The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979
by Jeffrey Miller
Alexander Scriabin is surely one of the oddest and most fascinating composers in music history.
Alexander Scriabin is surely one of the oddest and most fascinating composers in music history. A transitional figure who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, his music reflects the virtuosic style and emotional excesses of the romantic era, as well as sharing the concerns for tonal organization and intricate formal structure typical of the twentieth century. In addition, many of Scriabin's pieces possess mystical and ecstatic aura that often entirely obscures the form entirely.
He was a flamboyant character in an era which abounded with them. Highly nervous, and fastidious about his appearance, he was almost megalomaniacally self-centered. Scriabin had strong mystical leanings, and was for a time a devotee of Theosophy, a quasi-Indian philosophy which had many followers, notably the poet William Butler Yeats. This grew, with Scriabin, into a belief that his music could change and influence the world, and he developed a semi-religious system based on this belief. Surprisingly, many people followed him in this, an effect that was no doubt due to his magnetic personality.
Scriabin was born in Moscow on Christmas Day, 1871, according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia (the date on the Western calendar was January 6, 1872--Epiphany). He died in April, 1915, on a date close enough to Easter for some Scriabinists to claim that he was born on Christmas and died on Easter; that, alas, is not the case. It is true, however, that the lease on Scriabin's last apartment expired on the same day he died.
Scriabin studied piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory, where Sergei Rachmaninoff was a friend and classmate (it is interesting that, in those days, Rachmaninoff was considered to be mainly a composer, and Scriabin mainly a pianist). Musical composition in Russia was then under the domination of Tchaikovsky and of the group of nationalistic composers known as "The Five" (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff). Scriabin's early works, however, do not reflect any of these influences strongly, but instead use as points of departure the works of Chopin, states, such as the Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 (1913), subtitled "The Black Mass," a work which, to Scriabin, depicted absolute evil.
In seeming contrast to his mystical ideas and attitudes is the extreme care that Scriabin took in constructing his works. He paid close attention to form, often determining the formal proportions of a piece before composing it. In the larger works, sonata form is never entirely abandoned, no matter what melodic or harmonic innovations are used. Scriabin was also extremely careful and systematic in constructing his melodies and harmonies, especially in his later music where he abandoned traditional melodic and harmonic formulas. As he stated, "Thought must always be present in composition and the creation of themes. It is expressed by means of principle. Principle guides creation. I create my themes mainly by principle, so they will have concordant proportion." Of course, the seemingly contradictory use of highly formal construction to attain a mystical result is not unique to Scriabin. Similar procedures are used by many Renaissance composers, later on by Bach, and more recently, by composers such as Messiaen and Stockhausen, who were perhaps influenced by Scriabin.
Scriabin's harmonic system is probably his greatest contribution to music. He developed a very personal way of using harmony that consists of extensions and alterations of common scales and chords, and which had mystical significance for him. In the later works, such as piano sonatas six through ten, he eliminates key signatures and approaches atonality and the serial techniques used by such as Schoenberg. Scriabin. however, always displays a preference for sensuous sonorities and lush textures that makes his music easier to listen to than much other music that uses similar techniques.
In his later years, Scriabin was interested in the idea of incorporating other senses than that of hearing into his artistic works. The first non-musical element to attract him was color, no doubt because he was gifted with photoism. which is the ability to associate sound and color. To either "hear" colors or "see" tones (Rimsky-Korsakoff and Messiaen are other composers with this trait.) Scriabin developed a scale of colors to correspond to the usual scale of pitches. and had a device called a "color--organ" built to "play" them. The artistic result of this experiment was Prometheus--the Poem of Fire (1910), for piano, orchestra, and colored lights. Although this work was not a success in its early performances, it has recently been enjoying a revival in popularity.
It was only a short step that took Scriabin from believing that his music could depict any external event to believing that his music could actually influence the outside world. That belief. coupled with his interest in combining the arts and his mystical beliefs, led Scriabin to his last large project, which was called the "Mysterium." This work (or event) was to include chorus. orchestra, color. and scent, and would take the form of a mystical rite to be performed at an especially built temple in India. The performance, directed by Scriabin, would last several days, during which the work would reflect all the stages and aspects of the universe. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how much credence one puts in his ideas), Scriabin did not live to complete the "Mysterium." He died from blood poisoning caused by an infected pimple on his lip, a fatal malady in the days before antibiotics. However, much of the music from the "Mysterium" survives in the last two piano sonatas, the Preludes, Op. 74 and Prometheus, forming a fascinating legacy to a brilliant, if often bizarre, career.
Jeffrey Miller is a composer and teacher at Brooklyn College.