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Yulii Engel Biography of Scriabin Chapter III

III. Moscow Conservatoire

(1888–1892)

Vassily Safonov – Scriabin’s attitude to his work with Safonov – Individual features of Scriabin’s piano performances – His improvisations – Damage to right hand ­– Pieces for the left hand – Sergei Taneyev and his counterpoint class – Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov in this class – Arensky and the fugue class – Scriabin and Arensky –   Scriabin and the class for free composition – His exit from this class.

Scriabin entered the Conservatoire in January 1888, i.e. in the middle of an academic year, as may be seen from his permit of studentship. The reason for this rather unusual time of entry is explained by the fact of Scriabin’s having to join Vassily Safonov’s piano class; Safonov, though, was absent from Moscow for almost all of the first half of the academic year, 1887–88. He was on a concert tour with Karl Davydov[1] through Russia, for which he obtained two to three months’ leave. During his absence Safonov placed Scriabin with David Shor, who was then his pupil.[2] It was not until Safonov returned that Scriabin officially became his pupil in the Conservatoire.

But it may be imagined that Scriabin could only dedicate himself to the Conservatoire when he had left the cadet corps. Judging by the ‘certification’ from class IV given above, this did not take place until 1889. If the latter date is correct, Scriabin studied simultaneously in the corps and at the conservatoire for half a year.

It was difficult to reconcile working constantly at the Conservatoire and living in Lefortovo, which was far from the centre of the capital, and when their grandson and nephew left the corps, the Scriabins moved nearer, to Ostozhenka.[3] Alexander Scriabin also lived here, once again in the cosy circle of the family, throughout his time at the Conservatoire and right up to the time of his marriage, i.e. his twenty-sixth year.

He enrolled at the Conservatoire in two specialist subjects simultaneously: piano and composition. Vassily Safonov, who did not become Director of the Conservatoire until 1889, became his piano professor.

The son of a Cossack general, Safonov was not predestined for a musical career, being educated at the school in Alexandrov.  He studied piano with Leschetitzky and later with Louis Brassin, a pupil of Moscheles, at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. In 1885 he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, after having held a similar post in St. Petersburg for five years. An energetic personality, he was Director of the Moscow Conservatoire only four years later. He was also responsible for the organisation of the symphonic concerts of the Russian Musical Association (RMO). A fine pianist and professor, Safonov also gradually became a conductor who was well able to put on symphony concerts.

He also showed great energy as an administrator, but here his abrupt manner and his neglect of necessary consideration of staff colleagues in the running of the Conservatoire led to a whole series of confrontations, in consequence of which Safonov was finally obliged to leave the Conservatoire after an incident with Sergei Taneyev in 1905. From that time on and until the most recent times[4] he has appeared in Russia and especially abroad, rarely as a pianist but for the most part as a conductor.

Safonov picked out Scriabin for his class while the latter was still studying with Zverev. He was greatly attracted by the young pianist’s talent; moreover, the soft, refined playing of Scriabin was more fitted to Safonov’s school, influenced by Louis Brassin, than to the brilliant Lisztian school of Paul Pabst,[5] and, in part, of Pavel de Schloezer.[6] These were two other senior professors of the Moscow Conservatoire at that time.

Scriabin worked under Safonov with the greatest assiduity and attention to detail, following exactly all his professor’s directions. This exemplary assiduity was sometimes the cause of results which are worthy of narration.

‘One time in spring,’ Vasily Safonov tells in this connection, ‘parting with Scriabin before the summer, I said in the last lesson, among other things, that it might be necessary to enrich his touch with a deep stroke, in which the fingers would, so to speak, be buried in the keyboard. But what ? He played all summer long with exactly that kind of touch, and so zealously that I was horrified in the autumn when I heard him: his hands had become utterly heavy. “You’ve gone completely crazy,” I said, and immediately set him a Mozart concerto ­– the best medicine in such cases.’

But along with all Scriabin’s strivings to follow his professor’s advice, situations of the following kind would often occur: he would practise in one way and sit down to play (even on the platform, in the pupils’ evenings) in a quite different way: his own way. Nevertheless, according to accounts from various people, Safonov never made cutting remarks to Scriabin in the sense of artistic performance. Even if the professor was not in agreement with his unusual pupil’s interpretation, he would find the performance to be fine in any case. In general, Safonov behaved to Scriabin with especial tenderness, indulged him, was particularly eager to work with him at home.

‘It often happened’, Safonov recounts, ‘that he would play at my place just at the time I was relaxing in the next room. One time I just dropped off. I woke up to some charming sounds. I didn’t even want to move, so as not to break the magic spell. Then I asked: “What is that?” It turned out to be his D flat major prelude.[7] That is one of the best memories of my life. Another time we were working at my place at home. In the middle of the lesson I felt so tired that I said to him: “Play for a bit without me, and I will rest and have a lie-down.” When I woke up, I heard something, not exactly in C sharp minor, not exactly in A major – he was improvising. That too was one of my most delicate musical delights, after Anton Rubinstein.  Skryabin took in to a high degree what is so important for a pianist and which I always used to impress on my pupils: “The less the piano sounds like itself under the fingers of a performer, the better it is.” Much in his way of playing was my own.  But he had especially varied tone-colours and a special, ideally subtle use of the pedal; he possessed a rare and exclusive gift: with him the instrument breathed.’

Safonov directed the attention of his class to Scriabin’s remarkable use of the pedal more than once. ‘Why are you looking at his hands’, he would say to the class during some successful performance of Scriabin, ‘look at his feet.’ On the lips of Safonov, ‘Sasha-style pedalling’ was the best of compliments.

Scriabin’s appearances at Conservatoire evening concerts always attracted attention. At one evening (still in cadet’s uniform) he played  Schumann’s Papillons. At another, he played the Bach B minor fugue (the one in five voices)[8] and a mazurka of Chopin (op.50 no. 3) – both enchantingly. In one of the examinations (apparently in the seventh or eighth year) Scriabin played Mendelssohn’s Serenade,[9] Chopin’s G minor Ballade and Schumann’s Papillons. K. Yu. Davydov,[10] who was present at the examination, wrote down there and then on the sheet listing the examinations, against the name ‘Scriabin’, ‘Gifts at the level of genius’. This little sheet has been preserved to this day.[11]

Scriabin loved to be ahead of others in all things, and wanted to be first amongst his classmates not only as regards subtlety of performance but also in brilliance of technique. But in this matter he was destined to get into a troublesome contention with Josef Levin,[12] who possessed phenomenal virtuosic and technical gifts. In this contention, Scriabin almost damaged his hand permanently.  He applied himself with such  assiduousness and ardour to Balakirev’s Islamey and Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy, two works of diabolical difficulty in general and for his hands in particular,  that a year and a half before graduating from the Conservatoire he wore out his right hand, which suddenly refused completely to work. At this he went to the famous [Dr.] Zakharin.[13] Zakharin angrily threw back his head: ‘Impossible to put right at this stage.’ But Scriabin declared: ‘No; it is possible.’ And he went on a course of

kumis in order to strengthen his altogether weak health.[14] Then he began to practise his right hand separately and assiduously; at first, only little by little, then more and more, and finally, by degrees, he brought it back almost to a complete playing ability, although never to its previous condition.

At one time (in 1891) Scriabin, who was enthusiastic then about the sonatas of Beethoven, conceived the idea of preparing them all  for his examination, as his classmate Samuelson had prepared all the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But this was only a pious wish.

Scriabin could play only with difficulty at his final exam because of his damaged right hand,  and this was brought to the examiners’ attention. All the same, he was awarded the gold medal. At the conservatoire concert he played Liszt’s Don Juan and his own  mazurka in E major [Op. 3 no. 4].  Anton Rubinstein, who was present at the concert, improvised variations on the mazurka there and then.

Over a long period, when the right hand utterly refused to work or was working poorly, Scriabin had to be content with using his left hand. It was at that time  that Scriabin composed his works for left hand alone, later published as op. 9 (Prelude and Nocturne).

He also composed a third piece at the same time, an unpublished paraphrase on a waltz by Johann Strauss. It is not even known whether this paraphrase was written down,  but E. K. Rozenov heard it more than once played in its entirety by Scriabin, and says: ‘God knows what kind of virtuoso pieces there were then!’

Scriabin was concerned for his future as a pianist, and at that time he began to practise often with the fingers of his right hand (on a table, on his knee, on anything convenient), testing exactly how freely they could move. After that, it became a lifelong habit with him.

In general, Scriabin composed a great deal while at the Conservatoire, where his works were highly estimated by many people.  We have seen Safonov’s attitude to them.   ‘You don’t know whose work gets passed from hand to hand here,’ another Conservatoire professor, Pavel  Schloezer, exclaimed in delight  at hearing Scriabin’s works.  Being close to his house  subsequently became very  important for Scriabin.

It was not yet suitable, however, for Scriabin to finish his course at the conservatoire.

Scriabin entered the Conservatoire  directly to study counterpoint. The class was led at that time by Taneyev, to whom Scriabin was indebted for preparation in theoretical subjects for Conservatoire entry.    

I was fortunate enough to be in Sergei Ivanovich’s class myself, and ­moreover only three or four years after Scriabin, so that if I describe Taneyev’s characteristics as a professor my description will be equally applicable to Scriabin’s time.

Above all, Taneyev opened the pupil’s eyes to the law of historical continuity in the evolution of music, to the indispensability in this respect of practical mastery of the fundamental forms of this evolution; to the inexhaustible treasures of the past and especially of the half-forgotten [29] era of contrapuntal polyphony, which still awaits a new, fruitful renaissance.  

His class of counterpoint, fugue and form made the pupil experience and share in the whole historical process of the evolution of music personally, so to speak, taught him to separate the essential from the secondary elements in music, to value what was powerful, beautiful and eternal even in the music of the past.

But at the same time this class was a magnificent school in compositional technique, the elements of which Sergei Ivanovich  also instilled and developed  thoroughly  and

progressively (progressively also in the historical sense) through appropriate exercises in ‘strict’ and ‘free’ style, as elements of virtuoso performance are  developed through all kinds of scales, exercises or studies.

The counterpoint class (he considered one year appropriate for this)  began with every possible kind of exercise in counterpoint on a cantus firmus and with imitations (including inversion, augmentation and diminution of themes etc.) These were followed by chorales with imitations; canons with imitations, progressing finally to seven or eight voices (a three-voice canon plus imitating voices and even a cantus firmus); invertible (complex) counterpoint at every transposition of which there are examples and with those examples included; perpetual canons  from various examples;  exercises in horizontally moveable counterpoint; fugues in up to five voices, including simple, double, triple, in inversion throughout, with every kind of stretto and other contrivances, on Latin and Russian texts.

All this was done in strict style (in ecclesiastical modes, suitable for vocal performance, according to examples from the period of strict style etc.), richly illustrated by the best historical examples from the polyphonic repertoire. The second year of counterpoint (‘fugue’) was devoted to the free style. All corrections to the pupil’s work were made by Taneyev in the class itself, under the pupil’s scrutiny, with a speed which was limited only by the essential physical effort of writing.   

One may approximately judge the process of Taneyev’s class in counterpoint by the parts of it which are collected together in his book Invertible Counterpoint.[15] In Scriabin’s era this book did not yet exist, but it had already been thought about and, in part, prepared by that time, which means that Scriabin also worked at a great deal of this material, if not all of it.

Taneyev, like Safonov, describes Scriabin as a very assiduous student.  He wrote everything he was supposed to: note-against-note counterpoint, two notes and three notes against one,[16]

imitation, etc.; in a word, he did all the work which was set. But there was no evidence of an especial love for the work, or of individual initiative; there were even attempts to do less or to do easier things within the limits of what was set. Sometimes this attempt to complete exactly the task demanded [30] and simultaneously to diminish the amount of work he had to do expressed itself in curious forms. For example, Scriabin tried to shorten the themes for imitation. This meant that the number of bars in the exercise was reduced, at all accounts, and the work was less demanding.

Scriabin’s classmates in the counterpoint course at that time were: Rachmaninov, the pianist E. Kashperova,[17] the bassoonist Zeidenberg (now [1916] playing in the orchestra of the Bolshoi theatre) and the horn-player Lidak. Rachmaninov was no more assiduous in work than Scriabin. Now, many years later, he is enthusiastic about Taneyev’s teaching, but it is clear that then both he and Scriabin were too young, too much filled with straightforward creative ferment,  to be more deeply interested in the broad, abstract contrapuntal perspectives which opened up during work in Taneyev’s class.

But all the same, in Taneyev’s class it was not possible to do nothing at all; he was the utter  embodiment of a good conscience. Even if it happened occasionally that a pupil brought no work to the class, Taneyev would be so sincerely saddened and offended that it was simply shameful to do the same thing again.

The following year both Scriabin and Rachmaninov transferred from Taneyev to A. S. Arensky’s fugue class. Arensky was a different type of professor from Taneyev. It is true that he shared with Taneyev the qualities of an excellent ear, compositional mastery and a swift mind in correcting exercises, but he did not possess Taneyev’s broad contrapuntal and historical erudition, his strict system or his self-possessed character. Those who were to Arensky’s taste he declared to be fine, those who were not, he regarded as bad. And in accordance with this characteristic he tried to adjust the pupil’s work, and to correct it, sometimes not taking into account the pupil’s individuality. It must be added that Arensky was waspish and very harsh with those who were unfortunate enough to attract his dislike.

This misfortune fell to Scriabin’s lot (as happened a few years later to Grechaninov). Arensky considered Scriabin too sure of himself, arrogant (though others thought so too at a different period); and he was not able, however hard he tried, to divine a talent for composition in Scriabin. Taneyev always commented on the work sincerely, expressing his regret, his insulted feelings, but with  a generally warm attitude to a pupil’s work; there was none of this in Arensky. In his turn Scriabin felt no sympathy with Arensky and his attitude to him was scornful. 

Work could not progress successfully under these conditions. Scriabin began to lose even his usual minimum standard of diligence, not even completing the official requirements. He worked little and with scorn. Rachmaninov too was lazy, though by all accounts he did what was actually essential. Before the lesson, as happens in the composition class, [31] they often played their own compositions to each other, utterly ‘free’ – not those which were brought to the class.

In the final reckoning Scriabin had offered so little work during the year that Arensky set him ten fugues to write during the summer.  ‘If you want to move to the next year, then write them.’ But Scriabin only wrote two fugues: one was a ‘fugue-nocturne’, the other is now in the possession of E. K. Rozenov. It is a fugue in five voices, interesting, good for a pupil, but with nothing interesting about it either as regards the theme or its development. Only at the end, in the stretto (see mus. ex. no. 1) is there anything  in the harmony or the turns of the melody which corresponds to the concept of the later Scriabin and, so to speak, foretells it.

One way or another, after a year Scriabin was transferred from the class for fugue to the class for free composition.  Here relations between professor and student became even more strained. F. F. Koenemann,[18] who was also in Arensky’s class for free composition, said that Arensky complained to him about Scriabin: ‘You set him one thing, and he brings back something completely different…Some kind of a crackpot!’

Arensky set Scriabin to write a scherzo for orchestra, among other things. Instead of the scherzo, Scriabin  brought an Introduction to an opera, Keistut and Peiruta, already orchestrated.[19] Arensky remained extremely dissatisfied and, in Rozenov’s words, ‘put Scriabin out of the room.’[20] And at this point yet another situation arose. In 1891 Alexander Siloti left the professorial staff of the conservatoire because of misunderstandings with Safonov. Rachmaninov, who had close ties with Siloti, also decided to graduate from the Conservatoire as soon as possible. Instead of the usual two years (which could also extend to three or four) he conceived the wish to complete the course for free composition in a single year. Arensky was dissatisfied with such a hasty completion but agreed all the same. But when [31] Scriabin made the same request, clearly enticed by Rachmaninov’s example, Arensky refused. Scriabin was offended and angry, and left the free composition class altogether.

Thus it came about that a composer who brought glory to his alma mater was not granted a diploma in composition, though tens of other composers earned one who are little known or completely unknown.


[1] 1838–1889. Outstanding cellist, composer, professor in Leipzig and later director of St. Petersburg Conservatoire.

[2] 1867–1942. Pianist and teacher. He graduated from Moscow Conservatoire  in 1889 and was a member of the Moscow Piano Trio from 1892–1924. He was a professor in Moscow Conservatoire from 1919 to 1925, when he first travelled to Palestine, as it was then known, settling in Tel Aviv in 1927.

[3] A very central and now exclusive and expensive area of Moscow.

[4] Safonov died in 1918.

[5] 1854–1897, one of Liszt’s Weimar pupils and teacher of Lyapunov, Medtner and Goldenweiser.

[6] 1841/2–1898, of Polish and German origin. A professor at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1892. Links to Scriabin: amongst Schloezer’s pupils was Leonid Sabaneyev, Scriabin’s friend and Boswell, and Schloezer’s niece and nephew Tatyana and Boris became, respectively, Scriabin’s partner and his close friend and early biographer.

[7] Op. 11 no. 15.

[8] WTC vol. 1.

[9] The Serenade and Allegro giojoso op. 43 of Mendelssohn has an orchestral part, very much an ‘accompaniment’. It is likely that Scriabin performed without the orchestra, as is the usual practice in Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante.

[10] See n.1. Given his date of death (February 1889 in Moscow), this must have been very early on in Scriabin’s conservatoire career.

[11] 1916. It is possible that Moscow Conservatoire still has it.

[12] We know him by his agent’s choice of spelling: Joseph Lhévinne.

[13] Grigorii Antonovich Zakharin, 1879–1897/8,  doctor and therapist, distinguished professor of Moscow University.

[14] Kumis is the fermented milk of mares and donkeys. Its use originated in Central Asia. It is still prepared in Kyrghyzstan and is used in the treatment of many ailments. Scriabin went to Samara for his treatment. There can be no doubt that the environment there and, later, in Gurzuf in the Crimea, was also beneficial to Scriabin’s general health.

[15] Translated version: Serge Ivanovitch Taneiev, Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style, trans. G. Ackley Brower, intro. Serge Koussevitzky. Boston: Branden Publishing Company, Inc. (orig. Bruce Humphries Publishers), 1962/2007. [In the U.K. the usual term is ‘invertible’, though what is ‘inverted’ is the order of the voices: i.e. what was the tenor may become the treble, etc. The Russian term is ‘moveable counterpoint’.

[16] In English this is known as ‘species counterpoint’, but Engel’’s self-explanatory description has been allowed to stand.

[17] Elizaveta Kashperova, 1871-1936. Studied piano with Safonov. Taught at Moscow Conservatoire 1921–1936: piano, solo singing and composition. Daughter of Vladimir Nikitich Kashperov, 1826–1894, pianist and singer.

[18] Fyodor Fyodorovich Koenemann (1873–1937), composer, pianist, later a professor at Moscow Conservatoire,  friend and accompanist of Chaliapin. The Germanic name has two ‘n’s in Roman spelling,

one in Cyrillic.

[19] Rachmaninov also remembers this opera on a Lithuanian subject. One time he was ill and could not leave the house for a long time. Scriabin came to see him and played some of his compositions to him, including an aria from ‘Keistut and Peiruta’. Rachmaninov tells as follows: ‘I liked that aria a tremendous amount then, and I think I would still like it. It was completely, completely finished. Could it really have remained unwritten in that condition?’ It turns out that a fragment of a single aria from ‘Keistut and Peiruta’ has been kept by E. K. Rozenov. It is clear that the text of the aria was written by Scriabin’s aunt, Lyubov Scriabina [Engel’ writes ‘M.A. Scriabina’], who was to write the libretto for the opera. With beautiful harmony (and there is no doubt that Scriabin’s harmony was beautiful) this lovely melody (see music example no. II) would still be a winner. But from the point of view of declamation there are things which are crude and awkward (for example the lack of musical punctuation marks after the question in the very first bar, and their presence in the middle of a sentence in bar 3, etc.) Y. E.

[20] There is another version in existence (Vera Scriabina). Alexander Nikolaevich wrote an orchestral scherzo for the class. Arensky wanted to perform it with the student orchestra, after a few corrections. Scriabin did not agree, and it was because of this that they quarrelled. Y. E.

Yulii Engel Biography of Scriabin Chapter II

II. School years

(1882–1889)

Why Scriabin joined the cadet corps – Comrades and seniors in the corps, their attitude to him – His health and successes – A certification from 1885 – First public performance as pianist – Piano lessons with Gyorgi Konyus – Nikolai Zverev, his students, musical evenings. Nocturne in A flat, 1884 – Work on musical theory with Sergei Taneyev and Gyorgi  Konyus – Konyus’ observations of Scriabin – Monigetti – Features of Scriabin’s compositional habits at that period – His helplessness in everyday life.

Thus, in those quiet, feminine surroundings, Scriabin’s life was spent until his tenth year. The little boy, as is usual with children of his age, learned little by little to study, ‘to practise’, but essentially he grew up in freedom, at leisure, with the possibility of devoting himself to whatever he was instinctively attracted to; his relations encouraged him in this, and delighted in it. But finally it was time to think seriously about choosing an educational establishment.

Scriabin’s father would have liked to send the little boy to a lycée,[1] but the child eagerly begged to join the cadet corps. And ‘when Sasha begged like that it was impossible to refuse.’

Of course the child’s desire was based, not on an inclination for military affairs but above all on the living example of those around him. All Sasha’s uncles were cadets; the youngest of them, Dmitri Alexandrovich (then still known as Mitya) was only six years older than his nephew. The child used to listen to their tales of life in the corps, took part in their leisure activities, listened to the music they made. The example of Mitya, who loved the corps (at that time the corps were considered superior to the gymnasia[2]) had more influence on the child than anything else, and was the cause of his request to join the cadets.

It was Sasha’s aunt, Lyubov Alexandrovna, who prepared him for the entrance examination. The little boy got on with the subjects quickly and easily. In the examination itself he came out (15) top of seventy entrants, and in his tenth year, in the autumn of 1882, was ready to join the first class of Cadet Corps no. 2 in Moscow (which is in Lefortovo).

In this corps the Scriabins may be said to have been a fixture. One of them, Vladimir Alexandrovich, an uncle of Sasha’s, was a tutor here at this time and lived in the building itself. The little boy moved in with him. Thus Sasha, though living in the corps building, was one of the day boys and grew up in  familial surroundings.

At holiday periods the little boy was usually sent home, to his grandmothers[3] and his aunt and it was there that he spent the time until his return to the corps. Two to three years after Alexander joined the corps, the Scriabins sold the family home (as was inevitable after the death of the head of the family) and moved into Lefortovo itself, to another of Alexander’s uncles, who was a tutor in Cadet Corps no. 1. Both the corps were situated near each other, so that Alexander was now very near both to his grandmother and his aunt.

Skryabin’s gifts were soon noticed both by his comrades in the corps and by the teachers. The comrades were very fond of the ‘cadet by chance’, as they soon started to call him. The did not even beat him in the first days, as is customary with all novices according to the ritual of the corps. Alexander’s gentle disposition, his resourcefulness in devising amusing pranks, his brilliant abilities and his musical talent meant that most people liked him and even made for a wide popularity within the corps. When he played the piano in the evenings, his comrades listened eagerly to him and sometimes requested this or that improvisation. His verses, too, excited interest.

The daughter of the corps director, A. F. Albedille, took especial interest in Alexander; she was a great music-lover and a musician herself. She played duets with him and when he  was ill, as sometimes happened, she took care of him.

If we add to all this the influence of relations serving in the corps we can understand the exclusive position which Skryabin occupied in the corps. Every kind of allowance was made for him, and he was excused completely from some duties (from shooting, sometimes from drill, but not from gymnastics). They did not even make him struggle over military theory, in which he  took little interest.

Allowance was also made for Skryabin over the state of his health. From birth he had not been robust, and this persisted during his time in the corps and indeed throughout his life. He never went through the usual children’s diseases easily. At the age of twelve he suffered a very serious illness. Measles were complicated by dropsy, and the child was near death. Doctor Pokrovsky, who treated the sick child, said that there was hardly any hope of recovery, but that he would try one extreme measure… And this measure helped.[4] One summer, Skryabin was taken  to Samara to drink kumis[5] because of his weak lungs. He was also taken for a summer to the Crimea.

While all this was going on Scriabin studied at the corps very well. He did every task with his usual care and exactness; indeed, with his gifts, everything was easy for him. In the lowest classes he even won year prizes, but after that no further prizes were awarded to him – firstly, because he was devoting himself increasingly to music, secondly, because the management  considered that those who would follow a military path were the ones needing prizes.

A report on Scriabin’s results in class four of the corps has been preserved.[6] Here is the substance of that report, addressed to his grandmother:

                        Dear Madam

                                    Elizaveta Ivanovna!

            Your grandson, cadet in class four, obtained the following results in the most recent certification:

            Divinity:                       11

            Russian language:           9

            French language:            12

            German language:          10

            Algebra:                        9

            Geometry:                     10

            Natural history:              12

            History:                         10

            Geography:                    8

            Drawing:                       8

            Average mark:               9.8

            Position in class: 1st out of 22 persons

            Conduct: Good, although in the strict sense one should not put it that way, as in

            this year he has been more neglectful in preparing tasks.

            Teacher: College counsellor V. Matskevich.

From this certification it is clear why Scriabin, having been a brilliant pupil, became a good one, and why ‘in the strict sense’ that happened.[7] But with the average result of 9.8 (according to a twelve-mark system) he remained first in the class, nonetheless; obviously, this was the highest mark.

In the very first year of his time at the corps, Scriabin made an appearance as pianist in a corps soirée, which took place with the closest collaboration of A. F. Albedille, who was mentioned earlier. He played a gavotte by Bach, and he played this, like almost everything at that time, without having obediently studied from the printed music, but principally by ear, having listened to how others played it. Thus, one cannot say that it was academically pure Bach; there was also something in it of the pianist’s own. At the end of the piece the little performer even hesitated, but did not get lost by any means; and he improvised, in an orderly way, a few chords of his own which were necessary for an ending. At about the same time Scriabin also played a ‘Venetian Gondolier’s Song’ by Mendelssohn.

In the summer of 1883 Scriabin started for the first time to take actual ‘lessons’ in piano. It was Gyorgi Eduardovich Konyus [Conus] who became his piano teacher. Konyus is now [1915-16] a professor at Saratov Conservatoire, a theorist, composer and pianist.[8] At that time Konyus was himself still studying at Moscow Conservatoire. He was twenty, and had just moved from class six to class seven in Paul Avgustovich Pabst’s piano class. Konyus was living at that time by the Nikolaevsky railway track, in the village of Khovrino. Here is his own account of his work with Scriabin.

A lady whom I did not know came to me (it was Lyubov Alexandrovna) and asked me to give lessons to an eleven-year-old boy,[9] who turned out to be Sasha Scriabin. He lived with his grandmothers[10] – as I remember, they doted on him – near to me in a place where there were many dachas, which had the same name as the village: Khovrino, near to the same railway line, in the neighbourhood of a whole series of ponds with picturesquely wooded banks, above which the songs of nightingales resounded incessantly.

The child was frail in appearance. He was pale, small in stature, seemed younger than his age. He      turned out to know not only notation; he knew the scales, the tonalities, and played something   to me with little, weak fingers which could hardly press down the keys. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it was played accurately and with a satisfactory flow. His stage of preparatory development can be approximately understood by his having played Weber’s Perpetuum mobile op. 24[11] as one of the first pieces we worked at together. He learned pieces quickly, but his playing, I remember, was always insubstantial[12] and monotonous – probably owing to physical insufficiencies.  I regret that I cannot say exactly what else we worked at together. But, probably, I will be right in saying that having learned the scales in all keys and all kinds of technical exercises and arpeggios he played the easier Cramer etudes, pieces by Mendelssohn and short miniatures by Chopin.

I worked at the piano with Scriabin all through the summer of 1882, and then, after leaving the         summer dacha behind, continued lessons with him in Moscow [18] throughout the winter of 1882– 83, probably stopping before the exams.[13] At that time Sasha was living in the cadet corps  (the second or the fourth – wearing the well-known blue uniform) with his uncle, who was a teacher in the same corps. I remember that all through the winter I set out every Thursday at four from the Nikitskaya,[14] where I had furnished rooms, to Lefortovo by horse-drawn tram, devoting more than an hour to the journey itself.

At that time there was not even any talk about Scriabin’s joining the Conservatoire as yet. He was following his own inclination in working at music but preparing for a military career. From my own conversation with Alexander Nikolaevich’s grandmother (while he was still in the country, at Khorvin) I remember that she told me several times that A. N.’s mother, who had died early, was unusually gifted musically and played remarkably well. I do not know with whom Scriabin studied before me. But there is no doubt that he had worked with somebody.[15] Later, in the spring of 1883,   [1884?] I lost touch with Scriabin.

Scriabin was left to his own devices as a pianist for a while, and it was at that time, clearly, that the decision finally developed within him to enter the conservatoire. In order to prepare for this he began to take private lessons in piano playing with Nikolai Sergeievich Zverev, a teacher at the conservatoire.

Zverev was an ‘old-fashioned gentleman’, from the time when it was considered that the study of music was only acceptable in an amateur way for a ‘decent person’, not as a profession. He studied piano playing with Dubuque and Henselt[16] and was a fine pianist, but he turned to teaching only under the pressure  of external circumstances, after he had happily made his way  through a large fortune. He taught at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1870 until his death in 1893.

Some pupils lived in the house with Zverev with bed and board. At that time, when Scriabin started working with Zverev, the following were boarders of this kind destined to become Conservatoire pupils: Sergei Rachmaninov, Matvei Presman (later, director of the music college at Rostov on Don and a professor at the Conservatoire of Saratov), Leonid  Maximov (a brilliant pianist who died in 1904, a professor at the college of the Philharmonic Society).

Amongst Zverev’s private pupils, the following were outstanding: Chernyayev (son of the hero of the [Turkestan] war of 1887-88[17], now an officer of the Guards), and Dukhovsky (later, a public prosecutor; now, a presiding attorney).[18] […]

Emilii Rozenov,[19] himself a pupil of Zverev at one time, characterises his teaching methods thus:

At that time there were absolutely no teachers with musical-critical training – analytical teachers. Nor was Zverev, that kind of teacher and in that sense his teaching might be described as routine. But amongst teachers of basic technique (and this was Zverev’s role in the Conservatoire) he was one of the best. From his school emerged such pianists as Siloti, Rachmaninov, Maximov, Pressman and others, all magnificently equipped in a technical sense – and that itself is significant.He knew as no-one else did how to impart discipline in technical work, how to teach students to practice seriously. Zverev’s boarder-pupils had to get up at six in the morning, clean their clothes and shoes themselves, and make the bed; after that they sat down to play. There was to be no sloppiness or time-wasting about this; otherwise, Zverev’s shout, friendly but strict, would immediately resound from where he sat in a neighbouring room with a long speaking-tube to his mouth: ‘Ma (Zverev’s name for Maximov), stop improvising!’ ‘Mo (his name for Pressman, short for Motya), play clearly!’, etc. With all of this, Zverev valued any sign of musicality highly – indeed, he was moved by it. His pupils loved him as if he were their own father, and obeyed him unconditionally.

Zverev retained from his former wealthy life not only a fondness for ‘the pleasures of the table’ but also a love for the company round the table. On Sundays he would arrange dinners (long, abundant and delicious, as a partaker narrates) to which were invited Zverev’s best pupils and his closest musical acquaintances. There were, besides the just-mentioned pupils, also professional pianists: S.M. Remezov (now [1915–­16] a professor at the Philharmonic college) and Szymanowski (later a teacher of theoretical subjects in Moscow), Dr. Sadkevich, the Conservatoire doctor ­and a great lover of music, and others.  Sometimes Tchaikovsky himself was there; Zverev, while already a teacher at the Conservatoire, had at one time taken lessons from him in musical theory.

Scriabin, too, was a constant Sunday visitor to Zverev for a fairly long time, one of the youngest to have been there. As a day boy, Skryabin could not be as familiar with his comrades who boarded with Zverev as they were amongst themselves; moreover, he was younger than them. But, in general, relations were good.  He was on more intimate terms with Chernyayev than with the others at that time. Among other things, their acquaintance was renewed in Petrograd many years later, about two years before Scriabin’s death.

After dinner, which was impressive as regards the portions both of food and of drink, a musical evening always took place in which pupils of Zverev appeared before an audience of their school fellows and the guests. Scriabin, too, played there. Zverev loved him and called him  ‘Skryabushka’, but valued the pianist in him more than the composer. According to his comrades’ accounts, Scriabin was already a splendid pianist at that time. He played the Schumann Paganini etudes, for example, magnificently, especially the final one in E major.[20]

Sometimes Scriabin also played his own compositions, as did Rachmaninov. Even then, at the age of fourteen, he enjoyed among his close acquaintances the reputation of a talented, highly promising composer in the spirit of Chopin. At that time he loved Chopin’s music passionately.

Sometimes he would put a few works by Chopin under his pillow at home, so as not to be separated from them even in the night. The compositions of Skryabin which he played at Zverev’s establishment were also in the line of Chopin: etudes, waltzes and mazurkas. Some of them, without doubt, were sketches – and especially significant in their formation – of works published later.

It was evident to us that Skryabin played even Bach and Mendelssohn differently from the principles imparted in authentic piano pedagogy. With him, his native instinct took precedence over the skills of training. It was the same, though in a much more pronounced way, in the area of creative composition.

It is difficult at the moment to establish exactly when Scriabin began to take lessons in musical theory (‘composition’). We only know that his first teacher was Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, and that these lessons began two or three years before Scriabin entered the Conservatoire, apparently in 1885. This is the most likely year, but the possibility cannot be excluded that it was in 1884.

But Scriabin had composed a considerable body of work even before he began to work with Taneyev. And he did not just improvise his works, but also wrote them down. In no. 13 of the journal Muzyka, 1913, there is a nocturne by Scriabin dated 1884, when the composer was thirteen.[21] This nocturne (in the spirit of Chopin) is above all excellently laid out in a pianistic sense: it was born from the piano and sounds extremely well. Moreover, the flair for form, harmony and voice-leading is startling in a boy of thirteen who had not ‘studied’ these things.[22]

And it is evident from some curious musical orthography that he had not ‘studied’ them, for example: D flat instead of C sharp,  C flat instead of B natural and even E double flat and B double flat instead of a simple D and A  (in the third and fourth bars of the section in C major).[23] Even if this nocturne was written after studies with Taneyev began, it must in any case have been at the very earliest stage.

What follows is Sergei Ivanovich [Taneyev]’s own account of this beginning:

            One spring – I don’t remember which year, my memory for dates in years is poor – General             Nikiforov[24] came to see me, and he said: ‘May I bring a young, talented musician to see you?’ ‘Do bring him.’ They brought a young cadet, small, thin and fragile. I tested his ear –the ability was outstanding and obvious. I began to work with him a little,  introduced him to various elements: forms, the sentence, the period. Getting on towards September he wrote a few pieces,         and they were all very pleasing. A genuine talent could be discerned. Then we worked on       harmony for a year. There was already talk of his entering the Conservatoire; in order to prepare for             entry there, I recommended him to study with Gyorgy Eduardovich Konyus. He did so, and began      to work with Konyus at counterpoint, among other things.

            That summer I was living at Demyanovo, near to Klin. The Scriabins’ dacha was also situated not      very far from there, in Maidanovo, I think.  One time, while out for a ride, I came across           them at the dacha and took Alexander Nikolaevich back with me to see how he was getting on. I sat           him down in the park under an oak tree and set him some counterpoint to write. He’s sitting and writing, and young people (especially girls) walk around him and complain: ‘Poor little fellow, what wonderful weather, and instead of taking a walk he’s writing some counterpoint or other.’ Then, when I let him go, they caught up with their favourite and all of them went for a pleasant walk.[25]

That is all that Taneyev managed to tell me of his pre-conservatory work with Scriabin. The following reminiscences by G. E. Konyus may serve to fill in the gaps in this fragmentary account.

            Between the years 1887 and 1889 (again in spring), when I was living near Ostankino, in the place    known as ‘Panin’s Meadow’, Scriabin came to me with the request that I should work on harmony with him.  He started visiting me once a week, and thus we completed a course of harmony  by the summer. I can add the following observations which remain vividly in my memory from these   studies, and concerning the incredible speed with which we completed the course. It was not necessary for me to teach Scriabin harmony in the generally accepted meaning of the word, i.e. to develop and explain the subject, to illuminate the complicated aspects, to educate him harmonically or to inculcate correct progressions, to warn of incorrect ones or, even less, to train him and make him practise this or that method of resolution, modulating sequences etc. Everything of that sort which is required of a musician lived its own self-generated life within Scriabin, was prepared by nature herself. For the most part it remained for me only to attach theoretical labels (names, terms,   etc.) to what revealed itself as Scriabin’s innate knowledge. Usually I did not have to complete my explanation. Scriabin guessed instinctively from my first words what was being discussed, interrupted me and completed the account himself. Only such phenomenal quick-wittedness could explain the short  time – two to three months – in which he managed to complete the subject.

Despite prolonged efforts to recall how Scriabin wrote exercises, this has completely disappeared from my memory. This circumstance prompts me to ask myself: ‘Did he actually write down exercises?’ It is extremely likely that these were done during the lesson, directly at the piano.

The accounts by Taneyev and Konyus provoke some puzzlement: Why (unless this is just a slip) did Taneyev arrange his work with Scriabin in an unusual order? That is to say, he did not start with harmony and then form, but the other way round. Why did Konyus not know that Scriabin worked at harmony with Taneyev before he went to Konyus, and if he did know, why does he not refer to this in telling of Scriabin’s remarkable progress? Why does Taneyev say that Konyus worked with Scriabin at counterpoint, whereas Konyus speaks only of harmony? In reply to my request, G. E. Konyus clears up these perplexities thus:

It is evident that one must remember that for a year Scriabin went through harmony with S. I. Taneyev.[26] But from the succession itself which Sergei Ivanovich recounts: first some acquaintance with forms, then  harmony, it is clear that Taneyev was not leading Scriabin down the stereotyped routine path of the Conservatoire instructional plan, but teaching him in conformity with Scriabin’s own degree of talent and capability of quick learning. The characteristics of a pupil who impatiently rushes ahead, together with the tact of a pedagogue who understands that unnecessary holding back over details or dry harmonic exercises could only be harmful to such a nature as Skryabin’s, could not fail to suggest to Taneyev some modification of the usual method of teaching. To be precise, a practical knowledge of harmony needed to be acquired, partly at the piano, partly from written exercises which in their content were closely related to the student’s creative work, and by the same token removed from so-called classroom exercises.

 As a result of such a method of organising the work, Sergei Ivanovich could not but be assailed by doubts when the question arose of Skryabin’s entering the Conservatoire: might not the student still suffer from gaps in the harmonic knowledge which corresponds, as a whole, to the demands of the programme for entering the Conservatoire according to an examination in counterpoint? If we now remember Sergei Ivanovich’s extremely scrupulous conscientiousness, it becomes clear that he wanted to test whether a slightly unusual method of procedure in going through the preceding discipline of counterpoint had left gaps in Sasha’s harmonic education. Sergei Ivanovich himself worked eagerly in the summer (on composition and also on his Moveable Counterpoint)[27] as in winter he moved on to his lessons. It is probable that it was because of not having leisure himself that he sent Sasha to me in order to prepare for the examination. Thus Scriabin studied harmony at first with Sergei Ivanovich and before entering the Conservatoire practised with me for the examination. But he probably did not take the exam itself, for in relation to entering the          Conservatoire Taneyev had established a tradition of  exempting those whom he considered capable of entering his counterpoint class from the official examination.[28]              

In any case, in the years preceding entry to the Conservatoire – at the ages of 13, 14 and 15 –

Scriabin did not only compose a great deal, but, as is evident from the above, enjoyed the reputation of a highly promising composer. And that was how he was regarded, not only in the Zverev circle of musical specialists.

The young composer’s works met with even greater attention, indeed with outright enthusiasm, in the family of I. Monighetti, the institute doctor. He was often driven there on Sundays, even in his earliest years. In the family Monighetti, which consisted of father, son and two daughters, many young people gathered and life was merry, warm-hearted and noisy. Both sisters loved music, as did their parents; one of them graduated later from Pabst’s class and played Scriabin’s works excellently.[29] Scriabin felt at home in the Monighetti house, and this pleasant feeling stayed with him throughout his life.[30] He was always spending time with them, took part in all the entertainments and pranks, often played or improvised and introduced them to all his new works.

He was particularly eager to play his new works – even if they were in the condition of a sketch or just an embryo, a theme, a motive. This feature was characteristic of him throughout his life to the greatest extent with those who were the slightest bit interested in his works.

It is curious that in order to compose Scriabin had no need to be alone. Quite the opposite: a habit, remaining from childhood, of never staying alone, here too was preserved in full force. During the entire time of composing he did not like to remain alone, and when there were times in which he ‘composed day and night’, this concern of his assumed special proportions. He would invite his grandmother (or his aunt) ‘to sit for a while on the little divan where Sasha was working.’ Later a pillow was produced, and the little divan was transformed into a bed. And grandma did this with the greatest eagerness: in her own words, ‘one never slept so well as with the sounds of Sasha’s “composing.”’. It remained thus quite late on, even in the Conservatoire years.

By token of the same habit of not leaving the boy alone, for a long time – until his fourteenth year – allowed to go out by himself. Someone always accompanied him, most often his aunt Lyubov Alexandrovna. In the first period of study with S. I. Taneyev it happened that Sergei Ivanovich himself took on this role of ‘Sasha’s tutor’, taking his young student to the Skryabin’s house in the Zlatoustky pereulok, from whence he was later sent to the cadet corps. This was even the case when Scriabin was in his fourth year at the corps. On one occasion it came about that  he had to go to Kuznetsky Most alone for some sheet music, and there the driver of a horse-drawn vehicle ran into him, knocking him off his feet and breaking his right collar-bone. During his recovery Scriabin did not waste time, and practised at the piano with his left hand alone. But, of course, this incident could not strengthen his belief in his own practical independence and circumspection.


[1] There were four of these higher education facilities in Russia at that time: in Yaroslavl, Saint Petersburg, Odessa and Moscow. The first-named specialised in law.

[2] Secondary schools.

[3] See Chapter One; the second ‘grandmother’ was in reality a godmother.

[4] Thanks to Dr. John Bradley for this comment on Engel’s rather reticent account: ‘I  suspect that measles was complicated by pneumonia and pleurisy which would be likely to cause a pleural effusion, i.e. fluid in the chest, which might have been treated by attempts to drain the fluid by inserting a needle into the chest wall.’

[5] The fermented milk of a horse or ass.

[6] The report is dated December 21 1885. As there were seven classes in the corps, and Scriabin never stayed down for a second year, his years of attendance at the corps were 1882–89. Y.E.

[7] It is characteristic of the later Scriabin, and of the letters to Natalia Sekerina of the 1890s, that he obtained full marks in French and in natural history, and a high mark in divinity.

[8] Konyus had taught at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1891–99. He returned as a professor in 1920 and continued to teach there until his death in 1933.

[9] Scriabin was then not quite ten and a half years old. Y. E.

[10] See note 3.

[11] This is the finale of Weber’s sonata in C major. The choice of piece shows that at this early age Scriabin had plentiful dexterity and fluency, if not the strength to give the work the dynamic range it needs.

[12] Konyus’ term is ‘ethereal’, and later this was to be regarded as the special quality of the mature Scriabin, but for a teacher imparting basic technique a firm, clear tone would be a desideratum – the ‘ethereality’ was regarded as a shortcoming, and sometimes criticised later in reviews of concert appearances.

[13] It is clear that all these dates need to be transferred to the following year. Scriabin performed a Bach gavotte in the corps in the academic year of 1882–83; this was still during his study with G. E. Konyus. Accordingly, these studies began in the summer of 1883 (not 1882) and continued in 1883–84 (not 1882–83). Y. E.

[14] Probably the Bolshaya Nikitskaya, where the Conservatoire is situated.

[15] The earlier part of the account makes it clear that Scriabin studied a little, only with his aunt. Y. E.

[16] Alexandre Dubuque, 1812–1898, Russian pianist of French descent, a pupil of Field. Adolphe von Henselt, 1814–1889, German pianist and composer. He studied with Hummel in 1832; Liszt praised his ‘pattes de velours.’ He became the court pianist to Alexandra Fyodorovna, Empress of Russia, in 1838, and had very considerable influence on the system of musical education in Russia. At the end of his life, from 1887–88, he taught at Petersburg Conservatoire.

[17] It is possible that Engel has confused his history here. Mikhail Grigorievich Chernyayev (1828­–1898), was known as ‘The Lion of Tashkent’ after a daring but unauthorised exploit in 1865. He was honoured as a brave officer but  ordered back from Turkestan for disobedience to command. He was Governor-General of Turkestan from 1882­–1884, but took no part in the conflict of 1887­–88, having retired in 1886. http://hrono.ru/biograf/bio_ch/chernjaev_mg.php accessed Nov. 16 2020.

[18] The latter rank was, under the law reform of Alexander II and until 1917, that of an attorney at a district court, dealing with serious civil and criminal cases.

[19] Emilii Karlovich Rozenov (1861-1935), mathematician and musician, musicologist, critic, and pianist. Like Scriabin he studied with Zverev (but at the Conservatoire, not Zverev’s private school), Safonov, Taneyev and Arensky.

[20] In the Schumann Studies after Paganini Caprices, op. 3, the study in E major is No. 2. It is likely that the work referred to is the Six Concert Studies composed after Paganini Caprices, op. 10. In this set, another study in E minor and major has the final place. The minor section which starts the piece returns at the end, but in the centre is a long and brilliant section in E major.

[21] Reprinted in the complete edition, volume 1 (1947), p. 220–223. The editors give the date 1884–1886.

[22] Only the last line, as a transition to the da capo, is not particularly well organised. Y. E. [the complete edition prints out the da capo complete. The passage referred to by Engel is in the second system of p. 222 in the edition mentioned, Lento.]

[23] These recondite examples of orthography may be regarded as the ancestors of similar examples in the late works which have been studied by George Perle (‘Scriabin’s self-analyses’), Music Analysis 3/2 (Jul. 1984), p.101–122, and Cheong Wai-Ling (‘Orthography in Scriabin’s late works’), Music Analysis 12/1 (Mar. 1993), p. 47–69. The young composer was perhaps working out his harmonies from the bass up and regarding them as modifications of simpler harmonies – perhaps, not so far from his later method.

[24] There is a very distinguished present-day general by that name (a descendant?) but it has not been possible to trace the general referred to by Taneyev.

[25] Judging by this account and by the fact that Scriabin entered the Conservatory in January 1888, it is a credible supposition that Taneyev first met Scriabin in the spring of 1886. Taneyev ‘introduces him to elementary subjects’; towards autumn Scriabin wrote a few pieces, then came a year of study in harmony – up to the spring of 1887. This was followed by study with G. E. Konyus in the summer and autumn of the same year and entry to the Conservatory in January 1888. Lyubov Scriabina relates that Alexander was thirteen or fourteen when he started studying with Taneyev. From the above account he must have been fourteen. Y.E.

[26] Konyus writes to me: ‘I had completely forgotten about this. In the first place, I did not know that Scriabin turned to me on Taneyev’s advice. I learned this much later. And I was reminded by Scriabin himself even of the very fact that he studied harmony with me – and not so long ago. I had forgotten this because of its being so long ago and because of the abundance of pupils I have taught, and only gradually remembered all the details of which I told you. Y. E.

[27] Podvizhnyi kontrapunkt strogogo stilya, 1909. The usual English expression is ‘invertible counterpoint’. Taneyev’s title, which expresses the matter more accurately, is translated directly in most scholarly discussions. The full title of the English language version is Convertible Counterpoint in the strict style (trans. G. Ackley Bower. Boston, Bruce Humphries, 1962).

[28] Konyus’ interesting observations, it is evident, completely correspond with reality, all the more so as they are in accordance with Taneyev’s account. But, that being so, Skryabin’s progress with Konyus loses its hair-raising character, as it turns out that in two to three months he did not go through a whole new course of harmony, but only repeated what had been done earlier in the year. Work of this kind (repetition, coaching)

must have been clearly advisable for the teacher at that time (for that reason, probably, Scriabin did not write

down exercises for Konyus.) And only temporary forgetfulness of this whole period, including the very fact of working with Scriabin, can explain that Konyus did not remember this straight away. The question remains of why Taneyev spoke of Scriabin having worked at counterpoint during the summer, just when he was preparing to enter the counterpoint class. This may be connected with the unusual date of Scriabin’s entry to the Conservatoire – in the middle of the year –  which demanded a degree of preparation in counterpoint as well as in other elements.  In any case Konyus categorically denies that he worked with Scriabin on counterpoint. Y.E.

[29] The Monighetti sisters were Zinaida (1867–1950?) and Olga (1869–1952?). The younger sister Olga was the serious musician and seems to have been a good organiser of concerts also. Her memoirs, excerpts of which were published in 1940, do not mention a romance but are imbued with a feeling of close emotional identification.

[30] He even proposed to one of the sisters later. Y.E.

Yulii Engel’

ALEXANDER NIKOLAEVICH SCRIABIN

A biographical outline [1]

I. Family; years of childhood

The first complete biography of Scriabin (1915)

By Yulii Engel

Translated by Simon Nicholls

Translator’s Note:

Yulii Engel (1868–1927), a leading Moscow critic and musical writer, published this ‘outline’ in the Scriabin memorial edition of Muzykal’nyi sovremennik (‘Musical Contemporary’), a double issue (4–5) for December 1915–January 1916, p. 5–96. It was subsequently published separately. It is still a primary source of great importance, owing to Engel’s unvarnished clarity of exposition and the many contemporary witnesses available to him. The list of names as Engel gave them is reproduced below. As some of these names are obscure now in the west, while others are or have become illustrious, a  commented glossary has been prepared:

Glossary of Engel’s contributors:

Alexander Bryanchaninov, writer, a close friend who accompanied Scriabin on his visit to England; Emil Cooper, conductor of the premiere of The Poem of Ecstasy; Pyotr Jurgenson, music publisher, published Scriabin’s first and last works; Gyorgii Konyus, Scriabin’s first piano teacher apart from his aunt; Leon (Lev) Konyus, brother of Gyorgii, pianist and composer; Sergei Koussevitzky, publisher, patron, conductor, famous in the west in later years as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra;  Mariya [Nemenova]-Lunts, pupil and friend; Margarita Morozova, patron, pupil and friend; Alexander Podgayetsky, close member of the Scriabin circle; Sergei Rachmaninov, conductor, composer, virtuoso pianist; Emilii Rozenov, mathematician, pianist, composer, pupil of Zverev and Safonov; Leonid Sabaneyev, member of Scriabin circle, trained scientist and musician, author of two books, a brochure and numerous articles about Scriabin; Vassilii Safonov, piano professor, conductor; Lyubov Scriabina, Scriabin’s aunt who brought him up and gave him his first instruction in music and general subjects; Tatyana Scriabina (de Schloezer), Scriabin’s partner. Theirs was what is known in Britain as a ‘common law’ marriage and the surname Scriabina, through granted by decree to the children they had together, was a courtesy title for her. Vera Ivanovna Scriabina (Isakovich), pianist, estranged wife of Scriabin;  Sergei Taneyev, composer, teacher; Princess Evgeniya Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya, early Russian aviatrix, follower of Rasputin; Boris de Schloezer, brother of Tatyana, close friend of Scriabin, author of a monograph about the composer (English edition: Scriabin: Artist and Mystic).

Engel’s rare footnotes to his text are marked Y. E. All others are the present translator’s.

Ancestors – Nikolai Alexandrovich Scriabin – Lyubov Petrovna Scriabin, her appearance, character, musical gift – their marriage – Birth of Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin – Death of his mother – father’s career – those who brought up Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin: Elizaveta Ivanovna Scriabina, Lyubov Alexandrovna Scriabin – music with Lyubov Alexandrovna Scriabina – attitude of his elders to Sasha – his character, activities, work – domestic theatre, ‘tragedies’ – first signs of musical gifts – love of musical instruments – inclinations towards  composition – ‘Lisa’ – beginning of musical ‘instruction’ – with Anton Rubinstein.

The Scriabins are an old family of the nobility, amongst whose members have always been many military people. The composer’s grandfather, Alexander Ivanovich Scriabin,[1] a colonel of artillery, lived in Moscow. From his marriage with Elizaveta Ivanovna Podchertkova he had eight children: seven sons and a daughter. The second of these sons, Nikolai Alexandrovich, was destined to become the father of the composer; the only daughter, Lyubov Alexandrovna, to be the closest of those bringing him up.

No member of the Scriabin family had dedicated himself to music, and evidently there were no outstanding musical gifts either. But nearly all of them had an ability for music. The composer’s father, all his uncles and his aunt were interested in music in one way or another. Some played from music, others by ear. The young boys studied at the cadets’ college, and there nearly all of them played in the orchestra, on the flute,  on the clarinet, on the cornet or violin. At Christmas and Easter they all met at home. Their father loved these noisy meetings, and so music resounded in the Scriabin household for whole days: they played, they sang, they danced. This music was, perhaps, often of a low standard in performance or repertoire, but it gave much pleasure to all, it proceeded merrily and in a friendly way. As will be evident later, Lyubov Alexandrovna studied music more seriously than anyone else in the family.

The composer’s father, Nikolai Alexandrovich, also played the piano and could read music; his musicality, though, could hardly be called outstanding. He was born in 1850 and educated in Moscow Gymnasium[2] no. 4. After graduating from there he entered the legal faculty of Moscow University. He was an energetic person, with a powerful character which towards the end became severe, almost despotic, concealing even his innate kindness from others. What he demanded had to be fulfilled.

As a student of the university, spending the summer as a guest on the estate of some friends (the Bernovs) he made the acquaintance of the pianist Lyubov Petrovna Shetinina, and it was she whom he married a few months later (probably at the beginning of 1871).[3]

Lyubov Petrovna was 22 years old at that time (she was born in 1849, coming into existence a year earlier than her husband.) Her father was the director of a State porcelain factory near Petrograd, her brother an artist, not without repute in his day, who spent his short life rather restlessly. Lyubov Petrovna, on leaving Leschetitzky’s class at Petrograd Conservatoire, was amongst the first students to graduate from there. She was considered to be his best pupil. On graduating, indeed, she received the ‘great artistic medal’.

As a student at the conservatoire she was a protégée of the Grand Princess Elena Pavlovna[4] owing to her outstanding abilities. The director of the Conservatoire, Anton Grigorievich Rubinstein, also got on with her very well. She called him ‘papasha’ and Nicolas Grigorievich Rubinstein ‘uncle’.

But, beyond music, Lyubov Petrovna was a very gifted person, responsive to everything, especially to questions of art. Her musical gifts, then, and her artistic characteristics as a composer she inherited from her mother; but from her father, surely, a strong will and persistence (to a high degree in matters of art; in other respects he was much more tractable).

Lyubov Petrovna’s significant, interesting face involuntarily attracted attention, but she could not be called a beauty. She had hair of an unusual ashen colour and black eyebrows. A large portrait of Lyubov Petrovna has been preserved, painted by her brother, the artist Shetinin. Latterly it always hung in Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin’s studio, above his writing table.[5] In the portrait is a young woman with a lively, open, sympathetic face, in the features of which – clearly soft, not prominent, but well-proportioned – there is a definite resemblance to the composer’s face at the same age.

On her graduation from the Conservatoire Lyubov Petrovna appeared in concerts in Petrograd and in provincial Russia. A programme printed on green silk has been preserved, of a concert she gave together with the singer Khvostova[6] on December 18 1870. Judging by the note, ‘Printed in the regional typographic works’, this concert took place in the provinces, in one of the principal towns (most likely in Saratov).[7] Lyubov Petrovna Shetinina appeared here in a demanding programme: she played two pieces by Liszt (the Fantasia on Rigoletto and a Hungarian Rhapsody), a Romance by Rubinstein and a Nocturne by Leschetitzky.

It was at about this time that Lyubov Petrovna and Nikolai Alexandrovich Scriabin were getting to know each other and becoming more intimate. Their marriage, though, was not destined to be long-lasting. Soon after their wedding the newly-weds moved to Saratov. Here Nikolai Alexandrovich tried being an advocate, a very tempting position then because of its novelty ­– there is no doubt that he did not work as a qualified lawyer, as he had left the university without completing the course. Probably, though, business in Saratov worked out poorly. In December 1871 the young couple set off for Moscow; by now it was clear that they had no intention of returning. At this period the time was approaching for Lyubov Petrovna to give birth to her first child. On the way, in the train, she became hot and several times went out onto the ploshadka,[8] breathed the frosty, windy air and immediately felt ill somehow. She was ill on arrival in Moscow and on the same day, at 2 in the morning, gave birth to a son, the future composer.

 This took place on December 25 exactly, on Christmas Day precisely. Later, Alexander Nikolaevich more than once pointed out this coincidence, attributing to it some special mystical significance. At that time, Alexander Nikolaevich’s parents lived close to the Pokrovsky barracks, in the Khiryakova house, which now does not exist. It was here, too, that Alexander Nikolaevich was born. He was christened on December 31 in the Сhurch of the three Holy Hierarchs at the Kulishki. As the birth certificate relates, the godparents were: Alexander Ivanovich Scriabin, colonel of artillery, i.e. the new-born child’s grandfather, and Maria Ivanovna Podchertkova, daughter of a naval lieutenant, i.e. the sister of the new-born’s grandmother.

Lyubov Petrovna recovered from the birth, but her illness seemed to be serious: a suspicious cough appeared after a few weeks, and the doctors diagnosed tuberculosis of the lungs. At first, the illness did not hinder Lyubov Petrovna from working at music; she played a lot, even preparing for concerts. During this time Nikolai Alexandrovich re-enrolled at university.

But the illness began to take on an ever more threatening turn. In September 1872, on the advice of the doctors, the patient was conveyed to South Tirol (Arco, a small town near Lake Garda). But even the last hope of a healing climate was not realised. In April 1873 Lyubov Petrovna died, in the arms of her husband, of the continuing consumption; it was there in Arco that they buried her. It should be mentioned that the children of Lyubov Petrovna’s sister all died of consumption.

After the death of his wife, Nikolai Alexandrovich graduated from university and afterwards moved to Petrograd, where he enrolled at the institute of foreign languages. It was hard to get into this institute, the breeding-ground for diplomatic representatives in the countries of the Orient. There were ten participants in all, enjoying various benefits and privileges. But, owing to his energy (he went himself to Prince Gorchakov),[9] Nikolai Alexandrovich got into the institute, graduated after two years (which was itself unusual) and took up the position of  dragoman[10] at the Russian embassy in Constantinople.

All of Nikolai Alexandrovich’s remaining foreign service took place in the East, in Turkey. After Constantinople he was vice-consul and consul (in Bitola, Adrianopolis, in Crete and elsewhere) and, finally, general consul in Erzerum. Clearly, he did not rise to a major position within the diplomatic profession. According to the accounts of those close to him, this came about because of his lack of compliance in relations with his ‘seniors’. However that may be, unfulfilled hopes rendered Nikolai Alexandrovich all the more reserved and severe. The latter quality was also fostered by the mores of the East, where everyone bowed to the Russian consul. Travelling from there to Moscow, he could not get used for a long time to the fact that passers-by bumped into him in the street as with anybody else. Earlier, before the Sublime Porte,[11] there was none of this.

About eight years after the death of Lyubov Petrovna (in about 1880) Nikolai Alexandrovich married for the second time: abroad, to a young Italian girl, Olga Ilinishna Fernandez. With her he had another four children: three sons (one died in the present war)[12] and a daughter. Amongst these children there were none with musical abilities. They were not even interested in music.

Every three years Nikolai Alexandrovich received four months’ leave and travelled with his family to Europe, spending his time in Russia, Switzerland and elsewhere. In this period he visited his son from the first marriage, and when the boy reached adolescence, sometimes took him along. On these occasions the lad had the chance to get to know his stepmother as well; she behaved very benevolently towards him. Toward the end of his life Nikolai Alexandrovich retired and settled in Switzerland, in Lausanne. It was here that he died on December 20 1914, just four months before his son’s death.

He evidently had little influence on the latter’s upbringing. They lived far from each other and rarely had the opportunity to spend time together.  In addition, Nikolai Alexandrovich was distant from art, in which his son had been from early years more and more consumingly interested. Their views on almost everything diverged, so that it was difficult for them to have discussions. Only at the end, when Alexander Nikolaevich became  a fully grown-up, mature person, more inclined to tolerance, his relations with his father took on a more intimate character. They began to see each other more often and by now could talk and argue in a friendly way; they rarely, though, completely agreed on anything. Not long before their deaths the two of them sought out the grave of Alexander Nikolaevich’s mother, Lyubov Petrovna Scriabina, in Arco.[13]

____________________

It was quite natural and inevitable  that Alexander Nikolaevich was not brought up by his father. In the house of his grandfather and grandmother the child was looked after from the very beginning in the comfort of a family, which he could not have had with his father, either when the latter was studying at the Institute or in distant Turkey. When his father married for the second time the lad was already ten years old. It would have been cruel to uproot him from his own  familiar surroundings, and besides, it was already time to send him to some educational establishment or other, for which purpose Turkey was once again not suitable. Thus the home of his grandfather and grandmother, where Alexander Nikolaevich was born and which he had then  not left for any length of time, completely replaced his parents’ home for him. At the beginning, while Alexander Nikolaevich’s grandfather was still alive, the lad did not require any material support from his father. When the grandfather died (1879) and his pension was reduced, Alexander’s father began to provide the means for his upkeep. But Alexander Nikolaevich was in reality brought up by his grandmother Elizaveta Ivanovna and especially by his aunt Lyubov Alexandrovna.

Elizaveta Ivanovna did not die until December 22 1915, just the other day,[14] in her ninety-third year.  She was a wise and outstanding woman; an upright, energetic, person of the old school, to whom, as they say, one bowed and went willingly. Her sister Mariya Ivanovna, Alexander Nikolaevich’s godmother, always lived with her. Thus it was that Alexander Nikolaevich had two grandmothers who loved him and cared for him equally.

Elizaveta Ivanovna’s only daughter Lyubov Alexandrovna always lived with her (and lives with her to this day).[15] When Alexander Nikolaevich was born she was twenty-one years old.

She was educated at the boarding-school of Larme and Maga, which occupied the very same building in which, after radical reconstruction, the Moscow Conservatoire is now situated. Lyubov Alexandrovna had a great love of music but never studied the basics. In boarding-school she usually had piano lessons from Moiss and Krall, but it was arranged that each boarder could only play the piano for half an hour per day. At the age of fourteen she started to go to the recently founded symphonic concerts of the Russian Musical Society, and this contributed greatly to her musical development. She greatly loved Beethoven and “maybe well, maybe badly, but I played many of his sonatas”. With her friend she played through all the Beethoven symphonies, and also other pieces which she obtained from a music library. Lyubov Alexandrovna never got used to studying anything “thoroughly”, but sometimes she played for whole days at a time and she read music well. Lyubov Alexandrovna’s music-making  was  “put into order” to some extent by Alexander Nikolaevich’s mother Lyubov Petrovna during those few months that they were allotted to live together. Lyubov Petrovna worked with Lyubov Alexandrovna at that time: “she got her to study a few Beethoven sonatas properly.” Without doubt, little Scriabin heard about all of this later.

Having graduated from the boarding school, Lyubov Alexandrovna prepared for the history course of the Ladies’ Gymnasium no. 3 with the help of Nikolai Alexandrovich (the brother who was older than her by two or three years was her closest friend).

From the moment that her beloved brother’s son appeared in the world, Lyubov Alexandrovna helped with his care. In the first three years of  Alexander Nikolaevich’s life he was cared for principally by his grandmother,  who had the essential experience for this which Lyubov Alexandrovna lacked. When the child reached the age of three Lyubov Alexandrovna completed his formative training “and begged the grandmother to give her over fully to Sasha’s care”, all the more so as this gave the grandmother more freedom for her complex obligations regarding the housekeeping. With her tender care and close concern Lyubov Alexandrovna took the place of a mother for Sasha,  and devoted her life to her foster-child and her mother. It was not by chance that to the end of his days Alexander Nikolaevich preserved his warmest and most grateful love for her and indeed for both his grandmothers.

Scriabin’s childhood was passed in these soft, feminine surroundings of the old patriarchal order. There is no doubt that this was connected to some extent with a degree of femininity in Scriabin’s character, even of a pampered nature, one might say, which was manifested even in his appearance and his manner. Later he himself regretted that the atmosphere in which he grew up lacked elements of masculinity.

The grandmother and the aunt adored their Sasha, and the source of their love was not just closeness of relation. This was a child who involuntarily attracted the sympathy of all who had to do with him: soft and at the same time persistent, fond and loving fondness, swift in comprehension and nervously sensitive to impressions. It was difficult to deny him anything. Neither grandmother nor aunt forbade him. They were delighted with all his fancies and tried to fulfil all his wishes. From childhood the lad was used to seeing that all he did found approval and that he was the centre of interest for those around him.

He had no child friends, indeed he did not like them, preferring to be with adults or to occupy himself with something or other. At the age of about five he learned his letters with his grandmother during the absence of his aunt, who was unconditionally obliged to “go away” or even to leave completely for a short time. Then Lyubov Alexandrovna began to work with him a little on reading, taught him writing and penmanship.[16] At about seven he could already read and write. One did not need to make him do anything – either during the lesson hour or anything else. He got on himself with whatever was appropriate and in general did not like to remain idle.

Despite this, however, he never liked to stay alone in a room.[17] Either someone sat with him, or his little table and chair were carried in to the older people’s room, and there, taking no notice of anyone, he got on with his own business: he looked at pictures, wrote, drew, pasted, did fretwork, – and all of these, usually, with great enthusiasm.

He brought elements of his own initiative into all these tasks; even then he worked from patterns and models of some kind. Once he conceived a wish to embroider on a tambour-frame, like his aunt. He was given canvases, threads, but he did not want to embroider on a ready-made pattern but to work out his own, which he then embroidered. Lyubov Alexandrovna preserved a cushion with this embroidery for a long time. He also made use of his fretsaw work for his own tasks (toy grand pianos).

But the lad showed individual and inexhaustible imagination in dramatic scenes, which he put on in his own room with the help of a toy theatre and, later, without it. The Scriabins had a subscription to the Bolshoi Theatre and early on, from the age of five, Lyubov Alexandrovna  also began taking her foster-child to the opera often. The lad fell passionately in love with the stage.  The family started buying  toy theatres with ready-made scenery, little figures and scenarios. But he was not particularly fond of ready-made scenarios; instead, he made up his own or tried to put on stage what he was reading. For example, once he dramatized Gogol’s ‘The Nose’. The spectators were his grandmother and aunt, who usually were delighted with the productions. Later he also began to construct something more like a real stage scene, even with wings at the sides.

Besides dramatisations of what he had read, he also put on his own original ‘tragedies’, partly in prose, partly in verse, which he began to compose at the age of about seven. While writing these ‘tragedies’ (always in the presence of other people, at his little table) he ‘became passionately enthusiastic, jumped up, began to declaim, gesticulating, sat down again and wrote further.’ With all this it often occurred that somewhere in Act Three (that is to say, long before the end, which, of course, was not supposed to occur till Act Five) none of the characters was left alive: they had either died of their own accord or had killed each other. ‘And then, grieved by this outcome which he himself had not expected, began to lament: “Aunt, there’s no-one left to act.”’

Scriabin’s childhood verses and plays were preserved for a long time by Lyubov Alexandrovna, but at the time of the great Moscow flood[18] they perished together with all his childhood letters (the whole correspondence with his father).

The lad’s musical abilities showed themselves very early – already at four, or, more accurately, in his fourth year. His aural ability and musical memory were already striking then. As a lad of five he could easily pick up everything he liked.

In 1877, at the time of the Russo-Turkish War, the boy, together with older boys, accompanied his uncle to the war; his uncle was serving in a regiment of the Izmailovsky guard. At the station an orchestra played a quadrille which was popular then, ‘Byushki’.

On returning home the lad picked it out on the piano; he was not yet six years old. Besides the piano, he also picked out what he heard on other instruments which came to hand: on the violin, on the guitar, on the ocarina.

In Sviblov, where the Scriabins were living at that time in a dacha, he put together something in the nature of an orchestra of little boys, giving each of them a mirliton,[19] a drum etc.

They all sang through these mirlitons, and the five-year-old organiser and inspirer conducted with impassioned enthusiasm (some sort of waltz).[20]

He loved the piano passionately from his earliest years, and not only the music which came from it but the instrument itself. One of his favourite activities was to study the mechanism of the grand piano, its construction from the inside and the outside. He would climb under the piano, considering, listening and observing for a long time.

His favourite outing was – to the music shop. He usually went on this outing with his uncle who was already retired and living quietly in his own house, in the Zlatouskovsky pereulok (side-street). He was a gentle, quiet person who loved children very much. He died when the composer-to-be was six. Uncle and nephew were great friends. Almost every day, when the weather allowed, they set off on foot from the Zlatouskovsky pereulok to the Kuznetsky Most, to the music shop of Meikov, where, amongst other things, Lyubov Petrovna was enrolled in the music hire library.[21] Here Sasha was already well-known and a source of great interest. He cultivated and studied almost every instrument, and in the shop were not only pianos. Sometimes he sat down immediately at a piano and started to play something, improvising, and while he did so he was extremely satisfied if people listened to him with attention.

He also made tiny pianos with great enthusiasm and skill, making not only the lid, the pedals etc., but even the cross-stringing and something which represented the action. In this he was greatly helped by his skill with a fretsaw, which he had been very enthusiastic about at one time. The piano at home was for the child not an object but like something with a soul. When the instrument was being moved the lad was so agitated and frightened by the alarming groaning sounds that he would run off into another room, hide his head under a cushion and stay like that until the piano had been carried out of the house. Sometimes before going to sleep he would kiss the beloved piano as if it were an icon.

The lad showed inclinations towards composition almost from the moment that he first sat down at the piano. He would improvise, not understanding musical notation. In his child’s theatre he would put on not only dramas but also plays with singing, something in the nature of ‘operas’. The history of these is as follows.

At the age of about seven or eight Sasha Scriabin was taken to a children’s party at the house of acquaintances. One of the little girls, Leizinka (Lisa) Ivanova, clearly made a strong impression upon him; right there at the party he gave her a handkerchief of batiste,[22] one of a set which had been sent by his father from Paris. The next day Leizinka’s mother returned the handkerchief to Lyubov Alexandrovna – why break up the set! Thus it was that Sasha and Leizinka’s acquaintance ceased. But it had clearly left a trace in the lad’s soul; he composed an ‘opera’ on this occasion (with a similar romantic theme) and even called it ‘Lisa’.

There were days when he spent whole hours at the piano, contriving to rub holes in the soles of his shoes by means of the pedals. ‘And that’s how those soles burned up, they burn up’,  Lyubov Alexandrovna would sometimes complain. The purchase of new footwear for Sasha (and in general of everything new) threatened especial bother: when it was necessary to go to a shop, he always turned out to be busy with something or other, and to drag him there for a boring fitting was extremely difficult; it was necessary to bring things to the house and there to choose what was suitable.

Nonetheless, when Lyubov Alexandrovna tried to teach the lad musical notation the matter did not go as smoothly as expected. To delve into notation seemed boring to him, he did not have the patience, and he did not so much look at the notes as remember how the piece sounded when it was played. But in the house it was not acceptable to make him work at anything against his wish. Thus it was that one half of his musical literacy was faulty, and he had no wish whatever to play from notation, preferring to play everything by ear or to improvise.

When he was about seven he was taken to see Anton Rubinstein. ‘Don’t trouble the child’, Rubinstein said, ‘let him develop freely, with time everything will come of itself.’ These words encouraged Lyubov Alexandra even more not to make Sasha learn his notes, but to leave this matter to the natural course of events.  


[1] 1811 – May 5, 1879. Y.E.

[2] English equivalent: grammar or secondary school.

[3] This uncertainty as to the marriage date is puzzling. Aunt Lyubov was very close to her brother (see below). It seems she would have known the date, unless the marriage was  in secret or, possibly, in haste.

[4] 1807–1873. Born in Germany as Princess Friederike Marie, she received the name Elena and adopted the patronymic Pavlovna on joining the Russian Orthodox church. Her father was Prince Paul of Württemburg. She married Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich of Russia. After his death in 1849 she became a noted patron of the arts, and in 1862 she founded the St. Petersburg Conservatoire with Anton Rubinstein.

[5] It is still there and can be studied by visitors to the Scriabin Museum, Moscow.

[6] Anna Pavlovna Polyakova-Khvostova (1846–1904), one of Tchaikovsky’s first interpreters in St Petersburg and the dedicatee of ‘None but the Lonely Heart’ (Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal). She had a considerable reputation as a performer of Russian music and became a respected teacher.

[7] Russia before 1929 was divided into gubernii (‘governances’; gubernator = ‘governor’) roughly equivalent to English counties. Saratov was a gubernskii gorod, a ‘provincial town’, meaning the principal town of the province.

[8] The small open platform at each end of the carriage.

[9] Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov (1798–1883) was for more than thirty years the Russian Minister of foreign affairs and for twenty years Chancellor of the Russian Empire.

[10] Interpreter or guide.

[11] The Sublime or Ottoman Porte was the gate leading to the central government buildings of Istanbul. It became a metonym for the government of the Ottoman Empire.

[12] i.e. the First World War. The late Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh was descended from this branch of the family; he referred to A. N. Scriabin, writing to me, as his uncle.

[13] This expedition was described in a letter to Tatyana de Schloezer, his life-partner, by Alexander Nikolaevich. A. V. Kashperov, ed. A. N. Scriabin: Pis’ma [Letters]. Moscow: Muzyka, 1965/2003. p. 613–614. Before September 30 (old style) 1913. ‘I should like to share with you the complicated feeling which has possession of me. Complicated and new for me. But how? It is impossible to speak of it. I should like to communicate it in another way. I regret that you didn’t know the exact time of my visit to the cemetery, in that case I  am certain you would simply have seen all that I experienced at the dear grave. My little darling, I have been suffering much in these days [spent with his father] and the trip to Arco has brought me some relief. I shall tell you of this only when we meet again!’ 

[14] It will be remembered that the issue of Muzykal’nyi sovremennik in which Engel’s biography appeared went to press in January 1916 or possibly the end of 1915. The date on the title page is 1916, but it was common practice to sell journals at the end of the year with the next year’s date on them. This really was ‘just the other day’ for Engel.

[15] Further evidence that the note of Elizaveta Ivanovna’s death was added in haste at the last stage of preparation: this sentence was not brought into line with it.

[16]  Engel’s word is ‘kalligrafiya’, fine or beautiful writing. Scriabin’s handwriting as a young man was frequently hasty, but in maturity his formal, very individual  handwriting and his musical manuscripts were calligraphic masterpieces.

[17] Compare the notebook of 1904–5: ‘I alone exist, the apparent multiplicity is called up by my creative imagination. […] What horror to come to such a conclusion! I am alone!’ Nicholls and Pushkin, The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, p 94.

[18] 1908.

[19] I have given the French equivalent for the Russian ‘paper flute’. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines this instrument as ‘a device in which sound waves produced by the player’s voice or by an instrument vibrate a membrane, thereby imparting a buzzing quality to the vocal or instrumental sound.’ The Russians stretch paper over a short tube, down which one sings. The effect is very like a comb and paper or the modern kazoo. Tchaikovsky idealises it magically by means of three flutes in the ‘Danse des mirlitons’ from the  Nutcracker, locating the instrument in the world of childhood.

[20] In her own account of this incident (written later) Lyubov Petrovna recalled that the five-year-old Scriabin was appalled by the noise of his orchestra and vowed never again to subject himself to anything similar. Notebooks p. 8, quoting Lyubov Petrovna’s ‘Memoirs’ in S. Markus (ed.), A. N. Skryabin:1915–1940; Sbornik k 25-letiyu so dnya smerti. Moscow/Leningrad: State Music Publishers 1940 p.11.

[21] See above in the account of her time in the boarding-school.

[22] Fine linen or cotton.


[1] Materials for this outline were presented to me most willingly by the following, to whom I offer deep gratitude: A. N. Brianchaninov, E. A. Cooper, B. P. Jurgenson, G. E. Konyus, L. E. Konyus, S. A. Kussevitsky, M. S. Lunts, M. K. Morozova, A. A. Podgayetsky, S. V. Rachmaninov, E. K. Rozenov, L. L. Sabaneyev, V. I. Safonov, L. A. Scriabina, T. F. Scriabina, V. I. Scriabina, Princess  E. M. Shakhovskaya, B. F. Shlëtser [Boris de Schloezer],the late S. I. Taneyev. From printed sources I made use of biographical materials from the short work A. N. Scriabin and his creative work by E. O. Gunst and of the article by  L. Sabaneyev, ‘Scriabin and the idea of the Mystery’ (Voice of Moscow, April 1915). Y. E.