Alexander Scriabin10(?) jan 1872 (Moscow) - 27(?) apr 1915 (Moscow)
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Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (Russian: Александр Николаевич Скрябин, Russian pronunciation: [ɐlʲɪˈksandr nʲɪkəˈlaɪvʲɪtɕ ˈskrʲæbʲɪn], Aleksandr Nikolajevič Skrjabin; variously transliterated as Skriabin, Skrjabin, Skryabin, or Scriabine, 6 January 1872 [O.S. 25 December 1871] – 27 April 1915) was a Russian composer and pianist who initially developed a highly lyrical and idiosyncratic tonal language inspired by the music of Frédéric Chopin. Quite independent of the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg, Scriabin developed, via mysticism, an increasingly atonal musical language that presaged twelve-tone composition and other serial music. He may be considered to be the primary figure among the Russian Symbolist composers.
Scriabin influenced composers like Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Roslavets and Igor Stravinsky, although Scriabin was reported to have disliked the music of both Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
Scriabin stands as 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 or greater love bestowed..." Leo Tolstoy once described Scriabin's music as "a sincere expression of genius."
Scriabin was highly regarded during his lifetime and has consistently remained a favorite composer among pianists.
Childhood and education (1871-1893)
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). The Scriabins had firm roots in the military; 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 re-marry, 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 up until he met his first wife. As a child, Scriabin was frequently exposed to piano playing, and anecdotal references describe him demanding his aunt play for him.
Apparently precocious, Scriabin began building pianos after finding fascination with pianistic mechanisms. He often gave away pianos he built to unsuspecting house guests. Lyubov portrays Scriabin as very shy and unsociable with his peers, but appreciative of adult attention. Another Lyubov 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 immature 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 pensionnaire like Rachmaninoff.
In 1882 he joined the 2nd Moscow Cadet Corps. As a student, he made friends with the actor Leonid Limontov, although in his memoirs Limontov recalls his reluctance to make 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' recognition and approval at a concert in which he played the piano. He was generally at the top of his class in academics, but was exempt from drilling due to his physique and was given time each day to practice 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 grasp a ninth. Feeling challenged by Josef Lhévinne, he seriously damaged his right hand while practicing Liszt's Don Juan Fantasy and Balakirev's Islamey. His doctor said he would never recover, and he wrote his first large-scale masterpiece, the F minor sonata, 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 Appassionata, Op. 4).
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 taste 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. Ironically, one requirement that he did complete, an E minor fugue, became required learning for decades at the Conservatory.
Career and later life (1894-1915)
In 1894, Scriabin made his debut as a pianist in St. Petersburg, performing his own works to positive reviews. In the same year, Mitrofan Belyayev agreed to pay Scriabin to compose for his publishing firm (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 went on to tour in Russia and abroad, culminating in a highly successful 1898 concert in Paris. That year he became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, supporting himself and his wife while attempting to establish his reputation as a composer. In 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. By the winter of 1904, Scriabin and his wife had moved to Switzerland where work began on the composition of the Third Symphony (or The Divine Poem). This piece was performed in Paris in 1905, where Scriabin was now accompanied not by his wife, but by Tatiana Fyodorovna Schloezer—a former pupil and the niece of Paul de Schlözer. Scriabin's separation from his wife Vera had occurred during the stay in Switzerland. With Schloezer, he had other children, including a son named Julian, who composed several sophisticated pieces before drowning in a boating accident at age 11 in 1919.Scriabin may have also had some homosexual encounters.
With the financial support of a wealthy sponsor, he spent several years traveling between Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium and 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 made the acquaintance of Canadian composer Alfred La Liberté, who went on to become a close 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 subsequently relocated to Brussels (rue de la Réforme 45) with his family.
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 Himalayas, that would bring about the 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, called L'acte préalable ("Preparatory Action") was eventually made into a performable version by Alexander Nemtin. The Mysterium was, psychologically speaking, a world Scriabin’s genius created to sustain its own evolution.
Scriabin was small and reportedly frail, and a hypochondriac his entire life. At the age of 43, he died in Moscow from septicaemia, contracted as a result of a shaving cut or a boil on his lip.
See also: List of compositions by Alexander Scriabin and Category:Compositions by Alexander Scriabin
Style and musical influences
Many of Scriabin's works are written for the piano. The earliest pieces resemble Frédéric Chopin's and include music in many forms that Chopin himself employed, such as the étude, the prelude, the nocturne, and the mazurka. Scriabin's music gradually evolved over the course of his life, although the evolution was very rapid and especially short when compared to most composers. Aside from his earliest pieces, his works are strikingly original, the mid- and late-period pieces employing very unusual harmonies and textures. The development of Scriabin's voice and style can be followed in his twelve piano sonatas: the earliest are composed in a fairly conventional late-Romantic idiom and show the influence of Chopin and sometimes Franz Liszt, but the later ones move into new, original territory, the last five being written with no key signature. Many passages in them can be said to be atonal, though from 1903 through 1908, "tonal unity was almost imperceptibly replaced by harmonic unity."
Aaron Copland praised Scriabin's thematic material as "truly individual, truly inspired", but criticized Scriabin for putting "this really new body of feeling into the strait-jacket of the old classical sonata-form, recapitulation and all" calling this "one of the most extraordinary mistakes in all music."  According to Samson the sonata-form of Sonata No. 5 has some meaning to the work's tonal structure, but in Sonata No. 6 and Sonata No. 7 formal tensions are created by the absence of harmonic contrast and "between the cumulative momentum of the music, usually achieved by textural rather than harmonic means, and the formal constraints of the tripartite mould." He also argues that the Poem of Ecstasy and Vers la flamme "find a much happier co-operation of 'form' and 'content'" and that later Sonatas such as Sonata No. 9 employ a more flexible sonata-form.
Scriabin was interested in Friedrich Nietzsche's übermensch theory, and later became interested in theosophy. Both would influence his music and musical thought. In 1909–10 he lived in Brussels, becoming interested in Delville's Theosophist movement and continuing his reading of Helena Blavatsky.
Theosophist and composer Dane Rudhyar wrote that Scriabin was "the one great pioneer of the new music of a reborn Western civilization, the father of the future musician", and an antidote to "the Latin reactionaries and their apostle, Stravinsky" and the "rule-ordained" music of "Schoenberg's group." Scriabin developed his own very personal and abstract mysticism based on the role of the artist in relation to perception and life affirmation. His ideas on reality seem similar to Platonic and Aristotelian theory though much more ethereal and incoherent. The main sources of his philosophical thought can be found in his numerous unpublished notebooks, one in which he famously wrote "I am God". As well as jottings there are complex and technical diagrams explaining his metaphysics. Scriabin also used poetry as a means in which to express his philosophical notions, though arguably much of his philosophical thought was translated into music, the most recognizable example being the 9th sonata ('the Black Mass').
Influence of colour
Though these works are often considered to be influenced by Scriabin's synesthesia, a condition wherein one experiences sensation in one sense in response to stimulus in another, it is doubted that Alexander Scriabin actually experienced this. His colour system, unlike most synesthetic experience, lines up with the circle of fifths: it was a thought-out system based on Sir Isaac Newton's Opticks. Note that Scriabin did not, as far as his theory is concerned, recognize a difference between a major and a minor tonality of the same name (for example: c-minor and C-Major). Indeed, influenced also by the doctrines of theosophy, he developed his system of synesthesia toward what would have been a pioneering multimedia performance: his unrealized magnum opus Mysterium was to have been a grand week-long performance including music, scent, dance, and light in the foothills of the Himalayas that was to bring about the dissolution of the world in bliss.
In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin's association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff's opera The Miserly Knight supported their view: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that "your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny."
While Scriabin wrote only a small number of orchestral works, they are among his most famous, and some are frequently performed. They include a piano concerto (1896), and five symphonic works, including three numbered symphonies as well as The Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), which includes a part for a "clavier à lumières", also known as the Luce (Italian for "Light"), which was a colour organ designed specifically for the performance of Scriabin's tone poem. It was played like a piano, but projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall rather than sound. Most performances of the piece (including the premiere) have not included this light element, although a performance in New York City in 1915 projected colours onto a screen. It has erroneously been claimed that this performance used the colour-organ invented by English painter A. Wallace Rimington when in fact it was a novel construction personally supervised and built in New York specifically for the performance by Preston S. Miller, the president of the Illuminating Engineering Society.
Scriabin's original colour keyboard, with its associated turntable of coloured lamps, is preserved in his apartment near the Arbat in Moscow, which is now a museum dedicated to his life and works.
Performers and legacy
Scriabin himself made recordings of nineteen of his own works, spread over twenty piano rolls, six for the Welte-Mignon, and fourteen for Ludwig Hupfeld of Leipzig. The Welte rolls were recorded in early February, 1910, in Moscow, and have been re-played and published on CD. Those recorded for Hupfeld include the Piano Sonatas, Op. 19 and Op. 23.
Scriabin's music has also been performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Sofronitsky, Wojciech Kocyan, Andrei Gavrilov, Bernd Glemser, Emil Gilels, Ruth Laredo, Marc-André Hamelin, Evgeny Kissin, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Stanislav Neuhaus, Michael Ponti, Glenn Gould, Roberto Szidon, Robert Taub, Dimitri Alexeev, Matthijs Verschoor, Piers Lane, Stephen Coombs, Nikolai Demidenko, Alfred Cortot, Evgeny Zarafiants, and Mikhail Pletnev.
Pianists who have performed Scriabin to particular critical acclaim include Vladimir Sofronitsky, Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. Sofronitsky never met the composer, as his parents forbade him to attend a concert due to illness. The pianist said he never forgave them. Rubinstein premiered the 5th sonata in the West. Horowitz performed for Scriabin as an 11-year-old child, and Scriabin had an enthusiastic reaction, but cautioned that he needed further training. As an elderly man, Horowitz remarked that Scriabin had nervous tics and could not sit still. Despite Horowitz' assessment, Scriabin held the rapt attention of the musical world in Russia while he was alive. His funeral was attended by such numbers that tickets had to be issued. Rachmaninoff went on tour, playing only Scriabin's music. Sergei Prokofiev greatly admired the composer, and his Visions fugitives bears great likeness to the Scriabinic tone and style. Another admirer was the British-Parsi composer Sorabji who strenuously collected the obscure works of Scriabin while living in Essex as a youth. Sorabji promoted Scriabin even during the years when Scriabin's popularity had declined massively. Scriabin's great-great-grandson Elisha Abas is a concert pianist who divides his time between New York and Israel.
Asteroid 6549 Skryabin is named after the composer.
Scriabin was the uncle of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, a renowned bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church who headed the Russian Orthodox diocese in Great Britain between 1957 and 2003. His daughter Ariane (1906-1944) was born in Italy, converted to Judaism taking the name Sarah and married the Russian poet and Jewish WWII Resistance fighter David Knout. She was responsible for communications between the command in Toulouse and the underground forces in the Tarn district and for taking weapons to the partisans which led to her death ambushed by the French Militia.
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