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8.553158 - SCRIABIN, A.: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1
Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872 - 1915)
The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin is an isolated figure, eventually separated from the mainstream of Russian music by his own peculiar brand of mysticism, in which he saw himself in a Messianic light. Nevertheless his quest for a means of bringing together colour and music, the visual and the aural, technically impossible with the means at his disposal, has now been to some extent realised, while his harmonic and melodic innovations took place at a time when others too were seeking new means of musical expression. His relatively early death led to a subsequent undervaluation of his achievement, which itself in some ways foreshadowed important changes that later took place in Western music.
Scriabin was born in Moscow in 1872, the son of a lawyer who made his career largely in the Russian consular service and of a mother of considerable musical ability, a pupil of Leschetizky. His mother, who enjoyed a reputation as a gifted pianist, died in 1873 and his father's decision to serve abroad and subsequent remarriage led to a childhood in the care of his paternal grandmother and an unmarried aunt, who pandered to his every whim and were able to encourage his obvious interest in the piano and in music. In 1882, inspired by the example of his father's younger brother, he joined the Moscow Military Academy as a cadet, boarding with an uncle who was a member of the Academy staff, while his grandmother and aunt lived nearby. His precarious health excused him from more rigorous military training and he was able to undertake a more systematic study of the piano with Georgy Konyus, a student at the Conservatory. Further more disciplined study with Rachmaninov's teacher, Nikolay Zverev, was followed by lessons in theory from Sergey Taneyev and admission to Safonov's piano class at the Conservatory, where he had lessons in counterpoint and fugue with Arensky. The completion of his studies at the Military Academy in 1889 allowed him to pay exclusive attention to music and in 1892 he graduated as a pianist, taking the second gold medal to Rachmaninov's first, and echoing the achievement of his mother, who had been a gold medallist at the St Petersburg Conservatory twenty years before.
For Zverev Scriabin had seemed primarily a pianist. He had, however, always been able to improvise at the piano, creating pieces that followed Chopin, a composer that he idolised, but at the Conservatory he found little inclination to fulfil the basic requirements, particularly those of the class in counterpoint and fugue. While Rachmaninov graduated also as a composer, Scriabin left without this qualification, preferring to follow his own course. His ambition as a pianist had led to damage to the right hand, but its full use was gradually restored by careful exercise.
Scriabin's early music was published, with due hesitation, by Jurgenson, but it was Belyayev, an enthusiastic patron of contemporary Russian composers, who launched Scriabin's career as both composer and pianist, publishing his music under his own imprint and sponsoring and accompanying him on a concert tour abroad, followed by concerts in Russia. In August 1897 he married the young pianist Vera Ivanovna Isaakovich and after a winter spent abroad was glad to accept the offer of employment as a member of the teaching staff of Moscow Conservatory, a position offered him by Safonov. Like Tchaikovsky before him, Scriabin found the drudgery of teaching not entirely to his taste, although, as a married man, he now needed to support himself and his wife. Meanwhile he continued to establish himself as a composer, with the success of his Piano Concerto, first performed in Odessa two months after his marriage.
The next five years were spent principally in Moscow. Safonov continued to encourage his former pupil and conducted performances of the first two of Scriabin's symphonies, works that divided audiences. It had been his intention to earn enough money to resign his Conservatory position and spend the winter of 1904 in Switzerland. This was eventually made possible through the help of a rich pupil, who provided an annual income, a useful addition to the income already supplied through Belyayev's earlier generosity. At first Scriabin and his wife settled in Switzerland, where he worked on his Third Symphony, the Le divin poème, which was performed in Paris in early 1905. There he was accompanied by his former pupil Tatiana Fedorovna Schloezer, with whom he lived after separation from his wife, who was now invited by Safonov to teach at the Moscow Conservatory. Scriabin's income from the Belyayev foundation was at this time reduced and then withdrawn, and there seemed some possibility of performances and money in New York, where his next major orchestral work, the Poem of Ecstasy was played in 1908. A meeting with Koussevitzky, who now offered to publish his music and provide an annuity, led to a return to Russia, where his works were received with great enthusiasm. A short period abroad again, in Brussels, led to the composition of Prometheus, with its planned simultaneous use of colour. His efforts now were directed towards the great Mysterium, intended as the culmination of his work, towards which his last five piano sonatas now tended. This was, however, to remain unwritten, although texts and musical sketches were made for the introduction to the work. Scriabin died of septicaemia in 1915.
Scriabin was generally eclectic in his philosophical and mystical interests. At one time fascinated by Nietzsche, he had then turned to Madame Blavatsky and the teachings of theosophy and continued to be preoccupied by eclectic mystical notions leading to the goal of the Mysterium" the work that would unite all in one, perceptible by all the senses, anticipating the final cataclysm, the end of the world and the appearance of the divine. His ideas may seem highly exaggerated and were certainly centred essentially on himself and his own imagined Messianic rôle.
The ten piano sonatas left by Scriabin follow very exactly his development as a composer. While the first of the sonatas was written in 1892, the year in which he completed his studies at the Moscow Conervatory, the remarkable Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor was written between that date and 1897, to be published the following year by Belyayev. The third and fourth of the series appeared in 1898 and 1903 respectively, with Sonata No 5 published by Scriabin himself in 1908, Sonata No. 6 and Sonata No. 7 completed in 1911 and Sonata No. 8 and Sonata No. 9 the product of the years 1912 to 1913, the latter the year of Sonata No. 10.
By 1897 the influence of Chopin is still strong enough, to be heard in the fifty shorter pieces published that year, Preludes and Impromptus. New fields are explored in Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor, Opus 26 (Sonata-Fantasy), completed in Paris in 1897, with its gently evocative opening Andante and the savage energy of the following Presto. An explanatory programme suggests, at the beginning, a quiet southern night by the sea, with a development reflecting the turbulence of the deep: there is moonlight in the central section, while the second movement shows the ocean in a storm.
Sonata No 5, completed in 1907, is in one continuous movement that itself contains elements of the traditional divisions of the sonata. It was written at a time when Scriabin was occupied with the Poem of Ecstasy. He prefaces the sonata with four lines from a poem of his own, I call you to life, secret longings! / You that have been drowned in the dark depths / Of the creative spirit, you fearing / Embryos of life, to you I bring boldness. The sonata, marked initially Allegro, impetuoso, con stravaganza, opens with a right-hand trill in the lower register of the keyboard over a tremolo diminished fifth, the following brief figure then making its way to the highest register, before a contrasting passage marked Languido, followed by a Presto con allegrezza, introducing a characteristic pattern of cross-rhythm, elements that, with others, re-appear, before the sonata ends with a return to the restless figure of the first section.
Sonata No 6, Opus 62, completed in 1911, is the first of the final group of sonatas, written while Scriabin was preoccupied with his great Mysterium, a work intended to have cataclysmic universal importance, if it had ever been finished. He avoided public performance of this sixth sonata, finding in it something of a sinister nightmare. The French directions indicate the mood of fear and horror that the music seemed to him to contain. The opening is marked mystérieux, concentré, and then, over a short figure in the third bar, étrange, ailé (strange, winged). The music continues avec une chaleur contenue (with restrained warmth) to a souffle mystérieux (mysterious breath) and an onde caressante (caressing wave, Later le rêve prend forme (clarté, douceur, pureté) (the dream takes form, clarity, sweetness, purity), before a dramatic dynamic climax in which l'épouvante surgit (terror rises, There is an appel mystérieux, enchantement, music that is joyeux, triomphant, before the épanouissement de forces mystérieuses (the opening out of mysterious forces). Tout devient charme et douceur (everything becomes charm and sweetness), with its gently accompanying arpeggios, leads to a return of terror in l'épouvante surgit, elle se mêle à la danse délirante (terror rises, mingling in the mad dance).
Sonata No 7, Opus 64, subtitled by the composer White Mass had, for Scriabin, more favourable omens. Again the French directions in the score suggest the mood, at first mystérieusement sonore (mysteriously sonorous), then avec une sombre majesté (with sombre majesty), avec une céleste volupté (with heavenly delight), très pur, avec une profonde douceur (very pure, with profound sweetness), and then avec une volupté radieuse, extatique (with radiant, ecstatic delight) to the final avec une joie débordante, brimming over with joy.
Sonata No 9, Opus 68, Black Mass, seems the diabolic counterpart of Sonata No 7, with its second subject, avec une langueur maissante (with growing languor), distorted. The sonata opens with the mystery of a distant legend, leading to a muffled fanfare and music that mounts in intensity until the appearance of the second theme. These elements recur, intermingled, with increasing use of single repeated notes, leading to a savage Alla marcia, with the material of the opening bars returning only in brief conclusion.
The Fantasy in B minor, Opus 28, belongs to a much earlier period and was completed in 1900. It is rhapsodic in mood, with a secondary theme that suggests a latter-day Chopin, transcribed by a Rachmaninov, although here too there are characteristic traces of the musical language that Scriabin was soon to make so much his own.
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