Alexander Scriabin

1872 1915

Alexander Scriabin



Alexander Scriabin was a Russian composer and pianist, best known for his unique, atonal music system which he used during the later stages of his career. He was also influenced largely by synaesthesia and the representation of in colour in music and known for his association with theology and many of his later works are composed with idea of starting apocalyptic activity. Although he was a highly respected composer during his lifetime, his music was neglected quite shortly after his death. It is only in recent years that Scriabin has gained considerable reputation for his work.

Scriabin was born in Moscow in 1872 to an aristocratic family. His father was a lawyer and his mother was an accomplished pianist however she fell ill and died when Scriabin was only one year old. He studied piano from a very young age and was regarded as a prodigy in his youth. He developed a fascination with pianos and it is said that he even began to build them. He enrolled in the Moscow Cadet School in 1882 and studied piano with N.S. Zverev, with whom Rachmaninov also studied.

In 1888, he entered the Moscow Conservatory. Here, he studied performance with Vasily Safonov and composition with Sergei Taneyer and Anton Arensky. During his student years, he gained a reputation as an accomplished pianist and wrote his Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, possibly his most successful work to date. Scriabin wrote many other compositions during his time at the Conservatory and a lot of these were circulated thanks to publisher Belayer, who would sponsor Scriabin’s later European tour.

Scriabin graduated in 1892 and by 1894, he had achieved an excellent reputation as a pianist in St. Petersburg. He regularly performed his own works and many were received positively. In 1897, he married Vera Ivanovna who was also a pianist and toured Russia and elsewhere in Europe. He was appointed professor of performance at the Moscow Conservatory from 1898 to 1903. During his time as a teacher, he composed many piano works including a collection of études and preludes, his first three piano sonatas and his piano concerto. These were influenced largely by composers such asChopin and Liszt and emulate an early Romantic style. During the later stages of his career, he would go on to compose in a more experimental style.

In 1903, Scriabin and his wife settled in Switzerland. It was during this time that he began to compose “poems” for piano, an art that he is well known for, such as his Poem of Ecstasy Op. 54, composed between 1905 and 1908.  He also completed many tours, including a tour of the U.S. from 1906 to 1907 where he met publisher and eminent conductor Koussevitsky. Scriabin later toured Russia with Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra 1910. In 1911, Scriabin’s Prometheus and Piano Concerto were performed by theConcertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam with its prolific conductor Willem Mengelberg.

In 1909, Scriabin returned to Russia, where he spent the rest of his life. He then began to compose more experimental music. His music evolved quite rapidly and his later works use very unique and exclusive harmonies, textures and rhythms in comparison to his earlier preludes, études and nocturnes. His compositional style became quite complex and he began to associate himself and his music with solipsism, which is based on a philosophy of subjective idealism. He famously wrote, ‘I am God’ in one of his unpublished philosophical diaries. The influence of colour in his works also became a typical feature – he even developed his own colour system based on the circle of fifths.

The influence of theosophy also played a dramatic part in Scriabin’s later compositions. He was often driven by the idea of an apocalypse and many of his later works were written as sections of a colossal, extravagant work titled Mysterium, which was left unfinished as a result of his sudden and early death. The seven-day-long composition was intended to be performed at the foothills of the Indian Himalayas and would include a large orchestra and choir, dancers and other visual performers, and visual effects. Scriabin believed that the epic performance ofMysterium would induce the end of the world. The composer also left sketches forl'acte préalable (‘Prefatory Action’), a prequel or preliminary work which would prepare the world forMysterium. Russian composer, Alexander Nemtin, put Scriabin’s sketches together to form the Prefatory Action which was received with positive reactions.

Throughout his life, Scriabin was often quite weak and sickly. He developed septicaemia from an infected sore on his lip, and died at the age of forty-three in Moscow in 1915. Immediately after his death, Sergei Rachmaninov toured Russia to perform the music of Scriabin, his first time ever to perform another composer’s work. At that time, he was known only for his skills as a composer, therefore it can be said that the Scriabin’s music holds a considerable responsibility for Rachmaninov’s career as a pianist. Although Scriabin was well acknowledged during his own lifetime, up until recently his music was largely ignored almost everywhere with the exception of Russia. His less individual but equally admirable earlier works were often lost in the midst of his more experimental and flamboyant later works. Fortunately, the composer has now acquired worldwide recognition as one of the early 20th century’s most intriguing and original composers.