The CD Picturing Scriabin marks a century since the passing of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Released in April 2015, the album pays homage to this Russian composer, who has remained one of the most mysterious and controversial artistic figures of all time. His music evokes a sense of elation and weightlessness, as if the law of gravity were reversed. Scriabin developed his own harmonic language, his own idiom and principles of musical construction. Stravinsky called him a “man without citizenship,” he does not fit in any particular musical or cultural tradition.
Born in 1872 into an aristocratic Moscow family, Scriabin was exposed to piano playing at home. A young experimenter, he built makeshift pianos from the age of seven after becoming fascinated with their mechanics. He would then give them away to house guests. Scriabin went on to become many more things: composer-pianist, poet, theophilosopher and musical mystagogue.
His uncompleted magnum opus Mysterium was to be a grand week-long performance including music, light, scent, and dance at the foothills of the Himalayas. It would bring final salvation to mankind by shattering the universe. An early forerunner of multi-media art, Scriabin’s vision was to compose for all the senses. Even within his instrumental output, Scriabin’s music creates a physical, even mystical, experience for his listeners.
Helena Basilova’s Picturing Scriabin maps Scriabin’s journey from innocence to experience. With the exception of the first Mazurka, the pieces are in chronological order. The program is similar to recitals Scriabin gave in the last months of his life. By then he had toured Russia and Europe extensively as a concert pianist, often playing full concerts of exclusively his own repertoire. We begin with two works from Scriabin’s first and most lyric period. Mazurka, Op. 25, Nr. 3 shows a contemplative and improvisatory Scriabin while 24 Preludes Op. 11 are heavily influenced by Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28.
In 1894, the philanthropist and publisher Mitrofan Belyayev took Scriabin under his wing. The 24 Preludes were the first works of Scriabin that were published, beginning a life-long partnership between the two men. A great admirer of Scriabin, Belyayev ensured that the young composer stayed afloat by managing his career, paying him double for commissions, and even securing him a piano professorship at the Moscow Conservatory.
The Fourth Sonata Op. 30, written in 1903, marks the beginning of Scriabin’s second period. Searching for a radiant and shining feeling, he starts raising a greater number of chord tones. Accompanying the sonata is a poem written by Scriabin, describing the longing for a mysterious star:
In a light mist, transparent vapor
Lost afar and yet distinct
A star gleams softly.
How beautiful! The bluish mystery
Of her glow
Beckons me, cradles me.
O bring me to thee, far distant star!
Bathe me in trembling rays
The longing quality of this music is often interpreted as a desire for sexual ecstasy. This aspect is directly coupled with Scriabin’s conscious departure from standard sonata form; the sonatas become increasingly compact, built on one single upsurge that carries the entire piece. The Fourth Sonata exemplifies his own goal to place “maximum thought within a minimum form.” In the same year (and also the same key of F#), Scriabin wrote Poème, Op. 32, Nr 1. It is a sensual little treasure that he played often himself, and has become one of his most performed and recorded piano works. Prelude, Op. 37, Nr. 1 acts as a troubled and mournful conclusion to the composer’s second period works on this CD.
With Two Pieces, Op. 57 (Désir & Caresse Dansée) we enter into Scriabin’s proud new atonal period. From now on, there are no more compulsory modulations and harmonies struggling to remain within traditional tonal rules. Rather then concluding on the tonic, Désir extends itself with an unresolved chord. Caresse Dansée is a seductive dance, as its title suggests. In Two Preludes Op. 67, Scriabin finally develops the ‘Mystic Chord’ that has been hinted at for years. This six-note synthetic chord weaves his beloved interval of a fourth in all its permutations, spiraling up to two perfect fourths at the top. By varying transpositions Scriabin can manipulate the chord to produce an enormous diversity of moods, depending on the context.
The Ninth Sonata, Op. 68, also from 1913, is often nicknamed ‘The Black Mass’ and is one of Scriabin’s darkest compositions. Many of its chords are based around the unstable sounding minor ninth, contributing to its particular dissonance. Marked ‘legendaire’, the first four bars chromatically slither downward, and while some upward movement towards the light is occasionally attempted, it is interrupted by the ferocious second figuration and never succeeds. The final climax is unusually harsh for Scriabin.
Alexander Scriabin was a fragile and nervous man who was outwardly polite and yet deeply critical of those around him. He is often portrayed as both visionary and delusional. In any case, he was conceptually ahead of the technology of his time. He was influenced by Nietzsche early on and later turned to theosophy, which he mixed with mysticism. Yet the core objective remained resolute: to show how mankind could will itself to become free, traveling to a place of unlimited joy, spiritual freedom and supreme tension of creative forces. The way to achieve this was through art, which exists above everyone and everything. Perhaps this is why the composer, according to his friends, always had a spring in his step and seemed to float instead of walk. Scriabin was attempting to fly.
I am God!
I am nothing, I’m play, I am freedom, I am life.
I am the boundary, I am the peak.
( From Scriabin’s notebook, 1905)
Picturing Scriabin concludes with a double postlude: Julian Scriabin and Thelonious Monk. Julian Scriabin was the sixth of Alexander Scriabin’s seven children, and was the only son from the second wife Tatiana Schloezer. As a remarkable child prodigy, he studied composition with Gliére at the Kiev Conservatory. Julian tragically died by drowning at the age of eleven. Shortly before his death, he wrote these Preludes that closely follow his father’s footsteps.
Thelonious Monk was born in 1917, two years after Scriabin’s death, on the other side of the world. He would become a groundbreaking pianist/composer too, though in a completely different genre. Monk’s frequent use of the minor 9th and tritone interval in his voicings, overlaps with Scriabin’s music world, especially his mystic chord and later works.
Text: Diamanda La Berge Dramm