1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Scriabin, Alexander Nicholaevich
SCRIABIN, ALEXANDER NICHOLAEVICH (1871–1915), Russian composer, was born at Moscow on Christmas day 1871 (O.S.). His father was a lawyer; his mother, a good pianist and pupil of Leschetitsky, died when he was one year of age. His schooling was received in the Moscow Cadet Corps, but he never showed any liking for the military career for which he was intended, and at 18 entered the Moscow Conservatory of Music where he was a pupil of Safanov and Tanier. On leaving the conservatory Scriabin was greatly helped by the patriotic music publisher Belayef, who brought out his earlier works and arranged a European piano recital tour for him. At 20 he returned to Moscow and joined the conservatory staff. Later he again travelled, this time for six years, visiting the United States amongst other countries. He then settled in Brussels for some time, and in 1910 returned to Moscow. In 1914 Scriabin visited England, giving two piano recitals, playing his own Concerto and appearing as pianist in his Prometheus. He was then suffering from a tumour of the lip, from which, soon after his return, he died, April 14, 1915.
As a composer Scriabin represents what may be called the classical school carried forward to its most advanced point. The form of his sonata and symphony movements he derives from Mozart, through Beethoven; however bewildering these may at first sound, they will be found, on a second or third hearing, to be laid out on essentially the Mozart-Beethoven lines. In his pianistic idiom and general pianistic qualities of style, Scriabin derives largely from Chopin, of whose work he was a great admirer. All this then indicates a conservative side to his composition, but he was more radical in his harmonies, and it was, probably, largely the novelty of these that retarded appreciation of his later works. Gradually he evolved what may be called a new scale or, from another point of view, a new chord. It consists of the upper partials of the fourth octave from the fundamental note, less two (taking C as the fundamental note—C, D, E, F♯, A, B♭ or, arranged as a superposition of fourths, as Scriabin most frequently uses them, C, F♯, B♭, E, A, D). The hint of this new harmonic scheme may be seen in the earliest compositions, and its development was fairly regular and consistent, until it came to dominate his later output. In his later works he discards entirely the old key signatures. In his orchestration Scriabin calls for a large force, and uses it very freely : his scores are excessively contrapuntal in texture, the various instruments moving very independently and weaving together their respective themes : muted brass plays a large part in his orchestral colour scheme. In the First Symphony a chorus is used in the finale ; the “Poem of Fire” also uses a chorus, but in an orchestral way, no words being supplied. For the last-named work the composer also wrote an optional part for a “Tastiera per luce,” or keyboard of light, the intention being that varying colours should play upon a screen as the work was being performed. The composer was greatly interested in theories as to a correspondence between the musical scale and the scale of colours. In his great Mystery (left unfinished at his death) music, dance, speech, perfume and colour were to be combined; this work was to be rather a work of ritual than of art, and was to express its author’s idealistic mysticism through the medium of 2,000 participants.
It is usual to look upon Scriabin’s musical work as largely the expression of theosophical views, and undoubtedly much of his inspiration was drawn from the works of Blavatsky and others. He was not, however, a close reader, or a careful thinker. Seizing the main idea of a book or a creed, he would neglect the details, and his imagination would quickly develop a huge scheme of thought having little relation to what he had read. The titles of many of his works and of their separate parts, and the marks of expression affixed to particular passages, indicate plainly the existence of a spiritual “programme.” The emancipation of the human soul through ceaseless striving, and its achievement of self-expression, may be said, very roughly, to represent the general sense of the spiritual basis of Scriabin’s musical works.
The works of Scriabin have been variously classed into periods. A logical classification is into four periods as follows: 1st period, with a strong Chopin influence; the dividing line between this and the 2nd period runs through the First Symphony, and the 2nd period shows some Wagner and Liszt influences; the dividing line between this and the 3rd period runs through the Fifth Sonata, and a 4th period begins with the “Poem of Fire.”
Works.—Orchestral: Revery (op. 24); Symph. I. (26); Symph. II. (29); Symph. III., or Divine Poem (43); Symph. IV. (54): Prometheus, or “Poem of Fire” (60). Piano: Sonatas I. (op. 6); II. (19); III. (23); IV. (30); V. (53); VI. (62); VII. (64); VIII. (66); IX. (68); X. (70). A very large number of preludes, études, impromptus, mazurkas, poems, etc., including the great “Vers la Flamme” poem and the much-discussed last work, the Five Preludes (op. 74). Piano and Orchestra : Concerto (op. 20). No songs or chamber music are included in Scriabin’s output. (P. A. S.)