Alexander Scriabin: "Genius or Madman?"
By Bradley Bambarger
There was a day when the music of Russian composer-pianist Alexander Scriabin – enigmatic, exotic, even erotic – didn’t get nearly its due. Longtime New York Times classical maven Harold C. Schonberg, writing in the early ’70s, bemoaned the lack of popularity in the West for Scriabin’s works. Schonberg stuck his head above the critical parapet, not only praising the “sensuousness” of the music but justly declaring Scriabin “one of the most original, fascinating, revolutionary – and, yes, rewarding – composers of the 20th century.”
The times and taste eventually caught up with Scriabin, borne out by the many recordings of his 10 kaleidoscopic piano sonatas and such texture-rich orchestral stunners as The Poem of Ecstasy. Star pianist Evgeny Kissin has been one of the latter-day advocates for the composer, following such Russian forebears and master Scriabinists as Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Ashkenazy.
On March 6, Kissin returns to NJPAC’s Prudential Hall for the first time since 2005, the year he released a Grammy Award-winning album that included two Scriabin sonatas. The pianist’s upcoming recital program features the composer’s impressionistic Sonata No. 2 (Sonata-Fantasy) and selections from his deeply emotive 12 Etudes Op. 8.
Scriabin, who was a classmate of Rachmaninoff, gained considerable fame in Russia as a pianist and composer, influencing Prokofiev and Stravinsky (as well as such lesser-known but intriguing composers as Nikolai Roslavets). Scriabin evolved from his post-Chopin brand of Romanticism – he had slept with a copy of Chopin’s Op. 24 Preludes under his pillow as a student devotee – to become a Symbolist and then an iconoclastic futurist, with his music pushing against the boundaries of tonality in ways that prefigure Arnold Schoenberg.
Interested in the idea of synaesthesia – the experiencing of sounds as colors – Scriabin was also a visionary of multimedia performance, designing a “keyboard of lights” that was used during a performance of his Prometheus: A Poem of Fire at Carnegie Hall. For all that, Scriabin’s star dimmed after his early death, his glittering path a cul-de-sac.
This is due partly to the timing of his death, at age 43 in 1915, just before the slate-clearing cataclysms of the Russian Revolution. Then there was the fact of Scriabin’s peculiar personality and philosophical bent. Raised in a house of doting women, his every whim satisfied and his talents venerated, Scriabin would grow to be a solipsist whose enthusiasms for Nietzsche and Theosophy led to grandiose visions of mysticism bordering on the messianic. Put plainly, he was an egoistic nut. Toward the end, the composer labored over an unfinished weeklong extravaganza called the “Mysterium” that he wanted to perform in the Himalayas as an orgiastic, apocalypse-stoking event that would purify humanity. In one of music history’s blacker ironies, Scriabin ended up dying in a manner less than majestic: of blood poisoning from an infected pimple on his lip.
A caption underneath the composer’s photo in a 1915 issue of the journal Current Opinion posed the long-prevailing question about Scriabin: “Genius or madman?” Alexander Melnikov, an excellent Scriabin pianist of a younger generation, has given his answer: “As soon as Scriabin’s ideas cease to deal directly with music, coherence tends to take a back seat.” But when it comes to his art, Melnikov says, “The entire musical reality Scriabin created, with its volatile harmonic language, is remarkable for its integrity.”
Melnikov marvels at Scriabin’s “3D piano writing” in his Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor, a work that he toiled on more than any other of his finished compositions, constantly revising it over five years, 1892-97. Explaining how his inspiration would come in otherworldly flashes of ecstasy that he then had to translate into disciplined creations, Scriabin said: “Perception is drunken, but execution is sober.”
In a program note for an early performance, Scriabin described the scene he was trying to evoke in the Second Sonata, how it “reflects the influence of the sea. … The first movement represents the warm quiet of night on the seashore. The development section is the dark agitation of the deep, deep ocean. The E-major middle section shows caressing moonlight on water after the first darkness of night. The second movement represents the vast expanse of the ocean when it is stormy and agitated.” But like Debussy, another Symbolist composer, Scriabin was inspired by the sea not only for the imposing natural fact of it but also the way it corresponds to the shifting states of the human psyche, from becalmed to roiling and back again.
The ghost of Chopin moves through Scriabin’s Etudes Op. 8, though their chromatic harmony and rhythmic intricacies point ahead. Contemporary accounts of Scriabin’s playing are similar to those of Chopin’s, describing an ethereal, bell-like tone. Also remarked upon is Scriabin’s liberal use of rubato, as he sped up or slowed down to imbue his phrasing with expressiveness according to his mood.
In 1910, he recorded some of his pieces on a Welte-Mignon piano roll; with the piano rolls re-created for CD, we can hear at least some of the improvisatory freedom that marked Scriabin’s musical personality. The performances include the Etude Op. 8 No. 12, a rhapsodic study in octaves that sounds as if the composer were discovering the piece as he plays it. For a more dramatically headlong sort of performance – and a preview of the upcoming concert at NJPAC – there is a video on YouTube of Kissin playing the Etude No. 12 with virtuosity as brilliant and cutting as a diamond.
Scriabin and Rachmaninoff competed at school for prizes (with Scriabin taking the “Little” Gold Medal at graduation and Rachmaninoff the “Great” Gold Medal). Although Rachmaninoff didn’t buy his onetime classmate’s philosophical mumbo-jumbo and was a far more traditional composer and weightier pianist, he toured giving all-Scriabin concerts after his death that must have been powerful experiences (with the Etude Op. 8 No. 12 as an encore). If we are to judge an artist by the strongest links in his chain rather than the weakest, we can forget Scriabin’s mystical delusions and allow ourselves to be taken by the magical illusions of his music, which Rachmaninoff deemed “exquisitely beautiful.”
A former critic for The Star-Ledger, Bradley Bambarger writes about music for Listen, DownBeat and various other publications. He lives in New York City, where he founded and curates the Sound It Out concert series.