Monthly Archives: August 2022

Yulii Engel Biography of Scriabin Chapter IV

IV. First Strides


(up to Scriabin’s professorship at the Conservatoire)

On the threshold of independent life – Scriabin’s self-confidence – External conditions of his life – The Rachmanov family – E. K. Rozenov ­­–  Allegro Appasionato, op. 4 – Fantasia for piano and orchestra – First works published (by Jurgenson) – Scriabin and Belyayev become acquainted – their trip abroad – Scriabin in Paris – First appearances in Russia –  A. K. Lyadov – Natalya Sekerina –  M. K. F. – Vera Isakovich – Scriabin marries Vera Isakovich – their journey – Prizes from ‘a secret lover of music’ – Return to Russia.

On leaving the Conservatoire Scriabin was in that difficult position in which every performer finds himself when he first swims out independently into the sea of life.  From the narrow atmosphere of an establishment where, one way or another, the specific gravity of every young talent has been defined, where everyone knows him and values him, the performer comes to land in a new, broad arena where every stride must be fought for. In order to recognise a new performer, one must first get to know him, i.e. must go to hear him – and, as we all know, the public only likes to go where the public is already going.

Scriabin must have especially felt the difficulty of such a situation, as he was already distinctly conscious of his unique gifts at that time, a consciousness which with the passing years was to grow ever more intensive and keen, finally growing into a Titanic pride – pathological, one might say in a different case.

‘At the age of twenty I was already convinced that I would do something great’, Scriabin would say in mature years. ‘It’s curious, because then I was a cheeky little boy with nothing to fall back on except self-confidence.’

This inner, unyielding self-assurance was allied in Scriabin to unusually soft, delicate external manners, which, especially in the composer’s younger years, could in the first minute even produce an impression of shyness or confusion on those who did not know him.  But despite this, his haughty self-confidence made a reputation of excessive egotism for him with many people. For example, an opinion of this kind is expressed of the young Scriabin in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Chronicle’: ‘a star of the first magnitude, somewhat warped, a poseur, an egoist.’

In any case, self-assurance on this level could not at the very first stages find a broad sympathetic response, which, to be sure, prepared personal disappointments for Scriabin. But on the other hand that very same self-assurance also lightened these disappointments. Thanks to it Scriabin never wavered.

He might change his path, renounce one thing, become enthusiastic over another, but he was always filled with the deep conviction that at that moment what he was doing was the best, the most important, the most splendid. And if he met with a doubting or rejecting attitude in others, then he always judged the other person to be in error and lost his regard for that person. It was so, as we have seen, with Arensky, and with many others with whom Scriabin associated himself and with whom he parted on his life’s path.

And here getting to know Belyayev well played a major role for Scriabin. In Belyayev Scriabin soon found not only a generous publisher and patron but also an astute and warm supporter of his talent – a combination which has not so often been found on the path of gifted young people. But Scriabin had to take his first artistic strides, in the professions both of composer and of pianist, before his acquaintance with Belyayev.

At that time (on graduating from the Conservatoire) he was living with his aunt and grandmother, on the Ostozhenka, in the same flat and in just the same way as when he was still at the Conservatoire. Scriabin’s way of life remained more or less solitary until his marriage, when he parted with his grandmother and aunt and began his own domestic life.

After the Conservatory the right hand which he had ‘worn out by playing’ continued to give him pain for a fairly long while. At that time (1893) he wore red woollen long-sleeved mittens on both hands; they were obviously home-knitted and immediately caught the eye.

When playing in public, he pointed out his right hand to the audience before beginning the performance, as if asking their indulgence. He was thin, pale, green in complexion and looked ill in general. Later he recovered and began to look better.

E.K. Rozenov, who had got to know Scriabin well sometime after the latter’s graduation from the Conservatoire, describes his domestic surroundings at that time thus:

‘Family life with the Scriabins was a patriarchy. He was not keen to entertain at home; he was too embarrassed by the fact that the occupants of the house were all women. He preferred to acquaint people with his music elsewhere. I first made his acquaintance at the house of D. S. Shor,[1]with whom Scriabin was studying at that time (1887), according to an arrangement  made with Safonov before he left. After one of these evening lessons with Shor Scriabin played his Etude op. 8 no. 2, in a simpler version than the one published later, and two mazurkas, of which one was the E major [op. 3 no. 4].

Scriabin was particularly fond of visiting the Rachmanovs. This was almost a complete family: father, mother, one son and two daughters were there. Scriabin introduced me to the young Rachmanov (Alexander Sergeevich) and I started to visit them from that time.’

The Rachmanovs were living at the Plyushikhs’. These were people of means. Among other things they had a billiards room, and Scriabin loved to play a little billiards. He was a great friend of Rachmanov; they committed various pranks together, and indeed they were not averse to getting thoroughly, reeling drunk.

Scriabin was similarly friendly about that time with Nikolai Konstantinovich Averino.[2]

Scriabin sometimes played his own works in the evenings at the Rachmanovs’, for example the Allegro Appassionato which was written at that time and was later published as op. 4.

This Allegro was to have been the first movement of a sonata, of which Scriabin was not able to write the finale; thus, it stands alone. The first version of this Allegro, as E. K. Rozenov categorically affirms, goes back to 1887. He says that the Allegro Apassionato op. 4 differs from the original Allegro of the projected sonata in the significant expansion of the second subject area in both its appearances, which was connected with other expansions and additions. In Rozenov’s opinion, the Allegro Appassionato only gained by these subsequent interpolations; he himself pointed this out to Scriabin, also asking him to write down the Sonata to the end. But Scriabin did not ‘heed the prayers’ of Rozenov.[3]

A copy of the Allegro Appassionato is in Rozenov’s possession, written out in his hand from the original (with the date April 4 1894, i.e. before this piece was in print.)  He wrote it out in order to perform it in a concert for a circle of amateurs of Russian music (in Gunst’s house, at Ostozhenka.) By the way, this was the first performance of music by Scriabin by another artist than himself. (At about the same time I heard the Allegro Appassionato performed by Rozenov in a concert given by a Conservatoire student, the cellist Dubinsky, at the Conservatoire’s hall at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Y. Engel’.)[4] Scriabin looked over Rozenov’s copy of the Allegro Appassionata and made corrections to it.

On this occasion, Rozenov relates, Scriabin ‘wrote “to E. K. Rozenov”’ on the manuscript, describing this as a dedication. But he never, before or after this, put into print the names of those to whom he dedicated his works – probably on principle, so that these pieces would not be mistaken for Gelegenheitsstücke [occasional works].

[35] Rozenov, though, does have the following manuscript of Scriabin from that time: a fantasia for piano and orchestra (the orchestra part arranged for second piano), completely finished, though perhaps not fully revised. This fantasia, unknown until now, is in a single movement. Some things in it (for example, the types of figuration) are related to the Allegro Appassionato op. 4.

It was not long before this, in 1893, that Scriabin’s works appeared in print. These were short piano pieces, for the most part written, and some of them even finished, while Scriabin was still at the Conservatoire: op. 1 (a waltz), op. 2 (three pieces), op. 3 (ten mazurkas), op. 5 (two nocturnes). They were published in Moscow by P. Jurgenson.

In Evgeny Gunst’s short book [A. N. Skryabin i ego tvorchestvo, ‘Scriabin and his works’, 1915] it is stated that this all happened while Scriabin was still at the Conservatoire. If this were the case, it would indicate an unusual success in composition for Scriabin while still within the Conservatory, not to mention the break with Arensky, who had not allowed Scriabin to graduate in this course. In actual fact, this was not so. Documents establish the genuine date which is given above.  Like nearly all beginning composers at that time, Scriabin received no fee for his first published works.[5] But they attracted general attention. The composer’s talent, bright, though not yet defined, could be discerned in these works; their fresh style of pianism, with its Chopinesque refinement, attracted the attention of many people who had not previously known Scriabin’s music or knew it very little.

Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev should be named first among such people. The major role in the history of Russian music played by this patron is well known; he founded Russian concert series, a Russian publishing house, and a fund for the support of Russian composers. A whole circle of composers of the 1880s and 1890s was even named after Belyayev. This circle was consisted of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Lyadov, the Blumenfeld brothers, N. Sokolov, Vitol, Dyutsh, also Victor Stasov and others. This is understandable, for, if Belyayev was not the musical head of the circle, he was without doubt its centre, and it was in his house that the group usually met. This rich ‘business-guest’, a cordial and hospitable householder, loved music wholeheartedly; kind, direct to the point of harshness, sometimes of coarseness, he could seem to others like a petty tyrant, but also had a soft-hearted side. An original, uncomplicated personality, a fiery dedication [36] to art, striving to spend one’s riches not extravagantly but as a means to the achievement of an elevated, non-mercenary goal – these were the especially attractive qualities of Belyayev.

Belyayev had a high opinion of Scriabin’s works from his very first acquaintance with them. He was especially supported in this by Lyadov, who adored Chopin and straight away saw in Scriabin Chopin’s successor, so to speak. But when Belyayev heard Scriabin in his first concert in Petersburg (spring 1894), where among other things some of the op. 8 etudes were played, still in manuscript at that time, and among them the D sharp minor, he was carried away with enthusiasm and hastened to get to know the composer himself,[6] proposed to put the services of his publishing house at Scriabin’s disposal and swiftly headed for Moscow, in order to get to know Scriabin’s family there.

Scriabin was very eager to accept Belyayev’s offer: in the first place, Belyayev undertook to publish all Scriabin’s works, not just the short ones, but also the large-scale ones; in the second place, Belyayev was offering a fee which exceeded Scriabin’s expectations; in fact, Scriabin, in confusion, even proposed that the fee be lowered; and thirdly, the unusual personality of this business man and propagandist of Russian music was also attractive to Scriabin. Without his family, which as before managed all Scriabin’s affairs, he did not want to undertake anything decisively.  But, of course, the family were also glad of Belyayev’s proposal. Very soon Belyayev established the best of relations with Scriabin’s auntie and granny.

Lyubov Alexandrovna even became, so to speak, the closest intermediary between Scriabin and Belyayev. It was a matter of Scriabin’s being  absent-minded, disinclined to be orderly; he was careless in correcting his manuscripts, omitted to date his letters and in general did not like writing letters; Belyayev, on the contrary, as a genuine businessman, demanded punctuality, thoroughness and orderliness. From this foundation arose misunderstandings, until Lyubov Alexandrovna took upon herself the obligation of a responsible correspondent, who kept Belyayev au courant with Scriabin’s musical and other affairs.[7]

The large-scale works which had been composed or sketched considerably earlier were the first to be published by Belyayev. These were: the first sonata, op. 6 (started in 1892, appeared 1895), the twelve studies op. 8 (some of these relate to his time at the Conservatoire; they also came out in 1895), the already-mentioned Allegro Appassionato op. 4 and other pieces.

At that time Belyayev immediately started to pay Scriabin a good fee for those days: 200 roubles for the sonata, fifty roubles for a prelude and so on. Scriabin did not need this money for daily necessities. He was unacquainted with need at this time (as in all the years of his youth): after his grandfather’s death, his father gave all that was [37] necessary for his upbringing, and, in addition, Scriabin’s grandmother and aunt lived sufficiently well, if not luxuriously. But a fee provided the possibility (mostly in summer) of living outside Moscow (abroad, in Finland, in Crimea), to travel, ‘to look at people and to show oneself’, which Scriabin loved so much and which was so essential to a young talent.

However, this matter – ‘to show’ Scriabin ‘to people’ – also took over Belyaev’s energies from the beginning. He organised Scriabin’s first big overseas concert tour (1895 and 96), during which he himself accompanied the composer, not abandoning him even on the concert platform. Belyaev’s enormous, heavy figure alongside Scriabin’s small, well-proportioned figure, according to the accounts of people who remember these concerts, produced the impression of an unwieldy case alongside the fragile instrument which had been taken out of it.

Belyaev exhibited Scriabin first to Switzerland (in June 1895 they stayed in Vitznau, on the Vierwaldstättersee,[8]) near to Italy and to the sea; before that they were in Germany (Heidelberg, Dresden and Berlin among other places). Concerts given in 1896 were Germany (Berlina and elsewhere), Belgium (Brussels), Holland (Amsterdam) but mainly in Paris.

In the programme of the first Paris concert (‘piano-récital par Scriabine, pianist-compositeur russe’), in the Salle Erard, January 15th 1896, were: preludes from op. 11, Allegro appassionato op. 4, études from op. 8 (including the D sharp minor), mazurkas, impromptus, nocturne and a Presto (the finale of the second sonata, not yet published). In the following concert (January 18th in the same place) Scriabin played the same pieces for the most part (études, etc.), and some different ones (impromptu à la mazur and others.) In general, the Paris press was sympathetic to Scriabin, some of it ecstatic even.

Eugène George in ‘La libre critique’ (1894, no. 4) wrote of Scriabin: ‘Une nature d’élite, aussi eminent compositeur, que pianiste; aussi intellectuel, comme philosophe; tout nerf et sainte flamme’.  [‘One of the chosen, as eminent a composer as a pianist; as intellectual as a philosopher; all nerve and sacred flame’.]

Gustave Doret wrote: ‘Toutes ses compositions dénotent une personalité incontestable et il dégage de son jeu ce charme si particulier et indéfinissable de[s] Slaves, les premiers pianists du monde. Scriabine – rappelez-vous bien ce nom!’ [‘All his compositions show an indubitable personality and his playing communicates that charm which is so particular and indefinable – the property of the Slavs, the first pianists in the world. Scriabin – remember this name well!] Even Boisard, less favourably disposed, finishes thus (Jan 15 1896): ‘Il y manque le caractère et la personalité… Un écho de Chopin… Somme tout, – il ne faut pas oublier le nom de cet intéressant artiste, qui sûrement ne se laissera pas oublier.’ [‘There is a lack of character and personality… an echo of Chopin… All in all, the name of this interesting artist must not be forgotten; he certainly will not let himself be forgotten.’]

The ‘Guide Musical’ (Jan 19 1896) remarks upon the ‘plus extremes limites de la finesse’ [‘the most extreme limits of finesse’] in Scriabin’s playing.

[38] In general, Scriabin found warm admiration for his talent early on in Paris, and for that reason was eager to go there and spend time there.

During one of these visits (before Scriabin was married) the following curious episode took place. I heard it from Rozenov, who was told of it by Alexander Nikolaevich himself. A musical evening was taking place at the house of a certain musical patron, G. Doret.[9] Various people took part. Among others was some tall scarecrow of a pianist wearing a lilac necktie, with dishevelled hair; while he was playing, a contrivance of special lamps in various colours alternately lit up and dimmed. Scriabin found the music revolting and cacophonous.  When the composer in the lilac necktie approached him, Scriabin repeated to him exactly the same harmonies, but with a softer expressive quality, after showing him some separate, curious but unconnected quartal harmonies. Lilac necktie remarked: ‘I also don’t worry about connections, but just yield entirely to the hypnosis of inspiration, of the colours.’ Scriabin: ‘All that is very well, if a person is distinguished by a higher gift. But everything depends on that “if”.’ During the ensuing conversation Scriabin sat down at the piano, played four bars or so (by Haydn) and asked his interlocutor to repeat them. The ‘scarecrow’ became confused, could not manage and was very embarrassed. On the walk home they discussed what had happened. Lilac necktie begged: ‘Don’t harm me! What should I do? Je suis un pauvre diable and I keep going thanks to the support of M. Doret’ (a protector of decadents and a musical critic.)

I have little information about Scriabin’s early appearances in Russia. Apart from the concert in Petrograd mentioned above, we may also indicate a concert in Moscow, March 11 1895 (études op.8, nocturne in D flat, for the most part preludes which were not understood by the public because of their shortness. The majority of the audience was unresponsive. The nocturne for the left hand had the greatest success); concerts on April 27 in Nizhny Novgorod and October 11 in Odessa, at I.R.P.M, the symphonic society.[10]

The last-mentioned concert is interesting for the fact that it was here that Scriabin first played his piano concerto, just finished that summer. In the programme the following was communicated concerning Scriabin (among other things): ‘besides a negligible quantity of childhood [?] pieces published by Jurgenson, [the following are] printed by Belyayev (list follows).’ On this occasion Scriabin played with very weak tone, owing to an over-fatigued hand. The public only liked the middle movement (variations).

Works by Scriabin soon began to be performed in concerts by other artists: S. Druker (1895),

Ivanovskaya-Zadesskaya (Paris 1896), Joseph Hoffman (from 1897 on) and others. In 1895 Fyodor Koenemann even played Skryabin’s first sonata in his Conservatoire graduation – indeed, he played it every year.[11]

When Scriabin was in Petrograd he stayed with Belyayev, who treated him with fatherly care and tenderness. Later, relations progressed to establishing a custom that on November 23 (Belyayev’s name day) Scriabin went to Petrograd every year and stayed with Belyayev a few days or even a week (Belyayev also celebrated on November 27, the anniversary of the first performances of both Glinka’s operas.)  On these occasions Scriabin, who was always eager to sit down at the piano if people were listening attentively, played a great deal, usually his own works.

Apart from Belyayev himself, other members of the circle also got on well with Scriabin, especially Lyadov. Lyadov adored both Scriabin, with whom he was on familiar ‘ty’ terms, and his music (but only up to op.50.) He would even look through Scriabin’s manuscripts and proofs, which were usually distinguished by a large number of errors, and corrected them, not without curses – which was a rare occurrence for him. Thus, in the second sonata he modified the two bars leading back to the reprise in his own manner, and it was in that condition that they still exist.

At one time, not long after the period of his graduation, Scriabin was assiduously studying Beethoven’s sonatas, principally from the aspect of form, about which he was always strict, as in all technical matters. He was particularly interested in the modulatory plan and the development sections of Beethoven, and in examining these he came to interesting deductions. He discovered that in Beethoven the modulations are always attracted to the tonalities of the scale steps, the development being based on different tonalities from those in the exposition; at that time Scriabin regarded this as exemplary. He came to these deductions, which were new for him,[12] through his own experimentation and study; they were especially dear to him for this reason.

The first experiment in sonata form, the Allegro Appassionato op. 4, was not achieved easily;

Later, things went more smoothly. The second sonata (sonata-fantasia), begun in 1892, was not published until 1897. Scriabin himself said that it was created while under the impression of the sea. The first movement is a quiet southern night by the seashore. In the development the sea is dark, troubled and deep. The section in E major represents caressing moonlight after the darkness. The second movement (Presto) represents the broad expanse of a stormily agitated sea.

The third sonata was not originally the present one in F sharp minor, but a different one in G sharp minor, the ‘Gothic’. It was written approximately in 1895. At that time Scriabin had the intention of composing a few sonatas in various styles. One of them was the ‘Gothic’, written while under the impression of the ruins of a fortress, and was reckoned by [40] the composer to be his ‘third.’ At that time Scriabin played this sonata, almost complete, to Emilii Rozenov. He had no doubts of any sort about it – unless, perhaps, on account of some details of voice leading. Rozenov says that it was an outstanding composition.

One summer (1894 or 1895) Scriabin was visiting the estate of Zenino, which belonged to E. K. Rozenov (near the Lyubertsy station).[13] There he composed, among other things, he composed one mazurka without use of the piano, which was published later. The mazurka op. 3 no. 2 was also composed there; the autograph (which differs slightly from the published version) was preserved by Rozenov.

The romance by Scriabin to his own words (Хотел бы я мечтой прекрасный в твоей душе хоть миг побыть) [recte пожить] [‘Would that I might, as a beautiful dream, live within your soul, if only for a moment’] is dedicated to N. V. S –a.[14] The S. family had a society salon, chief ornament of which was the youthful, lovely and refined N.V.S. (half Italian by descent), who was afterwards married to M. and later to G.[15] Scriabin was seriously in love with her (for several years), and this love was favourably received, though not by N. V.S’ mother, who did not consider Scriabin a ‘match’ for her daughter. When N.V.S. was living on her mother’s estate in the summer (in the Kursk province), she corresponded with Scriabin, sent him dried flowers, which he carried with him and kissed.

In the summer of 1894, when Scriabin was staying with Rozanov, she sent him a letter with an invitation to come to their estate. Scriabin, though, did not go, offended that the invitation did not come from N. V. S’ mother. Rozenov says, despite all this, that the Romance dedicated to N. V. S. is very weak, ‘in officer style’ [like the composition of an army officer who is a musical amateur].[16]

At the time of his travels abroad (with Belyayev, in 1896) S.’s image had long dimmed in Scriabin’s imagination.[17]

Another serious infatuation of Scriabin’s also relates to this period. In Paris he got to know a certain M.K.F., who was living there with her parents. She was brilliant in exterior appearance, a very interesting, educated girl (a Russian).  She became engaged to Scriabin, but they soon parted…

A year later, in 1897, a decisive turning point took place in Scriabin’s life: he married Vera Ivanovna Isakovich.

A young, brilliant pianist who had graduated from Moscow Conservatoire only that spring (with a gold medal), from P. Yu. Pabst’s class,[18] Vera Ivanovna entered the Moscow Conservatoire in the summer of the year in which Scriabin graduated (1892).

They met on December 6th 1893, at a pupils’ evening in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein, where Vera Ivanovna, among others, was playing. At this first meeting, Scriabin said: ‘While you were playing, I was thinking: here at last is a female pianist to whom I can listen [41] with pleasure.’ At that time Vera Ivanovna was staying (as she did throughout her study at the Conservatoire) in the family of Professor Pavel de Schloezer,[19] where she was surrounded, one might say, by a family atmosphere. Scriabin was also a visitor. Safonov brought him there for the first time with the words: ‘I have brought to you my treasure.’

Later Scriabin began to meet with Vera Ivanovna more often; on these occasions he played his compositions to her, told her of his aims in composition, and also – with that frankness which was always characteristic of him – of the affections and despairs of his heart.

In the summer of 1896 Scriabin proposed marriage to Vera Ivanovna, declaring that it was time to see all those past romances as over and done with. The proposal was accepted, and from October 1896 they were already regarded as an engaged couple. The wedding took place in 1897 in Nizhny-Novgorod, Vera Ivanovna’s home town where her father lived.

After the wedding the young people set off for the Crimea. In October Scriabin played his piano concerto, which he had just finished (see above) in Odessa, after which the couple travelled overseas, where they stayed till the following year.

They spent about six months in Paris. All that winter Scriabin felt ill physically: frequent headaches, neurasthenia. But was necessary to go to concerts, salons etc. everywhere, and to appear oneself in concerts and salons. The latter were often difficult occasions. On January 31st 1898, in the Salle Erard, amongst other things, a concert took place (“Audition[20] des oeuvres de Scriabine, pianiste-compositeur russe”) in which Alexander Nikolaevich and Vera Ivanovna played alternately. The programme was in five sections, of which Alexander Nikolaevich played the first (Sonata no. 2, Etudes op.8 nos 8 and 2, Nocturne for the left hand), the third (fourteen Preludes, two Impromptus) and the last (a Mazurka, Nocturne in A, Polonaise); Vera Ivanovna performed the second section (Allegro de Concert, Prelude in F sharp minor, Etudes op. 8 nos. 6 and 3, Mazurka in E) and the fourth (Preludes in G minor and D flat major, Impromptu in B minor and Etudes op. 8 nos. 9, 10, 12).

While in Paris Scriabin received the following letter from V.V. Stasov:[21]

                                                                                    November 27th 1897

Greatly respected

Alexander Nikolaevich!

I have just one very important piece of business for you. You have been awarded a prize of 1000 rubles for various musical works of yours, but who awarded the prize I do not know. It is some mysterious lover of the Russian musical school who wishes to remain anonymous, but since 1884 has been acting through me and every year hands over a certain sum which he intends to go to Russian composers. This takes place every year on the 27th November – which is ‘Glinka day’, for ‘A Life for the Tsar’ and ‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’ were first performed on the 27th November. My connections with the unknown person are via a Petersburg poste-restante address.

Now, in fulfilling the award for this year, I turn to you with the request to tell me: is it convenient for you to accept this prize or not? Usually through these thirteen years none of our composers has refused, except Shcherbachev on one occasion and once Balakirev. Once, also, even Tchaikovsky thought of refusing, owing to his already earning a sufficiency from his operas. But I wrote to him (in Paris), that it would be a great pity if he refused, for it would seem like something approaching neglect  of the people who loved him, regarded him and respected him highly, and at the same time it could be somewhat insulting for other colleagues who had received the prize. Because of this Tchaikovsky agreed with me, and I sent the sum which had been agreed at that time to him in Paris.

Allow us now, too, to hope for a favourable answer from you, and allow us to express to you, as much as we are able, our respect and love to you.

                                                                                    Ever yours

                                                                                                V. Stasov.

Scriabin did not turn down the prize, and on December 8th it was sent to him in Paris by Stasov with the following letter:

Dearest Alexander Nikolaevich,

Herewith I send you the prize for 1000 rubles.  It has been awarded to you for the following works by you:

            1) Mazurka[s] op 3      … … … … … … 300 r.

            2) Allegro op. 4           … … … … … … 200 r.

            3) Sonata op. 6            … … … … … … 200 r.

            4) Impromptus op. 7   … … … … … … 200 r.

            5) Prelude and nocturne op. 9    … … … 100 r.

                                                                                    Total: 1000 rubles

                        Yours ever, with great fellow-feeling

                                                                        V. Stasov

The mysterious ‘unknown’ was none other than Belyayev. He was a misogynist and opposed Scriabin’s marriage, but all the same he conceived the wish to come to Scriabin’s aid in this delicate way, as Scriabin entered a new state of life, which would of course demand new material means. Similar awards of the prize to Scriabin continued right up to the death of Belyayev (December 29th 1903), and even after his death from time to time, through a special council established according to Belyayev’s bequest.

Thus, in 1899, an ‘unknown musical well-wisher’ sent Scriabin 500 rubles via Stasov (for the Preludes op. 11 and the impromptus op. 12); 500 rubles in  1900 (for the preludes op. 13 and the sonata op. 19); 1000 rubles in 1901 (for the impromptus op. 14, 5 preludes op. 15, 7 preludes op. 17, Allegro de Concert op. 18); 1000 rubles in 1901 (for the concerto op. 20, four preludes op. 22, nine mazurkas  op. 25, polonaise op. 24); as much as 1500 rubles in 1903.

Besides this, in those years Belyayev – personally, on his own account – gave Scriabin a grand piano,[22] Chopin’s complete works, a traveller’s trunk and other things.

On his return from Paris, Scriabin spent the summer of 1898 in a dacha in Maidanovo, near Klin. Scriabin’s father came to that very place from Turkey on holiday, bringing his second wife, in order to introduce his spouse, Alexander Nikolaevich’s stepmother. They all spent the summer together. Here Rimma, the eldest daughter of Alexander Nikolaevich and Vera Ivanovna, was born.

A few pieces were written before the summer. The Third Sonata must be named as foremost amongst them. It is a miraculous work, which could be said to sum up the composition of the young Scriabin. At that time, its harmonies carried through the house, and the composer’s mother-in-law, by her new-born granddaughter’s cradle, constantly sang the second theme of the sonata’s finale as a lullaby.

Summer came to an end, the elder Scriabins travelled back to Turkey, and the younger ones needed to travel back to Moscow, to take out a lease on a flat, to set it up and establish a household…This business, always tedious and troublesome, was complicated in this case by the very limited funds of the Scriabins. And it was necessary on top of everything else to think of augmenting the existing sources of subsistence, means which were as limited as they were before, and on which Scriabin could survive alone, but which would already be insufficient for a family…

Just at that time an invitation made its way from Safonov to take up the position of professor of piano in the Moscow Conservatoire, a position left vacant by the death of professor Pavel

Schloezer. And Scriabin could do no other than take up this position, which he duly did in October of 1898.

[1] See Chapter 3 n. 2

[2] 1871-1950. Violinist, silver medallist at Moscow Conservatoire. He emigrated to Paris and thence to the U.S.A., where he taught at Baltimore Conservatoire and played and played viola in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

[3] The finale of this sonata was completed by 1889, as the manuscript shows. It was first published in the Soviet complete edition (first volume) in 1947 and given the tempo mark Presto. The end of this movement brings back the opening of the sonata in grandiose form, proving its origin (which was recognised by the editors of that edition.) One page is missing from the end of the slow movement, but the sonata has been recorded by Roberto Szidon and Mikhail Voskresensky with conjectural endings to that movement. Christoph Flamm, ed. Skrjabin Complete Piano Sonatas, I. 2011, Kassel: Bärenreiter. x-xii.

[4] The Cathedral was demolished in 1931; its reconstruction took place between 1995 and 2000. The reconstructed cathedral includes a concert hall named the Hall of the Ecclesiastical Councils of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva A. N. Skryabina [Chronicle of the life and work of Scriabin] (M. Prashnikova, O. Tompakova, eds.) Moscow: Muzyka, 1985 gives no details of Dubinsky, but does supply him with the initial I (p.46), possibly from Conservatoire archives.

[5] According to E. K. Rozenov, Scriabin paid for his opp. 1 and 2 to be published, but the Jurgenson firm did not charge for opp. 3 and 5. Taking everything into account, Scriabin owed Jurgenson a few score roubles, which he duly paid.  E. G.

[6] E. K. Rozenov relates that it was Safonov who introduced Belyayev to Scriabin. Y. E.

[7] Russian-speaking readers can follow all of this in the Scriabin-Belyayev correspondence which was published in 1922 and is available in facsimile. The correspondence is intriguing and sometimes very amusing.

[8] Scriabin’s acquaintance with a lady from Germany (the wife of a sculptor) dates from this time; she left a strong impression on his soul. Alexander Nikolaevich told the story afterwards of how he was then too young to appreciate fully  the remarkable mature spirit of this woman; she was older than him. Y.E.

[9] It is clear from the end of the paragraph that this patron is the critic mentioned earlier.

[10] The Imperial Russian Musical Society, which was started in the mid-nineteenth century, received the ‘Imperial’ title in 1873 and existed until the revolution.

[11] See chap. III n. 20.

[12] However, it should be mentioned that in teaching form Taneyev drew attention to this particular area, especially in Beethoven. Y. E.

[13] Lyubertsy, now a big industrial suburb of Moscow, did not acquire the status of a town until 1925.

[14] Nataliya Valerianovna Sekerina.

[15] Nikolai Markov and Iosif Gurlyand.

[16] The Romance was not then published. Nowadays listeners might find themselves in disagreement with Rozenov’s opinion. A good performance can be heard on

[17] ‘Long dimmed’ is a slight exaggeration. After Sekerina turned down Scriabin’s proposal of marriage, he wrote her a courteous and formal letter of farewell at the end of December 1895.

[18] See Chap. III n. 6.

[19] See Chap. III n. 7.

[20] In this context ‘audition’ means ‘performance’, ‘a chance to hear’.

[21] Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov 1804–1906 was one of the most influential critics of Russian music and art. A believer in building on Russian heritage and maintaining a Russian identity, he was a mentor of the ‘Five’ or ‘Mighty Handful’ in music and of the ‘Travellers’ in art.

[22] By the leading St. Petersburg maker, Becker; it is in the Scriabin Museum. 

The Myth of Scriabin’s ‘Pleroma’

Few have contributed as much to the understanding of Russian music in the West as the late Professor Richard Taruskin. But in one case the very authority that he gained through his work has led to the wide and unfortunate adoption of a misnomer, wrongly attributed to Scriabin: in major English-speaking works on the subject, Scriabin’s ‘mystic’ or ‘Promethean’ chord is now frequently referred to as the ‘chord of the pleroma’. The word ‘pleroma’, though, occurs nowhere in Scriabin’s writings as they have come down to us, and there is no record of his having used the term ‘chord of the pleroma’.

Professor Taruskin received, it seems, a report of  the conference held in 1992 in Moscow at the Scriabin Museum, entitled Различные аспекты творчества А. Н. Скрябина [‘Various aspects of Alexander Scriabin’s creative work’] (Moscow, n.d. Editors: T. B. Rybakova, O. M. Tompakova). One speaker had been the eminent Scriabin scholar of the Soviet era, Igor Bèlza. His talk  (p.17–21) was entitled Филосовские истоки образного строя «Прометея» [Philosophical sources of the structure of imagery in Prometheus]. Bèlza refers, perhaps, to the famous  occasion recounted by Alexander Ossovsky, when Rachmaninov sight-read the full score of Prometheus. (Воспоминания о Рахманинове [‘Reminiscences of Rachmaninov’], ed. Z. Apetyan, vol. 1 p. 405. Ossovsky recounted that the opening chord ‘delighted’ Rachmaninov, though he thought it would not sound well, owing to ‘illogical’ spacing. Bèlza (‘Phil. Sources’,  p. 18—19) gave the following account:

            Шестизвучие, которым начинается великая поэма, называется обычно «прометеевским». Говоря, однако, о гностической концепсии произведения, мы вправе назвать это созвучие, ошеломившее уже первых слушателей своей  необычностью. «Чем ты это делаешь?» – спросил автора на репетиции пораженный Рахманинов. – «Аккорд плеромы». […]

            The six-note sonority with which the great poem begins is usually called ‘Promethean.’ But, speaking of the gnostic conception of the work, we are right to   give a name to this sonority, which astounded the very first listeners with its unusualness. Impressed, Rachmaninov asked the composer at a rehearsal: ‘What are you using for this?’ ‘The chord of the pleroma.’[…]

A fuller text of Bèlza’s address is given in the Museum’s publication Ученые записи [Scholarly Notes] No.1 (Moscow, Kompozitor, 1993, p. 70–77), in which he is more specific and limited in his statement about the term ‘chord of the pleroma’ (p. 75):

            […]гностический аспект, объясняющий, в частности, предложенный мною термин «аккорд  Плеромы».  У нас нет, правда, документального свидетельства, что Скрябину было известно это слово […]

            […] the gnostic aspect which partly explains the term which I have suggested, ‘chord of the Pleroma.’ It is true that we have no documentary evidence that this word was known to Scriabin […] [italics in original; underlining by present writer.]

It seems likely that Professor Taruskin did not see this longer text, which clarifies that the term is Bèlza’s invention, whereas the shorter excerpt strongly implies that it was Scriabin’s own. Bèlza was the author of an authoritative biography of Scriabin (1987). There may have been an eagerness, after the fall of the Communist system, to embrace topics, such as Gnosticism, which would have been problematic in the Soviet era. This zeal on Bèlza’s part seems to have misled Taruskin himself into adopting as authentic a spurious term.

© Simon Nicholls 2022


Z. Apetyan, compiler and editor, Воспоминания о Рахманинове [Reminiscences of Rachmaninov] vol.1. 2nd, completed edition: Moscow, State Music Publishers, 1961.

Igor Bèlza: Aleksandr Nikolaevich Skryabin. Moscow, ‘Muzyka’, 1987.

State Memorial Museum of A. N. Scriabin (as it then was):

Tamara Rybakova and Olga Tompakova, eds: Различные аспекты творчества А. Н. Скрябина: материалы научной конференции, посвященной 120-летнию со дня рождения А. Н. Скрябина /6 и 7 января 1992 г./

[Various aspects of the creative work of Alexander Scriabin: documents of the research conference dedicated to the 120th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Scriabin (6th and 7th January 1992.) Moscow n.d.

Editorial committee: Igor Bèlza, Tamara Rybakova, Olga Tompakova, Andrei Bandura:

Ученые записки [Scholarly notes] no. 1. Moscow: ‘Kompozitor’, 1993.