SCRIABIN ON DISC
An overview of the recorded music
of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
by JOHN BELL YOUNG
If anything has compromised the reputation of Scriabin in the west, leading
to one interpretive misunderstanding after another, it is not the pristine
construction and highly charged character of his music. Perhaps in an effort
to exploit popular interest, superficial biographical treatments have blown
Scriabin's embrace of things mystical out of all proportion. His fascination
with color, light, sex and spirituality as potential elements of musical
experience, together with his determination to use music to transcend reality,
appealed to the escapist, psychedelic mentality of Western populism in the
1960s. Scriabin became a kind of guru to music devotees disenchanted by
the status quo and eager to explore, as he himself did, the potential
of the senses as a means to artistic (and thus spiritual) enlightenment.
But Scriabin really was a spiritual creature. He embraced an aesthetic
informed by the so-called 'mystical anarchists' and symbolists of Russia
and their Doctrine of Correspondences. Even his reported synesthesia, ordinarily
attributed to a neurological condition in which the senses go all ajumble,
thus 'translating' the acoustical properties of music into vivid colors,
visually experienced, is largely a myth that even his most devoted protagonists
have taken for gospel. What they fail to grasp is that his synesthesia,
in the light of all the evidence, was never authentic, the manifestation
of a physical condition, but a consequence of his psychological disposition
toward the exciting and often radical aesthetics of his day and culture.
Scriabin attempted to codify his mystical beliefs in sound, and to do
so, invented an unusual harmonic and rhythmic language that relied on a
kind of decentralized, perpetually shifting hierarchy. A devotee of the
Vedanta philosophy of the Hindus and Madame Blavatsky's eclectic interpretation
of it, he strove not only to reproduce but actually to duplicate the notion
of ego transcendence. This he did by exploding conventional expectations
of resolution and dynamic tension, but in the context of dense contrapuntal
textures that weave in and out of each other like streams of smoke in chill
air. In music where any idea of a key center is effectively destabilized
but not entirely neutralized, Scriabin introduced an audacious Weltanschaung
where risk and style sometimes threatened to exceed content. Such was Scriabin's
genius that he never crossed that line.
Though Scriabin owed no overt debt either to Russian folk music or to
ancient liturgical chant, he nevertheless shared a certain commonalty of
intent with those genres. The ceremonial elements of his late works, though
unmistakable, strove to dissolve the barriers between being and non-being,
between activity and nature, between man and God. Performances of his work
should exploit the relation of his music to poetry and the Russian language.
They should bring to life the droning intonations and cadential prolongation
his music shares with the undulating rhythms of Russian prayer.
The interpreter's job is to illuminate those hypnotic moments that allude
to liturgical recitation and the ceremonial functions of religious ritual,
regardless of its origins in Russian Orthodoxy, Gnosticism or Hinduism.
Harnessing the forces of musical tension with breathless intensity, Scriabin's
modus operandi was to organize whole sequences of truncated climaxes,
driving them forward with breathless, cumulative rhythmic energy in unmistakable
simulations of orgasm. The dialectic between performer and composition thus
breached, symbolic union can be corporeally projected -- only here, the corpus
is sound and rhythm. Scriabin described his harmony as something that the
interpreter is obliged to 'walk around', to weave in and out of as he illuminates
its innumerable protrusions and shadowy recesses. Good advice, that.
Scriabin's early works, until about 1903, are lyrical and effusive, formally
inspired by Chopin (waltzes, mazurkas, ballades, preludes, impromptus and
scherzos), though where content was concerned his voice was very much his
own. After 1903, he turned to one movement sonata forms and ephemeral character
pieces that assumed idiosyncratic names like Poème, Fragilité,
or Enigme, and whose compositional language became increasingly complex.
Copyright © 27 December 2001
John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA
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