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8.571302 - SCRIABIN, A.: Etudes, Opp. 8 and 42 / Fantaisie, Op. 28 (Biret Solo Edition, Vol. 8)
Alexander 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. Innovative in his attempt to bring together colour and music and in his harmonic and melodic innovations, he died relatively young, his early death leading to a subsequent undervaluation of his achievement.
Scriabin was born in Moscow in 1872, the son of a lawyer, who later entered the Russian consular service, and of a mother who was a gifted musician, a pupil of Leschetizky and of Anton Rubinstein. After his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage and absence abroad, Scriabin spent his childhood in the over-protective care of his paternal grandmother and an unmarried aunt, Lyubov. Following the tradition of his father’s family, he joined the Moscow Military Academy, excused, for reasons of health, any participation in more rigorous training. Meanwhile he studied the piano with George Konyus, following this with lessons from Rachmaninov’s strict teacher, Zverev, and participation in Safonov’s piano class at the Conservatory, theory lessons from Sergey Taneyev and lessons in counterpoint and fugue with Arensky. Completion of his studies at the Military Academy in 1889 allowed him to pay exclusive attention to music, graduating as a pianist at the Conservatory in 1892, when he took second prize to Rachmaninov’s first. Impatient with formal instruction in the techniques of composition which he found uncongenial, he was skilled at improvisation, modelling his style here on that of his adored Chopin.
Scriabin’s earlier compositions were reluctantly published by Jurgenson, but he found more enthusiastic support in Belyayev, who published his work, promoted his concert appearances and exercised a dominant influence over him. In 1897 he married a young pianist, Vera Ivanovna Isakovich, in spite of attempts by his aunt and Belyayev to discourage a match of this kind. His Piano Concerto was first performed under Safonov in Odessa in October two months after his marriage. It was again with the help of Safonov that in 1898 Scriabin found employment on the staff of Moscow Conservatory. The next five years were spent in Moscow, until, in 1904, the help of a rich pupil, Margarita Morozova, enabled him, like Tchaikovsky before him, to resign from the Conservatory. He settled for a time in Switzerland, where he wrote his Third Symphony, Le divin poème, first performed in Paris early in 1905. Now accompanied by a former pupil, Tatyana Fyodorovna Schloezer, a niece of Paul Schloezer, who taught the piano at the Conservatory, Scriabin spent much of the rest of his life abroad. Belyayev himself had died in 1904 and dissatisfaction with the perceived lack of generosity of the Belyayev Foundation was followed by an agreement with Koussevitzky for publication of his music, performances and an income, and Scriabin’s return to Russia. A short period abroad again, in Brussels, led to the writing of Prometheus, completed in 1910, and a concentration on the great Mysterium, intended as the culmination of his work, towards which his last five piano sonatas now tended. This, however, was to remain unwritten, although texts and musical sketches were made for the introduction to the work. Scriabin died of septicaemia in 1915.
Scriabin’s first Etudes for the piano were written during his early years, reflecting something of his contemporary musical interests and influences. The first is the Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 2, No. 1, written in 1888, while Scriabin was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. He had taken his first examinations in May, playing works by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin, and it is primarily the last of these that is suggested in the first study, with its brooding framework and brief central shaft of light.
In 1892 Scriabin left the Conservatory, failing to complete exercises in composition, but providing convincing evidence of his gifts both as a pianist and as a composer in his final piano examination. He soon began to win a reputation for himself as a performer, although injury to a hand continued to cause him trouble. This period of relative freedom allowed him to turn his attention to Natalya Sekerina, a young woman whose parents had more ambitious intentions for her. The affair came to an end, but is echoed in the Twelve Etudes, Op. 8, which date from this time. The Etudes were published in 1895 by Belyayev. Some of Scriabin’s earlier pieces had been accepted by Jurgenson, a firm that, like so many, was interested primarily in piano pieces suitable for the profitable amateur market. Belyayev, a man of considerable fortune, was ready to back Russian composers and through Scriabin’s vigilant Aunt Lyubov a suitable contract was arranged that brought Scriabin a regular income, support that was to continue.
The first Etude, in C sharp major, has something of Schumann about it, although it already bears the characteristic stamp of Scriabin himself. It is followed by an Etude in F sharp minor, marked A capriccio, con forza, which brings suggestions of Chopin, but again is marked by Scriabin’s own musical idiom. The third study, Etude in B minor, has the direction Tempestoso, a descriptive indication that Scriabin felt did not completely suit the piece, with its perpetual motion, cross-rhythms and moments of lyrical interest. The fourth of the set, the Etude in B major, marked Piacevole, conjures up the spirit of Chopin, to be followed by the Etude in E major, a study in octaves, with the unusual direction Brioso, with which Scriabin expressed subsequent dissatisfaction. The sixth, an Etude in A major, marked Con grazia, a study in sixths, leads to the Etude in B flat minor, Presto tenebroso, agitato, with its more sombre Meno vivo section at its heart, before the dark rider resumes his pace. The eighth study, Etude in A flat major, marked Lento, was sent as a present to Natalya Sekerina, a nocturne of obvious charm, and the ninth, Etude in G sharp minor, Alla ballata, proposes a stormy dramatic narrative, with a more lyrical central section in A flat major. The following Etude in D flat major is a demanding study in thirds and is followed by the eleventh study, the Etude in B flat minor, marked Andante cantabile, with its gentle melancholy. The set ends with a prophetic Etude in D sharp minor, marked Patetico, dramatic and strongly stated, bringing the set to a triumphant end.
It has become customary to distinguish four distinct periods in Scriabin’s creative life. Etude Op. 2, No. 1, belongs to the first of these, while the Twelve Etudes, Op. 8, fall into the second. The Eight Etudes, Op. 42, which Scriabin was able to offer to Belyayev in the autumn of 1903, belong to the third, a period of transition, to be followed by the final period of mystical exploration. The rapid Etude in D flat major, Op. 42, No. 1, offers bewildering cross-rhythms, with the ceaseless triplet figuration of the right hand. The second study of the set, Etude in F sharp minor, brings further cross-rhythms, with groups of five semiquavers in the left hand against a more rhythmically varied right-hand figuration. The Etude in F sharp major, marked Prestissimo, brings fluttering triplet semiquavers and the fourth study, another Etude in F sharp major, is a tenderly lyrical Andante. The tempestuous fifth study, Affannato (Breathlessly), is the Etude in C sharp minor, the best known of the set and one often included by Scriabin in his own recitals. The following Etude in D flat major, with the direction Esaltato, offers a right-hand melody, with accompanying cross-rhythms five against three. The seventh, Etude in F minor, marked Agitato, almost suggests Scriabin’s take on Mendelssohn, but once again with rhythmic complexities. The group ends with the Etude in E flat major, and Allegro, its rapid rhythmic complexities interrupted by a contrasting central passage of greater tranquillity.
Scriabin wrote his Fantasie, Op. 28, in 1900. Symphonic in structure, the Fantasy is rhapsodic in mood, its first theme, tinged with melancholy, announced at the outset, leading to a lyrical and tender second theme and a majestic third. The material is developed in a central section, before the varied recapitulation and an impressive coda, ending a work that promises something of what is to come.
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