Sunday, 6 January 2013

Alexander Scriabin (1871 - 1915) - Biography

Alexander Scriabin considered himself to be a messianic figure, and he was actually half justified—he really was born on Christmas Day 1871, but several Russian biographers, in an overzealous attempt to enhance this messianic reputation, erroneously attribute the date of his death to Easter Sunday, April 14, 1915, when in actuality, Easter Sunday came early that year, on March 29. He died amidst the immense conflagration that was gripping all of Europe at the time—the “Great” War, which he thought would purge mankind and usher in a glorious new era of mystical wonder. Inspired by Wagner’s ideas concerning Gesamntkunstwerk, he even planned on composing a mammoth piece, the Mysterium, to commemorate this cataclysmic event. “The performance of this piece was to take place in a half-temple to be built in India. Bells suspended from clouds would summon the spectators from all over the world. A reflecting pool of water would complete the divinity of the half-circle stage. Spectators would sit in tiers across the water. Scriabin would be seated at the piano, surrounded by hosts of instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. Costumed speakers reciting text in processions and parades would form part of the action along with the dancers, whose choreography would include eye motions and touches of the hands in conjunction with odors of both pleasant perfume and acrid smoke. Pillars of incense would form part of the scenery. A light show, bathing the cast and audience in changing effects would also be included.” Unfortunately he died before completing this work, only a fraction of this revolutionary piece, the Prefatory Action was sketched out (it was completed by Alexander Nemtin).

Scriabin started out as a prodigy pianist, studying as a boy with the renowned Moscow pedagogue Nikolai Zverev, whose other star pupil was Sergei Rachmaninoff—interestingly, Scriabin started out as a pianist and ended up a composer, and to a large extent, Rachmaninoff started out as a composer and ended up a pianist. A hand injury, suffered supposedly while over-practicing the Don Juan Fantasie of Liszt, forced Scriabin to turn to composition—two of the most famous left hand pieces in the piano repertoire, the Nocturne and Prelude Op. 9 were of course, a direct result of this, and later, also the 1st Piano Sonata. Although he eventually returned to the concert-stage, his right hand never was quite the same, and may explain why in so many of his compositions the left hand is technically the equal (and often surpasses) the right hand. Cesar Cui, in a concert review of Scriabin from 1905 complained that Scriabin’s left hand actually overwhelmed the right.

Like his early idol Chopin, aside from the five orchestral works and a piano concerto, Scriabin wrote exclusively for the piano. The ten sonatas of Scriabin provide a marvelous harmonic timeline, and provide perhaps the best way to view his compositional evolution since they virtually encompass his entire compositional lifespan.

The 1st Sonata in F minor, Op. 6, with strong intimations of Liszt, Wagner and Chopin, was written in 1892. Thematically this piece is bound together by a rising F-G-Ab motive that is echoed in each of the four movements; although some writers have pointed to the Brahms F minor sonata, Op. 5 as an influence, I feel that an even more obvious model is Schumann’s Sonata, Op. 14, which is also in F minor, as Schumann utilizes a descending fifth motive in each movement of that work, and is a work that Scriabin was very likely to have been familiar with. The final movement, a self-indulgent Funeral March, is directly connected to the hand injury he suffered, which Scriabin describes in a notebook entry from 1891:

Twenty years old: the injury to my hand has developed. The most important event in my life. Fate sends me forth on my mission. The obstacle to the achievement of the goal so highly desired: fame, glory. An obstacle, in the words of the doctors, that is insurmountable. The first serious failure in my life. The first serious meditation: the beginning of analysis. Doubts about the impossibility of getting well, but the gloomiest state of mind. The first meditation on the value of life, on religion, on God. A continuing strong belief in Him (Jehovah rather than Christ, it seems). Ardent, heartfelt prayer, visits to the church…Cried out against fate, and against God. Composition of my first sonata with a funeral march.

The Presto 3rd movement features the F-G-Ab three-note motive hammered away in the bass, signifying in Scriabin’s words: “defiant cries, and supplications before God and fate.” This movement leads directly into the lugubrious Funeral March finale. Scriabin himself performed this work in its entirety only once in his lifetime. This is a significant point, as later on in his life, Scriabin was to perform his sonatas on numerous occasions, regardless of whether they were early, middle, or late period works; aside from the 6th sonata, which will be discussed later. ...

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