Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin ( 6 January 1872 [O.S. 25 December 1871] – 27 April [O.S. 14 April] 1915) was a Russian composer and pianist. Scriabin, who was influenced by Frédéric Chopin, composed early works that are characterised by tonal language. Later in his career, independently of Arnold Schoenberg, Scriabin developed a substantially atonal and much more dissonant musical system, which accorded with his personal brand of mysticism. Scriabin was influenced by synesthesia, and associated colours with the various harmonic tones of his atonal scale, while his colour-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 on him or greater love bestowed." Leo Tolstoy described Scriabin's music as "a sincere expression of genius." Scriabin had a major impact on the music world over time, and influenced composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Nikolai Roslavets. However Scriabin's importance in the Soviet musical scene, and internationally, drastically declined. According to his biographer, "No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death." Nevertheless, his musical aesthetics have been reevaluated, and his ten published sonatas for piano, which arguably provided the most consistent contribution to the genre since the time of Beethoven's set, have been increasingly championed.
Childhood and education (1872–1893)
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 mother—herself a concert pianist and former pupil of Theodor Leschetizky—died 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 remarry, 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 that his aunt play for him.
Apparently precocious, Scriabin began building pianos after being fascinated with piano mechanisms. He sometimes gave away pianos he had 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 amateur 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 in his class academically, but was exempt from drilling due to his physique and was given time each day to practise 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 stretch to 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.
Early career (1894–1903)
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 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. The Poem Op. 32 No. 2 and the Poème Tragique Op. 34 were originally conceived as arias in the opera.
Leaving Russia (1903–09)
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. While living in Switzerland, Scriabin was separated legally from his wife, with whom he had had four children. The work was performed in Paris during 1905, where Scriabin was now accompanied by Tatiana Fyodorovna Schloezer—a 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.
With the financial assistance of a wealthy sponsor, he spent several years traveling in Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium and the 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 the 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.
Return to Russia (1909–14)
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 Himalaya 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. Several late pieces published during the composer's lifetime are believed to have been intended for Mysterium, like the Two Dances Op. 73.
Scriabin was small and reportedly frail throughout his life. In 1915, at the age of 43, he died in Moscow from septicemia as a result of a sore on his upper lip. He had mentioned the sore as early as 1914 while in London.