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An overview of the recorded music
of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)


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.

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Copyright © 27 December 2001 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA




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