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Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin ( //; Russian: ; 6 January 1872 [O.S. 25 December 1871] [] 27 April [O.S. 14 April] 1915) was a Russian composer and pianist. Scriabin's early work is characterised by a lyrical and idiosyncratic tonal language influenced by Frédéric Chopin. Later in his career, independent of Arnold Schoenberg, Scriabin developed a substantially atonal and much more dissonant musical system, accorded to mysticism. Scriabin was influenced by synesthesia, and associated colors with the various harmonic tones of his atonal scale, while his color-coded circle of fifths was also influenced by theosophy. He is considered by some to be the main Russian Symbolist composer.
Scriabin was one of the most innovative and most controversial of early modern composers. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia said of Scriabin that, "No composer has had more scorn heaped or greater love bestowed..." Leo Tolstoy once described Scriabin's music as "a sincere expression of genius." Scriabin had a major impact on the music world over time, and influenced composers like Roy Agnew, Nikolai Roslavets, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky. Scriabin's importance in the Soviet musical scene, and internationally, drastically declined. "No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death." In the 1970s, for instance, there were only three recordings of his complete (published) sonatas. Yet Scriabin's work has steadily regained popularity in recent years.
Childhood and education (18721893)
Scriabin was born into an aristocratic family in Moscow on Christmas Day 1871, according to the Julian Calendar (this translates to 6 January 1872 in the Gregorian Calendar). His father and all of his uncles had military careers. When he was only a year old, his motherherself a concert pianist and former pupil of Theodor Leschetizkydied of tuberculosis. After her death, Scriabin's father completed tuition in the Turkish language in St. Petersburg, subsequently becoming a diplomat and finally leaving for Turkey, leaving the infant Sasha (as he was known) with his grandmother, great aunt, and aunt. Scriabin's father would later re-marry, giving Scriabin a number of half-brothers and sisters. His aunt Lyubov (his father's unmarried sister) was an amateur pianist who documented Sasha's early life until the time he met his first wife. As a child, Scriabin was frequently exposed to piano playing, and anecdotal references describe him demanding his aunt play for him.
Apparently precocious, Scriabin began building pianos after being fascinated with piano mechanisms. He sometimes gave away pianos he built to house guests. Lyubov portrays Scriabin as very shy and unsociable with his peers, but appreciative of adult attention. Another anecdote tells of Scriabin trying to conduct an orchestra composed of local children, an attempt that ended in frustration and tears. He would perform his own immature plays and operas with puppets to willing audiences. He studied the piano from an early age, taking lessons with Nikolai Zverev, a strict disciplinarian, who was teaching Sergei Rachmaninoff and a number of other prodigies at the same time, though Scriabin was not a pensionaire like Rachmaninoff.
In 1882 he enlisted in the Second Moscow Cadet Corps. As a student, he became friends with the actor Leonid Limontov, although in his memoirs Limontov recalls his reluctance to become friends with Scriabin, who was the smallest and weakest among all the boys and was sometimes teased because of this. However, Scriabin won his peers' approval at a concert in which he played the piano. He ranked generally first of his class in academics, but was exempt from drilling due to his physique and was given time each day to practice at the piano.
Scriabin later studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Anton Arensky, Sergei Taneyev, and Vasily Safonov. He became a noted pianist despite his small hands, which could barely grasp a ninth. Feeling challenged by Josef Lhévinne, he damaged his right hand while practicing Franz Liszt's Réminiscences de Don Juan and Mily Balakirev's Islamey. His doctor said he would never recover, and he wrote his first large-scale masterpiece, his Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, as a "cry against God, against fate". It was his third sonata to be written, but the first to which he gave an opus number (his second was condensed and released as the Allegro Appassionato, Op. 4). He eventually regained the use of his hand.
In 1892, he graduated with the Little Gold Medal in piano performance, but did not complete a composition degree because of strong differences in personality and musical opinion with Arensky (whose faculty signature is the only one absent from Scriabin's graduation certificate) and an unwillingness to compose pieces in forms that did not interest him.
Career and later life (18941915)
In 1894, Scriabin made his debut as a pianist in St. Petersburg, performing his own works to positive reviews. During the same year, Mitrofan Belyayev agreed to pay Scriabin to compose for his publishing company (he published works by notable composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov). In August 1897, Scriabin married the young pianist Vera Ivanovna Isakovich, and then toured in Russia and abroad, culminating in a successful 1898 concert in Paris. That year he became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, and began attempting to establish his reputation as a composer. During this period he composed his cycle of études, Op. 8, several sets of preludes, his first three piano sonatas, and his only piano concerto, among other works, mostly for piano.
For a period of five years Scriabin was based in Moscow, during which time the first two of his symphonies were conducted by his old teacher Safonov.
According to later reports, between 1901 and 1903 Scriabin envisioned writing an opera. He talked a lot about it and expounded its ideas in the course of normal conversation. The work would center around a nameless hero, a philosopher-musician-poet. Among other things, he would declare: I am the apotheosis of world creation. I am the aim of aims, the end of ends.
By the winter of 1904, Scriabin and his wife had relocated to Switzerland, where he began work on the composition of his Symphony No. 3 (or Divine Poem). While living in Switzerland, Scriabin was separated legally from his wife. The work was performed in Paris during 1905, where Scriabin was now accompanied by Tatiana Fyodorovna Schloezera former pupil and the niece of Paul de Schlözer. With Schloezer, he had other children, including a son named Julian Scriabin, who composed several musical works before drowning in the Dnieper River at Kiev in 1919 at the age of 11 years old.
With the financial assistance of a wealthy sponsor, he spent several years traveling in Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium and United States, working on more orchestral pieces, including several symphonies. He was also beginning to compose "poems" for the piano, a form with which he is particularly associated. While in New York City in 1907 he became acquainted with Canadian composer Alfred La Liberté, who went on to become a personal friend and disciple.
In 1907 he settled in Paris with his family and was involved with a series of concerts organized by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was actively promoting Russian music in the West at the time. He relocated subsequently to Brussels (rue de la Réforme 45) with his family.
In 1909 he returned to Russia permanently, where he continued to compose, working on increasingly grandiose projects. For some time before his death he had planned a multi-media work to be performed in the Himalayas Mountains, that would cause a so-called "armageddon", "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world". Scriabin left only sketches for this piece, Mysterium, although a preliminary part, named L'acte préalable ("Preparatory Action") was eventually made into a performable version by Alexander Nemtin. Part of that unfinished composition was performed with the title 'Prefatory Action' by Vladimir Ashkenazy in Berlin with Aleksei Lyubimov at the piano.
Scriabin was small and reportedly frail throughout his life. At the age of 43, he died in Moscow from septicemia, contracted as a result of an infected boil on his lip or shaving cut.
Style and musical influences
Many of Scriabin's works are written for the piano. The earliest pieces resemble Frédéric Chopin's and include music in many forms that Chopin himself employed, such as the étude, the prelude, the nocturne, and the mazurka. Scriabin's music gradually evolved over the course of his life, although the evolution was very rapid and especially brief when compared to most composers. Aside from his earliest pieces, his works are strikingly original, the mid- and late-period pieces using very unusual harmonies and textures. The development of Scriabin's style can be traced in his ten piano sonatas: the earliest are composed in a fairly conventional late-Romantic manner and reveal the influence of Chopin and sometimes Franz Liszt, but the later ones are very different, the last five being written without a key signature. Many passages in them can be said to be atonal, though from 1903 through 1908, "tonal unity was almost imperceptibly replaced by harmonic unity."
Aaron Copland praised Scriabin's thematic material as "truly individual, truly inspired", but criticized Scriabin for putting "this really new body of feeling into the strait-jacket of the old classical sonata-form, recapitulation and all", calling this "one of the most extraordinary mistakes in all music." According to Samson the sonata-form of Sonata No. 5 has some meaning to the work's tonal structure, but in Sonata No. 6 and Sonata No. 7 formal tensions are created by the absence of harmonic contrast and "between the cumulative momentum of the music, usually achieved by textural rather than harmonic means, and the formal constraints of the tripartite mould". He also argues that the Poem of Ecstasy and Vers la flamme "find a much happier co-operation of 'form' and 'content'" and that later Sonatas, such as Sonata No. 9, employ a more flexible sonata-form.
First period (1880s1903)
Scriabin's works from the first period adhere to the romantic tradition, thus employing the common practice period harmonic language. However, Scriabin's voice is present from the very beginning, in this case by his fondness of the dominant function and added tone chords.
Scriabin's early harmonic language was specially fond of the thirteenth dominant chord, usually with the 7th, 3rd, and 13th spelled in fourths. According to Peter Sabbagh, this voicing would be the main generating source of the later Mystic chord. More importantly, Scriabin was fond of simultaneously combining two or more of the different dominant seventh enhancings. However, despite these tendencies, slightly more dissonant than usual for the time, all these dominant chords were treated according to the traditional rules: the added tones resolved to the corresponding adjacent notes, and the whole chord was treated as a dominant, fitting inside tonality and diatonic, functional harmony.
Second period (190307)
During Scriabin's second period, his music becomes more chromatic and dissonant, yet still adhering to functional tonality. As dominant chords are more and more extended, they gradually lose their dominant function. During this time, complex forms like the mystic chord are hinted.
At first, the added dissonances are resolved conventionally according to voice leading, but the focus slowly shifts towards a system in which chord colouring is most important. Later on, fewer dissonances on the dominant chords are resolved. According to Sabbanagh, "the dissonances are frozen, solidified in a color-like effect in the chord"; the added notes become part of it.
Third period (190715)
Scriabin was interested in Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch theory, and later became interested in theosophy. Both would influence his music and musical thought. During 190910 he lived in Brussels, becoming interested in Jean Delville's Theosophist philosophy and continuing his reading of Helena Blavatsky.
Theosophist and composer Dane Rudhyar wrote that Scriabin was "the one great pioneer of the new music of a reborn Western civilization, the father of the future musician", and an antidote to "the Latin reactionaries and their apostle, Stravinsky" and the "rule-ordained" music of "Schoenberg's group." Scriabin developed his own very personal and abstract mysticism based on the role of the artist in relation to perception and life affirmation. His ideas on reality seem similar to Platonic and Aristotelian theory though much less coherent. The main sources of his philosophy can be found in his numerous unpublished notebooks, one in which he famously wrote "I am God". As well as jottings there are complex and technical diagrams explaining his metaphysics. Scriabin also used poetry as a means in which to express his philosophical notions, though arguably much of his philosophical thought was translated into music, the most recognizable example being the Ninth Sonata ("the Black Mass").
Scriabin himself made recordings of 19 of his own works, using 20 piano rolls, six for the Welte-Mignon, and 14 for Ludwig Hupfeld of Leipzig. The Welte rolls were recorded during early February 1910, in Moscow, and have been replayed and published on CD. Those recorded for Hupfeld include the Piano Sonatas, Op. 19 and Op. 23.
Scriabin's music has also been performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, Igor Zhukov, Wojciech Kocyan, Andrei Gavrilov, Bernd Glemser, Emil Gilels, Ruth Laredo, Marc-André Hamelin, Evgeny Kissin, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Stanislav Neuhaus, Michael Ponti, Glenn Gould, Roberto Szidon, Robert Taub, Dimitri Alexeev, Matthijs Verschoor, Piers Lane, Stephen Coombs, Nikolai Demidenko, John Ogdon, Alfred Cortot, Evgeny Zarafiants, Mikhail Pletnev, Ivo Pogorelich, Daniele Conti, Gábor Csalog, Boris Berezovsky, Grigory Sokolov, Eric Le Van and Roger Woodward.
Pianists who have performed Scriabin to particular critical acclaim include Vladimir Sofronitsky, Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. Sofronitsky never met the composer, as his parents forbade him to attend a concert due to illness. The pianist said he never forgave them; but he did marry Scriabin's daughter Elena. Rubinstein premiered the Fifth Sonata in the West. Horowitz performed for Scriabin as an 11-year-old child, and Scriabin had an enthusiastic reaction, but cautioned that he needed more training. As an elderly man, Horowitz remarked that Scriabin had nervous tics and could not sit still for long.
Influence of colour
Though these works are often considered to be influenced by synesthesia, a condition wherein one experiences sensation in one sense in response to stimulus in another, it is doubted that Scriabin actually experienced this. His colour system, unlike most synesthetic experience, accords with the circle of fifths: it was a thought-out system based on Sir Isaac Newton's Opticks. Note that Scriabin did not, for his theory, recognize a difference between a major and a minor tonality of the same name (for example: c-minor and C-Major). Indeed, influenced also by the doctrines of theosophy, he developed his system of synesthesia toward what would have been a pioneering multimedia performance: his unrealized magnum opus Mysterium was to have been a grand week-long performance including music, scent, dance, and light in the foothills of the Himalayas Mountains that was somehow to bring about the dissolution of the world in bliss.
In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin's association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff's opera The Miserly Knight accorded with their claim: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that "your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny."
While Scriabin wrote only a small number of orchestral works, they are among his most famous, and some are performed frequently. They include a piano concerto (1896), and five symphonic works, including three numbered symphonies as well as The Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), which includes a part for a machine known as a "clavier à lumières", known also as a Luce (Italian for "Light"), which was a colour organ designed specifically for the performance of Scriabin's tone poem. It was played like a piano, but projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall rather than sound. Most performances of the piece (including the premiere) have not included this light element, although a performance in New York City in 1915 projected colours onto a screen. It has been claimed erroneously that this performance used the colour-organ invented by English painter A. Wallace Rimington when in fact it was a novel construction supervised personally and built in New York specifically for the performance by Preston S. Miller, the president of the Illuminating Engineering Society. It was also performed at Yale Universitys Woolsey Hall, New Haven, Connecticut, both in 1969 and again in 2010 (as conceived by Anna M. Gawboy, who, with Justin Townsend, has published Scriabin and the Possible).
Scriabin's original colour keyboard, with its associated turntable of coloured lamps, is preserved in his apartment near the Arbat in Moscow, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works.
Reception and influence
Scriabin's funeral was attended by such numbers that tickets had to be issued. Rachmaninoff went on tour, playing only Scriabin's music. Sergei Prokofiev admired the composer, and his Visions fugitives bears great likeness to Scriabin's tone and style. Another admirer was the British-Parsi composer Kaikhosru Sorabji who strenuously collected the obscure works of Scriabin while living in Essex as a youth. Sorabji promoted Scriabin even during the years when Scriabin's popularity had decreased greatly.
The work of Roslavets, unlike that of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, is often seen as a direct extension of Scriabin's. Unlike Scriabin's, however, Roslavets' music was not explained with mysticism and eventually was given theoretical explication by the composer. Roslavets was not alone in his innovative extension of Scriabin's musical language, however, as quite a few Soviet composers and pianists such as Samuil Feinberg, Sergei Protopopov, Nikolai Myaskovsky, and Alexander Mosolov followed this legacy until Stalinist politics quelled it in favor of Socialist Realism.
Scriabin's music was very much disparaged in the West in the 1930s. Sir Adrian Boult refused to play the Scriabin selections chosen by the BBC progammer Edward Clark, calling it "evil music", and even issued a ban on Scriabin's music from broadcasts in the 1930s. In 1935, Gerald Abraham described Scriabin as a "sad pathological case, erotic and egotistic to the point of mania". Scriabin has since undergone a total rehabilitation.
In 2009, Roger Scruton described Scriabin as "one of the greatest of modern composers".
Asteroid 6549 Skryabin is named for the composer.
Scriabin's second wife Tatiana Fyodorovna Schlözer was the niece of the pianist-composer Paul de Schlözer. Her brother was the music critic Boris de Schlözer.
Scriabin was the uncle of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, a renowned bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church who directed the Russian Orthodox diocese in Great Britain between 1957 and 2003.
Scriabin's daughter Ariadna (Ariane) (19061944) was born in Italy, converted to Judaism (taking the name Sarah), and married the Russian poet and Jewish WWII Resistance fighter David Knut. She was responsible for communications between the command in Toulouse and the partisan forces in the Tarn district and for taking weapons to the partisans, which resulted in her death when she was ambushed by the French Militia.
Another daughter, Elena Scriabina, married the pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky (after the composer's death, hence Sofronitsky never met his father-in-law). Their daughter is the Canadian pianist Viviana Sofronitsky.
Scriabin's great-great-grandson Elisha Abas is a concert pianist who divides his time between New York and Israel.
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