Monthly Archives: January 2016

James Kreiling – Recording of the late piano music

The young pianist James Kreiling has recently issued the first of two CDs which will contain all the late piano music of Scriabin, which James defines as starting from the Fifth Sonata, op. 53. The disc issued contains the Sonatas nos. 5, 6 and 7, Two Poèmes op. 73, Poème-Nocturne op. 61, Two Pieces op. 59, Two Poèmes op. 63, Two Poèmes op. 71, Five Preludes op. 74, Vers la Flamme op. 72.

To launch the release of the 2nd CD James will perform a recital of most of the late Poèmes, as well as the rarely performed 8th Sonata. The event will take place on Friday, March 18th, 6.30pm at ‘The Asylum’ in Peckham (nearest station is Queen’s Road, Peckham). Entry £10.

James writes for the Scriabin Association:

‘I first encountered Scriabin’s piano music at the age of fourteen when I was given a book of preludes and etudes by my piano professor at the time. I worked my way through a number of the early preludes, as well as works such as the famous D# minor Etude. I remember also reading through many of the later works and being captivated by the harmonies I was playing, and intrigued by some of Scriabin’s unusual performance descriptions. This early intrigue resulted in me starting my study of the sixth piano sonata, one of the works on the disk, and this has since become the focus of my doctoral dissertation that I am currently coming to the end of now, studying at the Guildhall school of music. Since that first encounter, my interest in Scriabin’s music, life and philosophy – and the connections between these three things – has grown to near obsession. This disk, volume one of two which will encompass the complete piano music from the fifth sonata onwards, aims to present these works in a way which is accessible to those new to the music, and interesting to those already familiar with this extraordinary sound world. My liner notes, as well as the artwork, hopes to compliment the music in similar fashion, the ultimate aim being to bring Scriabin’s music to a wider audience and celebrate his musical output for the extraordinary expression of musical genius it is. The CD was funded through crowdfunding and can currently be purchased on my fundraising page here:

Click the CD ‘perk’ on the right hand side, provide your address and pay through paypal or by credit card. All money raised from CD sales will go towards the second volume, which I hope to record in the autumn of 2016.’

Pavel Vasil’evich Lobanov (1923–2016)

Pavel Vasil’evich Lobanov in his studio at the Scriabin Museum, Moscow, 2004‏

Pavel Vasil’evich Lobanov, who died on January 9 2016, was a man of extraordinary and versatile talents: pianist, scholar-researcher, engineer, sound recording producer.

His contribution to the world of Scriabin research was highly significant, but only a part of the distinguished career which brought him the award of ‘Distinguished Cultural Worker of the Russian Federation’.

Pavel Vasil’evich was born in Moscow. The two sides of his development, the artistic and the scientific, are symbolised by the backgrounds of his parents: his mother studied piano, and at the outbreak of World War I was intending to enter the Petrograd Conservatoire, as it was then known. His father studied in the Petrograd Polytechnical Institute, and eventually became deputy director of the Institute of Physics in Moscow.

The family moved to Moscow before Pavel Vasil’evich was born. They were frequently visited by the great Russian pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky. Pavel Vasil’evich studied piano at the Gnesin school; at this time his main interests were scientific and astronomic, and he considered that but for the outbreak of war he would probably have entered Moscow State University. Indeed, during the war he was working on high-tension electric relays, a very specialised subject. But he continued piano lessons, joining Sofronitsky’s class when the latter was moved from Leningrad to Moscow in 1942.

Lobanov started working at Gnesin Institute in 1949, and at that time had the difficult task of teaching piano by correspondence to external students. This led him to consider the use of recordings to convey what could not be explained in writing: at that time, before tape recorders were available in the U.S.S.R., records were made for this purpose out of reprocessed X-ray photographs, a method known picturesquely as ‘on the ribs’.

Lobanov’s use of recorded material led to the recording of many lessons by Heinrich Neuhaus and other distinguished teachers, the recordings being circulated to music colleges and issued publicly.

He also recorded some sessions with Sofronitsky in 1954, now available from Prometheus Editions, and many of the legendary occasions on which Sofronitsky performed on Scriabin’s own piano in the intimate surroundings of the Scriabin Museum in Moscow. Many of these recordings are also available in various CD reissues. Despite the limitations and difficulties of the circumstances, limited availability of tape, street noises, and the necessity of recording surreptitiously so as not to distract Sofronitsky, who hated recording, these taped performances recreate a unique atmosphere and some revelatory and transcendent performances.

Out of the work at Gnesin grew a project to develop a ‘learning laboratory’, where theoretical subjects could be taught with the aid of mechanical means, something like today’s ‘language laboratories.’ The equipment for this was developed by 1963 and demonstrated in Paris the following year. This work in turn led Lobanov to considerations of the relation between musical theory and practice, and of the nature of notation, its limitations and its relation to performance. It was a logical step for him to begin studying piano rolls which were made in the early years of the twentieth century, recording the playing of great exponents. Through his studies with Sofronitsky, and his having heard countless performances by this great artist, Lobanov had already acquired a deep understanding of the music of Scriabin. The piano rolls revealed the differences between Scriabin’s performances and the written texts, differences which had been noted during the composer’s lifetime by his biographer Sabaneyev and the critic Yuli Engel’, and enabled systematic study of these modifications, of the composer’s rubato and of the individual features of his style. Lobanov developed a method of showing the content of the rolls in staff notation. A book and several volumes of notated performances resulted from this. Lobanov’s technical abilities also enabled him to achieve satisfactory results in playing the rolls, and from 1970 he produced recordings of piano rolls from the playing of Scriabin, Teresa Carreño, Hoffman, Reisenauer, Busoni and others, which were issued by the state firm ‘Melodiya’.

Lobanov stopped working at Gnesin Institute in 1983, and continued for several years to work as a record producer for ‘Melodiya’. From 1992 to 2009 he was a researcher at the Scriabin Museum. His uniquely broad and deep knowledge, as well as his openness, generosity and personal charm, fitted him well to this role – he was valued highly for his consultations with visitors interested in Scriabin, his demonstrations with films, recordings and illustrations at the piano.

This is a rich legacy indeed to leave to the world of musical research in general and to Scriabin research in particular. A list of some publications and recordings is appended. Those of us, though, who had the privilege of personal contact with Pavel Vasil’evich Lobanov will long remember his warmth and generosity, his mischievous humour and his inspiring knowledge and dedication.

Simon Nicholls, Jan 2016

Selected publications by Pavel Lobanov:

A. N. Skryabin – interpretator svoikh kompozitsii [Skryabin, interpreter of his own compositions.] Moscow, Scriabin Memorial Museum, Iris-Press,1995.

Alexander Scriabin: Selected works, new versions based on the composer’s recordings, transcribed and edited by Pavel Lobanov. Moscow, Scriabin Memorial Museum, Muzyka, 1998. Vol. 1: selected pieces; vol.2: Sonatas nos. 2 and 3 (piano roll transcriptions of the finale of Sonata no. 2 and of the first two movements of sonata 3 were provided.)

Alexander Scriabin: Sonata no. 2 (complete transcription). Moscow, Scriabin Memorial Museum, Muzyka, 2007.

Alexander Scriabin: Sonata no. 3 (complete transcription). Moscow, Scriabin Memorial Museum, Muzyka, 2010.

(The majority of the material in these publications is reproduced, with further comment, in Anatole Leikin: The Performing Style of Alexander Scriabin, Farnham [U.K.], Ashgate, 2011.)

A selection of Lobanov’s recordings of the lessons of Heinrich Neuhaus is included with the publication:

G. G. Neigauz [Heinrich Gustafovich Neuhaus]: Dokladi i vystupleniya, besedy i seminary, otrkrytye uroki [Lectures and speeches, conversations and seminars, public lessons]. Moscow, Literaturnoe nasledie [Literary heritage], 2008.

Recordings of Scriabin’s piano roll recordings as transferred by P. V. Lobanov have been reissued many times, including, in the West, Scriabine et les Scriabinistes, Le chant du monde/Harmonia Mundi, LDC 288032, 1992.

Lobanov’s lesson recordings with Sofronitsky are issued, along with some previously unreleased Sofronitsky performances, on Vladimir Sofronitsky In Tuition, Prometheus Editions, 003, 2002.

Ten CDs of Sofronitsky’s performances at the Scriabin Museum, Moscow, are available from the Russian firm Vista Vera. One disc of a 1960 Sofronitsky Scriabin programme in the Museum has been issued in the West: Scriabin chez Scriabin, Arbiter 157, 2008.

Scriabin, Poet of Fire and Ecstasy by Guillaume Fournier

The musical works of Alexander Scriabin can be better explained and elucidated if we take his aesthetic and philosophical concerns into account. The title of this lecture: “Scriabin, Poet of Fire and Ecstasy”, brings together the key themes of his work.

The Poem
Indeed, many of his works are based on texts that Scriabin himself wrote beforehand. Other pieces are called “poems” without any literary reference: Scriabin instituted the genre, much like Chopin did for the nocturne. But Scriabin was also a “Poet”, in its first meaning of “Creator.” Indeed, the topic of how the act of creation reflects universal laws was a constant concern in this composer’s works and writings.

Fire in Scriabin’s thinking is a force that is both productive and destructive. Fire is also spiritual, a symbol of the creative spirit, as can be seen in the mythological figure of Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus in order to breathe life into men. I therefore propose to present this unique internal aesthetic adventure in the history of music by following the itinerary of this creator towards the affirmation of his will, the purpose of which was to lead all Humanity to the transfiguration with the cosmos, through “Ecstasy”.

Early years
Until the turn of the century, Scriabin was still undergoing the romantic influence of Chopin. As a student at the conservatory, he set himself up to be a virtuoso, and some of his works were already published. However, the inner world of the young Scriabin was already turned towards spirituality. When he was 16, he wrote:  “The religious feeling is the consciousness of the presence of Divinity in oneself.” This short sentence may be the first tentative formulation of what would become Scriabin’s mystical experience.

When Scriabin was 20 years old, a tragic injury to his right hand led him to an attitude of sudden revolt: revolt against God and revolt against the laws of the material universe.

One can read in his notes:

This is the most serious event in my life! What an obstacle for my ultimate goal: glory,  fame ! According to doctors, this is insurmountable. It is the first failure in my life. I’m afraid I will never heal.

At another point in Scriabin’s notebooks, one also reads :

I was expecting revelations from Heaven but they did not come.


[Humans can] expect nothing from life apart from what they can create themselves and for themselves.

Fortunately, a romantic encounter illuminated those dark times. In 1891, Scriabin fell in love with Natalia Sekerina, a charming young pianist, who was several years younger than him.

This romantic encounter is very important to help us understand that Scriabin already had in himself all the beginnings of his future quest.

Indeed, he wrote many wonderful letters to Natalia and composed a Romance for voice and piano that ends with these words: “And all this universe of ecstasy could be yours!”

Scriabin’s feeling of “ecstasy” is certainly mixed with the delight of a first passionate love, but Scriabin already seemed be aware of his future preoccupation, as if he was saying: “Just follow me and I will bring you to Ecstasy.”

In 1892, he travelled across the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. In the letters he wrote to Natalia, he expressed feelings about fusion with Nature. A little later, a voyage at sea inspired further discoveries. He woke at dawn, on the boat, and then he discovered the shiny surface of the sea, reflecting the sky. It felt as if he was in the centre of a huge blue sphere. 20 years later, that vision inspired his idea of a sphere-shaped temple. This temple would have the same shape as the vision of the Baltic Sea he described to Natalia.

This idyll between Sasha and Natalia was very tormented, and lasted until 1895.

Those three years, from 1892 to 1895, were extremely difficult for Scriabin. Indeed, the paralysis of his right hand worsened. Thoroughly distressed, he also suffered from unbearable headaches. However, when doctors announced to him that they were impossible to treat, he confidently replied: “Yes, it is possible.”

Thus, after several months and thanks to determined efforts, he regained the use of his fingers. He went on to enjoy a triumphant career as a pianist, and decided to play his own works exclusively. He also became the youngest professor of the Moscow Conservatory, at the age of 26. Thanks to this crisis, Scriabin became aware of his “Great Self”, “free and divine” as opposed to the “Small Self”, limited by space and time.

This profound awareness of this divine principle: his “Great Self”, totally free, filled him with a radiant happiness, with a fullness of being and a desire to share that happiness and freedom with all men and the entire universe. This supernatural happiness dwelt in Scriabin all his life, even in the midst of the worst, most terrible events. Although he was very sensitive and was very affected by events, this only influenced his “small self” and did not affect his works or ideas, which were at the level of his “Great Self”.

Thus, at the end of the nineteenth century, Scriabin’s aesthetics took a new direction: at that time he left the Conservatory and forsook everything that could prevent his development. He became a member of the Philosophical Society, and believed that it was possible, thanks to the omnipotence of Art, to free Humanity from its limited and miserable condition, and to lead all men to ecstasy. He then proceeded to define Ecstasy as “the highest degree of action, the summit, the last moment.”

The instrument of Scriabin’s free power was Art, capable of acting not only upon the spiritual universe, but also of affecting the material universe as well.

First Symphony
In this spirit, he composed his first symphony in 1899, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. This symphony ends with a “Hymn to Art,” a poem written by Scriabin himself. Here we can already find the essential themes of Scriabin’s thought: it is about “an inspired Priest”, about “the spirit of joyful and powerful art, which rules on earth”, about “elevating Humanity by art.” This hymn ends with the words: “Glory to Art, Glory forever !” Through this symphony, Scriabin affirms the status of the creator-man and artist-man who is the God of a new religion, which is Art.

Opera Project
Then, he discovered the philosopher Nietzsche, passionately read Nietzsche’s book Thus spoke Zarathustra and conceived the idea of an opera. In this unfinished opera the hero is designated as a “philosopher-poet-musician”, a kind of Nietzschean Superman, who wants to share with men the happiness that he has achieved, through the power of art:  “If only I could offer a small piece of my happiness to the world , it would rise in jubilant triumph for centuries”,  as the hero exults in this unfinished opera. Indeed, in the last act of the opera, which was left unfinished, the hero triumphs: his teaching is received by the people, who are saved, while he dies in ecstasy and divine bliss.

This project reveals the theme of the misunderstood hero, the theme of the solitary individual opposed to the multitude of men he wants to release. Obviously, Scriabin felt totally identified with his hero, whose mission was to reveal to men the profound divinity lying within themselves and capable of bringing them to freedom. Addressing himself to God, he wrote in his notebooks:

I will tell them that they should have no hope in You and to expect nothing from life outside of what they can create themselves and for themselves. I thank You for all the horrible events of my life, You showed me my infinite strength, my unlimited power, my invincibility, you gave me the victory.

This opera was never completed. In fact, it probably no longer corresponded with the composer’s spiritual concerns anymore. Scriabin’s connections between his “self” and the outside world (his “non-self”) were gradually changing. Indeed, the outside world, which he first regarded as an enemy, had gradually built his own personality. Thus, for Scriabin, there was no border boundary anymore between “self” and “non-self”; everything was engulfed within him.

He wrote elsewhere:

You, stones of my anger,
You, delicate lines of my caresses,
You, sweet half-tones of my dreams,
You stars, flashes of my eyes,
You, sun of my happiness, –
You are the spatial expression of my temporal feelings.

Scriabin felt the Universe as deeply rooted within himself, and therefore created by him.

The Divine Poem
By composing his 3rd symphony entitled Divine Poem in 1905, Scriabin brought his new thinking to a larger audience. This work includes a literary program to complement the music. His program describes the evolution “of the human spirit and union with the Universe,” which, erasing ancient beliefs from his mind, leads to the “joyous affirmation of liberty”. The Divine Poem contains 3 parts:

1.“struggles” between the slave and the free man (Luttes)
2. the “pleasures” of man immersed in the sensual world and nature (Voluptés)

  1. “Divine Play”, the joy of newly found freedom, where the Spirit frees itself up to the world with which it is one, in ecstasy (Jeu divin).

During the same period, Scriabin began writing poetic and amazingly detailed instructions in his scores, words such as: “voluptuous”, “languid”, “ecstatic” …

Finally, Scriabin would still need to develop his experience simultaneously on both levels: his musical work and his philosophical speculations. So, naturally, Scriabin, like the “philosopher-poet-musician” from his opera, was led to create a new genre.

The poem for piano
Taken from poesis  (Latin), and poiesis (Greek), meaning “creation”, the poem is the art of evoking and suggesting sensations, impression and the most intense emotions through the merging at a deep level of sounds, rhythms, harmonies, especially in verse. On the piano, Scriabin’s “poem” is a short, free form, a kind of well-achieved lyrical improvisation. He wrote almost 30 “poems”, containing his most beautiful “moods”,[1] and culminating in opus 72: “Towards the Flame”.

From that point onwards, Scriabin’s research focused increasingly on the great philosophers and he maintained a keen interest in Theosophy : “an esoteric doctrine based on a syncretism of different religions, philosophies and sciences, with the goal of leading Humanity to brotherhood and peace.”  However, Scriabin adhered to no dogma, and used his readings to confirm his thoughts:

“Thus the world is the result of my activity, my creation, my free will.”

This new ideology found its point of crystallisation in the Poem of Ecstasy, a huge work for an orchestra of “cosmic” dimensions.

The Poem of Ecstasy
Completed in 1907, The Poem of Ecstasy is primarily a poem  of approximately 300 lines, written by Scriabin himself. It is a paean to the Spirit of Creation, written as a self-portrait. The poem tells how the Spirit takes flight, gradually liberating itself from torments of all kinds in order to achieve Ecstasy, i.e. the supreme degree of self-realisation.

For Scriabin, ecstasy is not  only an extreme condition found among mystics, but a kind of absolute consciousness, a total opening, an illuminated knowledge and awareness, a state of bliss, similar to Buddhist states.

In the course of the literary poem, the musical poem is an ode to magic, to spiritual intoxication and to the power of music, which lies beyond the power of words.

As Scriabin’s daughter Marina wrote about his opera project, the hero “himself died in ecstasy and achieved divine bliss.” But, she adds, the death of the hero of the opera in ecstasy did not result in the immediate transfiguration of humanity and the cosmos, but only showed the way to achieve this transfiguration.

Through the Poem of Ecstasy, Scriabin made a transition from individual ecstasy to collective ecstasy.

In 1908, Scriabin moved to Brussels, and was introduced into the Theosophical field, which marked a new stage in his life. In Brussels he would develop his “theory of universal correspondences”.

In fact, for Scriabin: “Everything is contained in everything” and “Everything is vibration”: “Vibration connects all states of awareness together, and vibration is their only substance.”

He explains in his notebooks:

The substance of the world is like an ocean, composed of billions of water drops, each of which is a perfect representation of the whole ocean. If one gave a single drop another colour, all other drops would acquire a complementary colour. Indeed, one colour can only exist in relation to other colours. Following the principles of universal analogy, we can deduce the effect of one creative act on the entire universe.

This example regarding colour is not trivial. Indeed, Scriabin was influenced by the concept of synaesthesia: that is to say that every sound he heard was immediately associated with a vision of colour. Each tonality entered into a correspondence with a defined colour, and each colour itself symbolized a specific state.

Thus, for Scriabin:

F # (blue) represented meditation and spirituality,
C (red) symbolized Humanity,
D (yellow) stood for intense joy,
A (green) reminded him of vegetative and putrid stagnation.
A b (purple) referred to the transition between life and immortality, which meant spiritual ecstasy.[2]

In this manner, Scriabin is very close to another great Russian artist, Vassily Kandinsky, who was also influenced by synaesthetic concepts. They also agreed about the meaning of colours and about the ambition to create a “Total Art”.

However, it was another painter, Jean Delville, whom Scriabin met in Belgium, and who may have inspired Scriabin’s monumental work: Prometheus, the Poem of Fire.

According to the account given by Manfred Kelkel, Scriabin must have been overwhelmed when he saw Delville’s painting. Kelkel writes: “Everything is a flame, and the most prominently bursting flame is Prometheus himself.” The 5-pointed star held by Prometheus symbolizes, according to Kelkel, the motto of the Emerald Tablet : “what is above is like what is below.”[3] Thus, the mythological tale of Prometheus helps us to penetrate the mysteries of the universe, so that we can feel what connects men (what is below) with the divine world (what is above).

Scriabin’s work no longer follows a literary program. Instead, it bears a symbolic cover designed by Delville.[4]
In the orchestra, we encounter a new instrument: the luce, or light keyboard. In fact, the simultaneous perception of sounds and colours was supposed to enable the participants to transcend their feelings and lead them directly to  collective ecstasy. However, the luce was not completed in time for the premiere of Prometheus.

As early as 1904, Scriabin conceived the idea of The Mysterium, a work of “Total Art”, a synaesthetic work. This work was to take place in a hemispherical temple in India, over a period of seven days, involving all the senses and sensations of the participants, to bring them to a state of ecstasy and unity with with the cosmos. However, Scriabin’s accidental death, at 43, prevented him from completing this huge project and he only had time to write the libretto entitled: The Prefatory Action.

What would “The Mysterium” have been like, musically speaking ?

We can imagine by hearing his last works for piano. The dances opus 73, “Garlands” and “Dark Flames” were his last pieces to allude to the element of Fire. Indeed, dance was to be the leading, primordial art constituting “The Mysterium”, along with music and poetry. In fact, “The Mysterium” was expected to conclude with a gigantic and cosmic orgy of dance: “Dissolve yourselves in death in the vertigo of dance.” There was no ecstasy without dancing, according to Scriabin.

As for Vers la Flamme, a poem of poems, in which music emerges from dark silence and leaps to the radiant sun, “with more and more tumultuous joy”, “like a fanfare”[5] until its final explosion and blinding light, it was as if it was meant to illustrate a verse from the Prefatory Action, which runs: “In this breath of fire resides the poem of the creation of the world.”

Like Prometheus, Scriabin played with the Fire of music in order to elevate people and to make them hear and see the unseen and unheard, mingled in the trance of “heavenly fire”.

Everything about Scriabin – his art, his thoughts, his vision of the universe, his conceptions of the evolution of mankind – everything had its source in a spiritual and mystical experience, which is very unusual and perhaps unique.

This experiment was based on a deep awareness of a free and divine principle, his “Great Self”, which led him to desire to share his happiness and freedom with all men and the entire universe. His instrument of communication was Art.

Thus, the work of Scriabin is not an end in itself. Indeed, the end is not art, the end is more than art, even if its path leads through art. The end is in another life, in the ideal of a new world, the key to which is ecstasy.

Finally, an excerpt from the Poem of Ecstasy:

I am an instant illuminating eternity
I am affirmation.
I am Ecstasy.

That which menaced
Is now seduction.
That which frightened
Is now pleasure.
And the bites of panther and hyena
Are new caresses.
And the serpent’s sting
Is but a burning kiss.
And thus the universe resounds
With a joyful cry :
I AM !

[1] Nastroienie, “mood”, was a favourite term with Scriabin. (Ed.)

[2] The polarity F# – C (spirit – flesh) was directly stated by Scriabin to Sabaneyev. The other colour associations are based on later research by Bulat Galeyev (Ed.)

[3] Manfred Kelkel: Alexandre Scriabine, un musicien à la recherche de l’absolu. Paris: Fayard, 1999, p. 166. The painting referred to is the monumental canvas which Delville worked on between 1904 and1907. A reproduction can be seen at The ‘Emerald Tablet’ or Tabula smaragdina  was reputed to be a stone inscribed with words from Hermes Trismegistus, although its origins are uncertain; it had a high reputation amongst mediaeval alchemists and mystical philosophers, and the text was translated into English by Sir Isaac Newton. There is no known documentary evidence that links the Tabula smaragdina with Skryabin. (Ed.)

[4] Delville’s graphic work of 1911 can be seen in the Scriabin Association’s gallery.

[5] Scriabin’s indications in the score. (Ed.)