. His biography, Reminiscences of Scriabin, offers tantalising glimpses of the final work Scriabin had in mind but failed to commit to paper before his untimely death. This was not the long-planned Mystery, which had threatened to overwhelm Scriabin’s creative and intellectual resources, but the Preliminary Action, an ‘interim work’ which his close friend, the symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, had suggested could be written as preparation for those who would participate in (not merely listen to) the Mystery.

Sabaneyev wrote: ‘Alexander Nikolayevich began to play something new, “different”, unfamiliar to me… It was, I recall, a fairly long episode of ineffable beauty, in the music of which I immediately caught something in common with that same famous prelude, Op. 74 No. 2, which had left such a deep impression in me the previous season… There were mysterious, lingering harmonies, full of some otherworldly sweetness and sharpness, changing against the background of a static bass in fifths… The impression of this, perhaps the most powerful of all I had heard from Scriabin, was stronger even than the previous impressions of the Third Symphony, of the Sixth Sonata, of Prometheus…’

The legacy of Scriabin

After Scriabin’s death in 1915 from blood poisoning, due to a septic carbuncle that had formed on his upper lip, Sabaneyev suddenly and viciously turned against his former idol, maybe out of chagrin for having fallen so fully under the composer’s sway. In 1927, after emigrating from the Soviet Union, Sabaneyev published a book Modern Russian Composers. By then, he had immersed himself fully in the then highly fashionable theories of the Italian criminologist and phrenologist Cesare Lombroso which – in Sabaneyev’s own words – had led to his ‘studying, in Lombroso’s manner, the mysterious relationship between genius and mental disease’. Sabaneyev admitted this not in his chapter on Scriabin, but in a chapter relating to another composer, Samuil Feinberg; not surprisingly, this admission eluded Scriabin scholars until researcher Simon Nicholls, in his The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin, highlighted Sabaneyev’s comment and its significance.

As Nicholls noted, Lombroso promoted a now discredited theory of ‘genius as degeneration’, claiming that ‘signs of degeneration are found more frequently in men of genius than even in the insane’. Such signs included ‘smallness of the body’, ‘precocity’ (which Lombroso branded ‘morbid and atavistic’) and ‘grandiose monomania’. To Sabaneyev, evidently, Lombroso’s prognosis appeared a neat fit for Scriabin; as such, he described his former idol in Modern Russian Composers as ‘the first “consistent paranoiac” to reduce musical insanity to a peculiar sort of scheme and even to a theory’. In his final article about Scriabin, published in 1966, Sabaneyev described the composer as a ‘mad dreamer, a psychologically sick man even in his appearance’.

With even a once-devoted acolyte writing about Scriabin in those terms, it’s no surprise that later scholars followed suit. But Sabaneyev didn’t stop at character assassination. In 1927, he wrote of Scriabin’s work: ‘in his music we discern a dream of Titanism, the dream of greatness and tragedy, but not greatness itself, not Titanism itself, examples of which have been given us by geniuses like Beethoven or Wagner.’ That judgement was widely echoed, not least by Constant Lambert in his best-selling tome Music Ho! (published 1934): ‘The climaxes of Scriabin’s Poème de l’Extase are angry waves beating vainly at the breakwater of our intelligence.’

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The tide has since turned in Scriabin’s favour, at least as a composer. Yet Sabaneyev’s poisonous invective against his character still has currency – given Sabaneyev’s special relationship with the composer, coupled with the daunting task facing anyone contemplating getting to grips with Scriabin’s actual worldview and the literature he read, this is hardly surprising. Only now – since Nicholls’s first publication of a reliable English translation of Scriabin’s own writings – are we perhaps getting to grips with this extraordinary, eccentric but certainly far from insane genius.