Aleksandr Scriabin

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Scriabin, Aleksandr Nikolaevich

 

Born Dec. 25, 1871 (Jan. 6, 1872), in Moscow; died there Apr. 14 (27), 1915. Russian composer and pianist.

Scriabin’s father was a diplomat, and his mother, a pianist. From 1882 to 1889 he studied at the Cadet Corps. In 1882 he became a piano student of G. E. Konius. Later, he studied piano with N. S. Zverev and theory of composition with S. I. Taneev. In 1888 he entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with V. I. Safonov, Taneev, and A. S. Arenskii, graduating from the piano class in 1892. Scriabin gave recitals in a number of Russian cities, receiving special acclaim for his own piano works. The publisher M. P. Beliaev arranged a European tour for him in 1895–96.

A professor at the Moscow Conservatory from 1898 to 1900, Scriabin taught the piano class. From 1904 to 1909 he lived in Switzerland, France, and Italy, combining intensive creative work with European and American tours. In 1910 he moved to Moscow. He traveled for composers’ recitals to the Netherlands in 1912 and to Great Britain in 1914. Scriabin’s keyboard performances were electrifying, yet exhibited exceptional spirituality, suppleness, subtle rubato and dynamics, and richness and diversity of timbre achieved through virtuoso pedal technique.

Scriabin was one of the most outstanding representatives of the artistic culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A bold innovator, he created his own world of sounds, his own system of images and expressive means. His music glorified the power of the human spirit, the ardor of struggle and the triumph of victory, heroic daring, and resplendent light. But his creative work was also influenced by idealistic, philosophical, and aesthetic trends. The contradictions of the complex prerevolutionary era are reflected in the striking contrasts of Scriabin’s music, with its impassioned bursts and meditative aloofness, its sensuous languor and imperious exclamations.

Piano and symphonic music predominate among Scriabin’s compositions. In the wake of the 1880’s and 1890’s, the romantic piano miniature—preludes, etudes, nocturnes, mazurkas, and impromptus—had become the prevailing genre. Scriabin’s compositions in this genre are marked by a wide range of moods and emotional states, ranging from gentle dreaminess to ardor. They show his typical refinement and tension of emotional expression, as well as the marked influence of Chopin and, to some extent, A. K. Liadov. The same images also pervade Scriabin’s major cyclic works of this period, including the Concerto in F sharp minor for Piano (1897) and three sonatas (1893, 1892–97, 1897).

In the first decade of the 20th century the composer’s philosophical ideas crystallized, and the epic scope of his concepts now demanded a symphonic form of expression. From the idea of changing the world through art (the Symphony No. 1, with a choral finale-apotheosis with a text by the composer, 1900), Scriabin arrived at the Utopian, majestic conception of the “Mystery”—a universal, artistic, and liturgical activity uniting all art forms. The idea of renewal, of the birth of the creative spirit and of proud self-affirmation, constituted the foundation of his Symphony No. 3 (The Divine Room, 1904) and found complete artistic expression in the one-movement symphonic poems Poem of Ecstasy (1907) and Prometheus (Poem of Fire, 1910). Striving for the highest splendor in his symphonic climaxes, Scriabin enlarged the orchestra, introducing the organ, bells, and, in Prometheus, a chorus without words and special lighting effects. This was the first attempt to combine artistic mediums.

Scriabin’s symphonies are obviously linked with the traditions of the dramatic symphonic art of Tchaikovsky and the works of Wagner and Liszt. His symphonic poems were original works, both in conception and in execution. His themes were aphoristically concise in their symbolic representation of emotional states—languor, dreaminess, flight, will, and self-affirmation. Mutability, dissonance, and delicate headiness prevail in his harmonies. His textures became increasingly complex, characterized by multilevel polyphony. In the first decade of the 20th century, Scriabin’s piano works developed simultaneously with his symphonic works. The same ideas and the same range of images were embodied in both the chamber and symphonic genres. For example, the fourth and fifth sonatas (1903, 1907) are, to some extent, “companions” to the Symphony No. 3 and the Poem of Ecstasy. These works are characterized by a tendency toward concentrated expression and a compression of the compositional cycle. Thus, the one-movement sonatas and piano poems are the most significant genres in Scriabin’s late period of creativity. Among his last piano compositions, the sixth through tenth sonatas (1911–13) are of central importance. To some extent, they are “approaches” to the “Mystery,” or its partial, approximate realization. Their language and figurative structure are outstanding for their great complexity and a degree of encipherment, as if Scriabin were striving to penetrate the realm of the subconscious, to fix in sounds sudden feelings and their miraculous changeability. These “engraved moments” gave birth to the short symbol-themes, the essence of many of his works. Often, a single chord, a two- or three-note intonation, or a fleeting passage acquired an independent, figurative meaning.

Scriabin’s creative work had an important influence on the development of 20th-century piano and symphonic music.

Scriabin’s Moscow apartment was made a museum in 1922.

WORKS

“Avtobiograficheskaia zapiska.” Russkaia muzykal’naia gazeta, 1915, nos. 17–18.
Pis’ma. [Moscow] 1923.
Pis’ma. Moscow, 1965.

REFERENCES

Igor’ Glebov (Asaf’ev, B. V.). Skriabin: Opyt kharakteristiki. St. Petersburg, 1921.
Sabaneev, L. Skriabin, 2nd ed. Moscow-St. Petersburg, 1923.
Sabaneev, L. Vospominaniia o Skriabine. Moscow, 1925.
Al’shvang, A. A. A. N. Skriabin. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Al’shvang, A. A. A. N. Skriabin. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
A. N. Skriabin (sbornik statei). Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Danil’evich, L. V. A. N. Skriabin. Moscow, 1953.
Del’son, V. Iu. Skriabin. Moscow, 1971.

O. B. STEPANOV

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