Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, the noted Russian composer, was born on Christmas Day and died at Eastertide — according to Western-style calendrical reckoning, 7 January 1872 – 14 April, 1915. No one was more famous during his lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after his death. Although he was never absent from the mainstream of Russian music, the outside world neglected him until recently. Today, there is worldwide resurgence of interest in his music and ideas.
Scriabin wrote five symphonies, including the Divine Poem (1903), the Poem of Ecstasy (1907), and the Poem of Fire or Prometheus (1909). His ten piano sonatas are staples of many pianists’ repertoire, with the Fifth being perhaps the most popular, while the Seventh (White Mass) and Ninth (Black Mass) follow close. Vladimir Horowitz in his late sixties began playing the Tenth, and it remains today in vogue among more daring virtuosi.
Scriabin’s hundreds of preludes, études and poems are considered masterpieces of 20th century pianism, and his “titled” pieces such as Fragilité, Satanic Poem, Etrangeté, Désir, and Caresse Dansé, are greatly admired. Scriabin’s style changed enormously as he progressed. The early pieces are romantic, fresh and easily accessible, while his later compositions explore harmony’s further reaches. It is thought by scholars, that had Scriabin lived beyond his brief 43 years, he would have preceded the Austrian school of duodecaphony, and Moscow would have become the center of atonality.
Immediately upon Scriabin’s sudden death, Sergei Rachmaninoff toured Russia in a series of all-Scriabin recitals. It was the first time he played music other than his own in public. In those days Scriabin was known as a pianist and Rachmaninoff was considered only as a composer. Scriabin, thus, was posthumously responsible for his friend and classmate’s later pianistic career in Europe and America.
Scriabin’s thought processes were immensely complicated, even tinged with solipsism. “I am God,” he once wrote in one of his secret philosophical journals. He embraced Helen Blavatsky’s Theosophy. In London he visited the room in which Mme. Blavatsky died. Scriabin considered his last music to be fragments of an immense piece to be called Mysterium. This seven-day-long megawork would be performed at the foothills of the Himalayas in India, after which the world would dissolve in bliss. Bells suspended from clouds would summon spectators. Sunrises would be preludes and sunsets codas. Flames would erupt in shafts of light and sheets of fire. Perfumes appropriate to the music would change and pervade the air. At the time of his death, Scriabin left 72 orchestral-size pages of sketches for a preliminary work Prefatory Action, intended to “prepare” the world for the apocalyptic ultimate masterpiece. Alexander Nemtin, the Russian composer, assembled those jottings and co-created the Prefatory Action. Its three vast movements have been performed with great acclaim under conductors Cyril Kondrashin in Moscow and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Berlin with Alexei Lubimov at the piano.
Scriabin’s discography now numbers in the thousands of recordings, and his biography by Faubion Bowers is available in paperback (Dover).