|Aspen no. 2, item 2|
Scriabin Again and Again
For accompanying audio, listen to item 3
For so long now in fact until very recently Alexander Scriabin has lived under the haze of public amnesia. Cloudily, he has existed in the memory as a series of half-remembered questions. Didn't he write a color symphony? Wasn't he Koussevitsky's friend? Didn't he invent the piano "poem," as Chopin the piano "nocturne" and Liszt the orchestral "poem"? Didn't he plan to destroy the world with his final piece of music, and didn't he believe World War I was a prelude to this magnum opus? Didn't he strain his right hand and write for the left hand alone, long before it became the fashion? Wasn't he the one who first wrote musical directions, such as "poisonously," "satanically," or "with a chaste ardor"? What happened to his symphony of glances, perfumes, and caresses? Wasn't he the one who put "sex," as opposed to "ardor," "passion," or "love" in music? Didn't Strauss copy his "sex-in-sound" when he wrote that opening bedroom event in "Rosenkavalier"? Or was all this experimentation merely in the 19th century or fin de siècle air?
Every time Scriabin played a composition, he played it differently, depending on the mood of the day. The cover photo shows him emerging from his "trance" of composition, after putting the last trill on the "Poem of Fire."
Yes, all this was so. But lately, the world hears anew from Scriabin. His interpreters have sprouted like crocuses on a snowy spring morning. Sviatoslav Richter toured all America last year with Scriabin's Seventh Sonata, the "White Mass," the only Scriabin Stravinsky can stand. "It needed to be heard," Richter said.
Vladimir Horowitz made his comeback with Scriabin's Ninth Sonata, the "Black Mass," last year at Carnegie Hall. His next longawaited recital will feature Scriabin's supreme masterpiece the Tenth Sonata. Lorin Maazel conducted the New York Philharmonic in the salacious "Poem of Ecstasy" (originally called "Orgiastic Poem") and critics scurried to give the piece belated encomia. Boston's Erich Leinsdorf revived the "Divine Poem" and carloads of auditors drove from all over to attend.
Meanwhile, dozens of YAPs (young American pianists) now include major Scriabin in their programs Kunin, Hymovitz, Hammerman. And Van Cliburn encores his concerts with Scriabin showpieces the Patetico in D' Minor, the Left-Hand Nocturne, a mazurka, a prelude, an etude.
Scriabin was the most unusual composer ever nurtured by Russia, and for good or for ill, he still stands as one of the rarest of musical innovators and the most controversial. The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia says of him, "No composer has had more scorn heaped or greater love bestowed..." Vyacheslav Karatygin, the musicologist, stated that, "No name in Russian music awakened more passionate or more critical interest during a lifetime. For some, the word Scriabin smacks of fearsome madness. For others, and each year our number increases, he sign)fies the daring innovations of genius... yet he was a man bayoneted for his novelty."
Just what was Scriabin's newness in those Tsarist days? For one, he put "fire," "color," and "light" into his piano and orchestral music. He titled pieces "Dark Flames," "Towards the Flame," and his Fifth Symphony, "The Poem of Fire," was performed with a clavier of colored lights. The theme was inspired by Prometheus, who gave the flame of wisdom to man. Irving Kolodin once analyzed Scriabin's musical process as "rubbing tones together until they give off musical sparks."
Scriabin also incorporated the concept of "flight" in music... gusts of upsurge or vzlyot in Russian. He actually believed man could fly, could sail through the air unrestricted by gravity, and one of his page-long piano preludes is titled, "Winged Poem." He even contemplated incorporating an airplane machine into the orchestra for a symphonic poem, "Icarus." This was long before Honegger's "train" symphonic piece.
As for introducing sex into music, Scriabin went beyond the romanticism of Brahms and the magical gardens of female temptation in Wagner. He wrote erotically orgasmic music, titled, "Desire," "Danced Caress," and "Sensual Delights."
Scriabin searched ceaselessly for expressions of love in his music. His mistress, Tatiana Fyodorovna Schloezer, was as much tool to his work as object of passion. He wrote her in 1905 about the "Poem of Ecstasy":
""How you will envy me. You bemoan the fact that you cannot find new words for love and caresses. l have, though, and oh, what words they are! When I see you, I will speak them to you, which means I will play them for you. I have never made such love before."
Tatiana, Scriabin's wife during his last 11years, was truly his muse. They were never legally married since his first wife refused a divorce. During Scriabin's tour of America (1906-07), he and Tatiana, like the Maxim Gorkys a few months earlier, were expelled from the U.S. for their unlegalized marital status.
Scriabin also poured a philosophical world-view and world-feelings into music. In 1905, he came across Blavatsky's "The Secret Doctrine," but its Theosophy came as no surprise. He had discovered much of the idea for himself, intuitively. Later, he branched into his own breed of mysticism based on a doctrine of the Will, the limitless ability of man to be God.
His words were often mystical and megalomaniacal.
I am come to tell you the secret of life
After 1903, he abandoned the traditional tonal system and boldly explored modernistic paths which prefigured some of Schoenberg, and which years later, Stravinsky copied. Scriabin was, in fact, the first serialist or composer to base a composition on a "set."
At times, Scriabin exposes some of the profoundest, most complex harmonies ever written chords of ten tones, exquisitely distributed as in the first two pages of the Eighth Sonata, which also have a counterpoint of six strands going at once.
Some of the most sad-sweet, romantic melodies ever dreamed belong to Scriabin. Artur Rubinstein explains Scriabin's decline because of this very romance. "People," he said to me several years ago, "didn't want Scriabin because they didn't want romance or melody in music... they hadn't it in their lives."
Scriabin also started the fashion for music for the left hand. One summer, after Joseph Lhevinne had astonished the Moscow Conservatory with a virtuoso performance of Liszt's "Don Juan Fantasy," Scriabin competitively overpracticed. He strained his right hand so severely that doctors pronounced his career at an end. Scriabin continued to practice with his left hand, and the result was the wellknown solo music for the left hand. After long rest and the gentle cure of Mozart's light music, he resumed his concert and composing career. The power of the left hand pervaded Scriabin's music from then on, adding a texture of complexity and subtlety, and unfortunately considerable difficulties for an interpreter.
And last among his innovations, there is no doubt that Scriabin introduced madness into music. His last work, conceived but never finished, was the "Mysterium" (in the Greek meaning of the Eleusinian mysteries, or religious service), and it was to shatter the earth with its suppurating vibrations. It would begin with bells suspended from the clouds, and they would play ringing notes to summon the spectators.
Much has been written about mystical experiences deriving from Scriabin's music. High priestesses of the Scriabin cult have described visions of waves of light, of golden ships on violet oceans, and bolts of fire seen during performances of his music. Many of these reports come from mystics and Theosophists who are well- disposed to the suggestion. However, even the rationalist and positivist critic, Leonid Sabaneeff, was led to write:
""As Scriabin, the thaumaturge, played his secret and liturgical acts of compositions, even the passive listener began to feel currents. They stretched out and touched his psyche. This was not simply an artistic experience, but something more irrational, something that battered at the frontiers of art..."
The esteemed London critic, Ernest Newman, also saw Scriabin's light, and wrote of it in the London Times.
What others say they experience is one thing. What one experiences for oneself, of course, is more pertinent. In my own case, on two occasions, I have seen radiant flashes of blinding colored lights during performances of Scriabin's music. I neither expected them, nor was I able to repeat them when I tried. It was totally different from the "thrill" of sensation or "tears" of pleasure, those emotions more commonly associated with conventional music. They happened. I saw them for no explicable reason. I was more surprised than delighted. The experience has never come again but I have not forgotten it.
This experience convinces me that Scriabin's music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood. My detached and disinterested opinion, resulting from a study of Scriabin's life and its crystallization into a music of unique sounds and incredible conceptions, affirms this strangeness... and delight.
Like Christ, Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin was born on Christmas Day and died at Easter. Scriabinists make much of this coinci- dence. During his lifespan of forty-three years, from 1871 to 1915, Scriabin himself did nothing to discourage the homology with the Messiah, although he could hardly foresee the final seal of Easter.
Scriabin was a small, elegant, beautifully handsome man, frail, always pale, a little greenish even, it is said, behind luxuriant, officerlike, trained moustaches. His beard was sparse but it hid the Scriabin cleft. He sported these hirsute displays from his early twenties, and they seemed not so much to express the Slavic custom and conviction as to conceal his feminine softness. Everyone noticed his politeness and mannered tenderness, his modest and apologetic air.
But beneath it all, Scriabin was a nest of nervous gestures and idiosyncrasies. He lived in fear of infection and contamination. He would don an overcoat to open a window. If someone wore a fur coat, he wouldn't breathe its air or go near the person. He washed his hands constantly, even after shaking hands, and often wore gloves inside the house. He never dressed casually, even at home, but always in elegant high fashion.
But all of this existed under a covering of total charm and the sweetest of manners. Sabaneeff, his greatest biographer, describes him, as he appeared in 1910: "How elegantly polite and delicate he was! And in those very qualities, the people who surrounded him with friendship were placed at a distance. It always struck me how through politeness he could put a million kilometers between himself and his conversational partner. Everyone was sweet to his face when they were with him even those who minutes earlier had made the most appalling allegations... He was now very much a man a la mode. Clusters of people swarmed around him, like rings around Saturn... "
Rare exhibitions of temper occurred invariably, however, when the status of art or the position of the artist was imperiled. On this subject Scriabin was adamant.
Ruling omnipotently over the earth
chorused his First Symphony. He repeatedly said to friends, students, the press, and biographers: "Tsars must kneel to art," "Art can change the face of the whole world," "The artist is higher than the Tsar, so kings must bow before him."
Anyone reviewing Scriabin's life can not help but be dazzled by the host of golden, shining personalities glittering around him. Today, the events read like a celebrity roster. Scriabin had a capacity for extraordinary friendships, despite his distance and psychic remoteness.
Brilliance surrounded him from the very beginning. His mother had been a Gold Medalist pupil of Theodore Leschetizsky. Then at seven, Scriabin's aunt took the boy to Anton Rubinstein, head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, who advised her "not to push... everything will come to him of its own accord." His student years in the 1880's at the Moscow Conservatory were spent with fellow students such as Joseph Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Joseph Lhevinne, Bronislaw Huberman, Modest Altschuler, all of whom were pianists, composers, violinists, conductors, who would later become, like Scriabin, world-famous.
Vassily Safonoff, known to Americans as conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1903 to 1919, was Scriabin's piano leacher and mentor. "He is very, very great... a great pianist and a great composer," he often said of Scriabin. When Safonoff conducted Scriabin's Second Symphony for the first time, he waved the score at the orchestra and said, "Here is the new Bible, gentlemen... "
The young student Scriabin came to the notice of Leo Tolstoi, writer-idol of all the Russias. "How sincere he is, and sincerity above all else is precious," exclaimed Tolstoi after hearing Scriabin play one short prelude. "From this single piece, you can tell he is a great artist... "
With Rachmaninoff, two years Scriabin's junior, a lifelong relationship developed which sparked with real and imagined antagonisms. It was always a "friendship," despite the insidious efforts of cliques surrounding the two.
In 1901, a rumor spread through musical Moscow and St. Petersburg that Rachmaninoff had made a public jibe at Scriabin. The occasion was the first performance of the First Symphony conducted by Safonoff. Rachmaninoff was heard to have said, "I had thought Scriabin a simple swine, but it seems he's gone and turned himself into a composer after all." Rachmaninoff disclaimed the remark, but a quarrel between their two factions spread.
On one side were the nationalists, with Rachmaninoff espousing Russian themes and folk music as a source of inspiration. On the other, Scriabin and the cosmopolitans, universalists, and internationalists in music. Once in a bilious moment and with pointed reference to Rachmaninoff, Scriabin wrote his publisher, "Is it possible that I am not a Russian composer, just because I don't write overtures and capriccios on Russian themes? "
Years later, Scriabin even attacked his youthful god, Chopin, for being nationalistic. "Not even the tragic break with Georges Sand," he wrote, "could precipitate a new note in Chopin's creations... He was overpowered by nationalism; it was too deeply rooted in him... "
Trying to quiet the scandal between Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, the two men appeared together on the same platform in 1911. Rachmaninoff conducted the Moscow Philharmonic in Scriabin's First Symphony (the "swine" one) and accompanied him in his Concerto. The rest of the program was Rachmaninoff music conducted by himself. But only with Scriabin's death did the gossip end. Then Rachmaninoff made a grand tour of Russia in a series of all-Scriabin programs. It was the first time he ever played music other than his own in public, and was the beginning of his spectacular concert career so famous in its day. The money from these concerts was given to Tatiana and her three children.
Nikolai Zverev, the finest music teacher in Moscow was also the most notorious homosexual of his day (despite the Russian axiom, "Everything in private, nothing in public"). The greatest talents of the generation attended his school. In this class photo, left to right: Samuelson, Scriabin, Maximov, Rachmaninoff, Chernyaev, Keneman, Pressman.
This very tour, however, produced other rifts. Sergei Prokofiev, then a young pianist and composer just coming into fame, describes an incident in St. Petersburg in 1915:
""When Scriabin played the Fifth Sonata, every note soared. With Rachmaninoff, all the notes lay on the ground. This performance caused considerable agitation. Alchevskii, the tenor, a friend of Scriabin's, cried out, 'I'm going backstage to tell him how it should be played!' ""I tried to be objective, and pointed out that although we were used to Scriabin's own playing and preferred it, obviously there were other possible interpretations and performances. I held him by the coattails, but was dragged along to the artist's room where he grabbed Rachmaninoff.
After the explosion, I tried to soothe the ruffled Rachmaninoff by saying, 'All the same, Sergei Vassilievich, you played it very well.' Rachmaninoff froze in his tracks, and replied icily, 'You, and you thought I could play badly?'"
Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff never spoke to each other again.
The composer Anatol Liadov was another jewel in Scriabin's neck" lace of celebrities. His charming fragment, "The Enchanted Lake," so well-known here, gives little notion of the autocratic musical power he wielded in Russia. His letters to Scriabin began, "Ever dear and sweet... " and ended "... I kiss you warmly..." But this affection ran rough at times. Once in 1909, during an evening party in St. Petersburg, the usual high-flown discussion had been about the ultimate meaning of art and its new esthetic directions.
Scriabin was carried away and became incautious of his megalomania. He cried out, "I am the creator of a new art world... I am God!" Liadov, the gentle and loving, tapped him on the shoulder. "And quite, my dear," he said, "but just which kind of a god are you? A cock-of-thewalk, that's what!" Scriabin was dumbstruck with embarrassment, but smiled that famous smile which melted opponents. The other guests laughed nervously. The Liadov-Scriabin friendship survived. "... Ever dear... I miss you... "
Scriabin's self-elected mission of bending the world to his artistic purpose was no secret. As Sabaneeff wrote, "...in this frightening, luxuriant, spiritual hothouse of Scriabin's private life, the heady atmosphere was poisonously sweet like an opium den. The most infectious and dangerous flower of all was the idea of Scriabin's own selfdeification. This thought was never expressed en toutes lettres. But it always hovered about us, and we were always vaguely conscious of it."
One of the most glowingly documented adorations of Scriabin was given by the Pasternak family. Leonid Pasternak, then Moscow's most fashionable portrait painter Tolstoi, Rachmaninoff, Rilke, Verhaeren, Scriabin, and later, Lenin was the father of the now celebrated Boris Pasternak. In both autobiography and poems, Boris refers to Scriabin: "My god and idol... I loved him to distraction... charming elegance, the air of fine breeding... Iucidly serene and restfully calm... not only a composer, but an occasion for perpetual congratulation, a personified festival and triumph of Russian culture."
In this famous Pasternak drawing, Koussevitsky leads the Moscow symphony, with Scriabin as soloist.
An even more important and devastating friendship was with Sergei Koussevitsky, later conductor of the Boston Symphony. From 1909, the two men provided food for several years for Moscow's voracious musical gossip-mongers.
""I would not have perished without Koussevitsky," Scriabin said after the relationship was broken, "but he surely would have without me."
Koussevitsky had built his career on Scriabin's then glistening reputation. By 1909 Scriabin was a god of sorts, and Koussevitsky a much disliked man. He had married, for the second time, an heiress to a fairyland fortune of tea, chemicals, and ordnance factories. He was disliked by the Moscow bourgeoisie because he was a parvenu; yet was spurned by musical circles because he was a representative of that bourgeoisie.
Koussevitsky used his incredible supply of money widely and wisely for the purpose of establishing himself. His salary as a doublebass player in the Bolshoi orchestra during his first marriage had been the equivalent of $50 a month. Now, he announced plans of building a Koussevitsky Symphony Hall, and one summer he hired the entire Bolshoi Symphony for a trip down the Volga.
Koussevitsky believed in Scriabin's "Mysterium," that great final cataclysm, and bought the rights to publish, perform, and possess it when it would be completed, at 5,000 rubles a year for five years. It was to synthesize all the arts of sound, sight, scent, and touch, and be performed with orchestra, voice, shafts and columns of constantly changing lights, miming, fragrances, and intoxicating smokes!
""Others were afraid to play much Scriabin," Sabaneeff wrote of the time, "the piano music was too difficult and the orchestral pieces too complicated... But Koussevitsky gambled and his lucky number came up."
The combination of the two great artists electrified Moscow, and helped dissolve somewhat the hostility towards Koussevitsky. His ability had an outlet through Seriabin's creativity, and he communicated, superlatively, the magic and mystery of the Scriabinic scores. He gave "Prometheus " an unprecedentedly expensive hearing nine rehearsals. For it, he introduced to Russia the custom of program notes. For the "Poem of Ecstasy," he hung garlands of little electric light bulbs from the proscenium. "Frightfully vulgar," Scriabin murmured, "but never mind... "
Then came a financial misunderstanding. Koussevitsky paid Scriabin a thousand rubles ($500) for ten concerts during the famous Volga trip. "A scandal... I received more when I was student," Scriabin protested. Koussevitsky in a fit of rage sent Scriabin a bill for 13,000 rubles to recover his advances on the "Mysterium." Sabaneeff relates the Scriabin version of the altercation vividly:
""I said to Koussevitsky when he asked for so much money back, 'Who are you? And now compare it with who l am.'
""And do you know what he said? 'I've done a lot for you.' He... had done a lot?!
""I said to him that he and all like him ought to rejoice at the chance to work with creative artists such as myself and not carry on in this disgraceful fashion. Ludwig of Bavaria would have endured anything from Wagner. That pricked him. He answered, 'Ludwig was only a king, and I am an artist.' those were my words that he spoke, my very words that I had said to him long ago. He threw them back at me, all to serve his own purpose."
After the break, Koussevitsky still continued to perform Scriabin. The reputation of both men grew. Koussevitsky worked for a while under the Bolsheviks, then finally resigned. He came to America, after an exile in France, and in his debut program performed, successfully and sensationally, the "Poem of Ecstasy."
Serge Diaghilev, that dedicated propagandist of Russian ballet and music and art, also was once the butt of Scriabin's wrath. The place was Paris, and the year 1907. The occasion was the famous six concerts of "Great Russian Historical Music (from Glinka to Scriabin)". It was Diaghilev's custom, since he was the patron of the concerts, to send complimentary tickets to the stars. And every star of all Russia was there. "If a bomb exploded," someone said, "there would be no more Russian music."
For or one concert, Scriabin's tickets arrived late at the hotel. During the intermission, according to Yuri Engel, yet another Scriabin biographer, Scriabin "delicately and diffidently" mentioned this inconvenience. "How late you sent the tickets... I almost missed them."
""Say 'thank you' that I sent them at all," snapped the massive, fleshy Diaghilev towering over diminutive Scriabin. "I could just as easily have not sent them at all." Engel details the ensuing scene:
What had become of our gentle Alexander Nikolaevich? He threw himself at Diaghilev, screamed almost hysterically, but somehow held onto his dignity. 'You allow yourself to talk this way to me! You forget art. We are artists. We create it, and you, you merely fidget and strut about its edges selling it. Without us who would want even to know you? You would be less than... than nothing on earth!'
Diaghilev was mortified. He bowed his head, saying, 'Yes, Alexander Nikolaevich. Yes, it is you. I... I am nothing."'
Diaghilev's quick yielding was as extraordinary to his friends as polite Scriabin's outburst was to his.
Scriabin's Moscow apartment is now a national mjuseum. He often composed standing at the lectern-work table. The rocking chair was his favorite. He, not guests, ocupied it.
After music and high-flown philosophy, guests gathered in the dining room for dry cake, pirozhki (pastry stuffed with meat), tea out of glasses, and Georgian wines.
Scriabin's last years belonged to Moscow, Petersburg, and the provinces on concert tours. He was more than a curiosity. Veneration had set in. "The proud idea of Scriabin as man-god places the human soul in the center of the universe like the sun," wrote B. V. Asafiev, the musicologist. Scriabin's seven-room apartment was a mecca for foreign visitors Gordon Craig, Albert Coates, Emil Cooper, Pablo Casals, Ferruccio Busoni but it was also a center for Russians. These contrasted from the old aristocracy with its pitterpat of princes and princesses, to the people of the theatre, to the symbolist poets.
Poets formed a special part of Scriabin's life. He was, after all, himself a poet. The whole literary temperament of the period revolved around these symbolists Ivanov, Blok, Baltrushaitis, Bryussov, Biely. And they all wrote and spoke about Scriabin. Balmont, the giant redheaded leader of the movement, sang in a pamphlet called "Light and Sound in Nature and the Color Symphony of Scriabin":
Scriabin is the singing of a falling moon. Starlight in music. A flame's movement. A burst of sunlight. The cry of soul to soul... a singing illumination of the air itself, in which he himself is a captive child of the gods... All his music is light itself."
The intelligentsia also all knew Balmont's often quoted description of Scriabin's playing: "It is not a piano he plays, but a beautiful woman, and he caresses her."
Scriabin by then was truly renowned, musically famous the world over. Pianists were brought to him for approbation. Artur Rubinstein was presented at 17. He wanted to be a "Scriabinist," as the term then went fashionably. So was Vladimir Horowitz, who in actual fact has become something of a Scriabinist with several magnificent recordings of the music to his credit.
Works by other composers were brought to Scriabin's desk for comment, approval, or help. Behind his facade of politeness, his judgments of others were harsh and contemptuous. He called Prokofiev "trash," Rachmaninoff "boiled ham" (his music, that is), and he detested Stravinsky. "Minimum tvorchestva," a minimum of creativity, he said of him, implying a maximum of fabrication. "How busy Petrushka is. It's a toy, a plaything. What a mass of insolence... minimum tvorchestva."
Suddenly Scriabin's life had run its course at the height of his powers. On his deathbed, when a pimple on his lip had turned into a furuncle and this in turn led to blood poisoning, Scriabin called out "etokatastrofa" (this is a catastrophe). He meant simply he had not finished his "Mysterium."
Easter week of 1915 was blazingly sunlit. The bells rang all day. And Scriabin's funeral was a social affair. Mountains of flowers covered the coffin. All Moscow attended. Jams of people lined up outside the apartment and the church. For Scriabin's friends, the intimate circle, his death was tragic. As Sabaneeff wrote, "Our sun had gone out. We the satellites had no planet."
After the October Revolution of 1917, a violent reaction set in in Russia against Scriabin. He was denounced as an "enemy of socialism" and Shostakovich called him "our bitterest musical enemy." By 1932 however, Scriabin's ghost was reprieved from its prison of hate. Today in Soviet Russia you can hear all-Scriabin recitals, and they will be completely sold out. Several musical schools carry his name, and his melodies are incorporated copiously in sound tracks of Soviet movies.
Now in the U.S., after an interlude in public performances of his music, to quote Horowitz, "the time has come for a re-hearing of Scriabin's music which has so vastly enriched our piano literature."
To today's listener, Scriabin still touches nerves of esthetic beauty. Both consciously and unconsciously he explored the furtherest reaches of musical possibility. He was one of the strangest phenomena that ever existed in music, and he returns to us again and again.
A cloud of followers and friends (and enemies) trooped after Scriabin's coffin to the fashionable Novodevichy cemetery (where the first scene of "Boris Gudonov" is set) high in the Sparrow Hills, where Naploeon first saw "Mouscou, cité Asiatique... ".
Now listen to Scriabin's music on the enclosed record, as played especially for Aspen Magazine by Daniel Kunin.
Original format: Twenty-four page booklet, 4-3/4 by 6-1/8 inches.