Monthly Archives: August 2023

Under the Mantle of Music – a reminiscence of the Scriabin Museum by Andrei Golovin

Andrei Golovin is one of Russia’s most distinguished composers. He studied at Moscow Conservatoire and is now professor of composition and orchestration at Gnesin’s Academy. His works include four symphonies, concertante pieces for violin, cello and oboe respectively with orchestra, a cantata entitled ‘Simple Songs’, a song cycle with orchestra on words by Nikolai Rubtsov, ‘musical pictures’ on the story Bambi by Felix Salten – Russia has not suffered the Disney version of Bambi and Salten’s book is rightly regarded there as an adult work. These and many other pieces have been performed by Russia’s main orchestras in the most prestigious venues. His most recent work has included orchestrations of several Medtner songs. He has also written many film scores. His interest in Medtner and his deep spirituality lead him to a naturally conservative, though always challenging, idiom. We are privileged to have a narrative from schooldays written specially for the Association, relating to how he developed a ‘special relationship’ at an early age with the Scriabin Museum in Moscow. It is translated by Simon Nicholls, who would like to take this opportunity of publicly thanking Andrei for his unfailingly generous and resourceful help over many years and for the shining example of his dedicated musicianship and unassuming, profound spirituality.  


My parents decided that I must study music from childhood, and when I was seven, they sent me to the famous Gnesin ‘seven-year’ music school.[1] It was not easy to get into, but as it happened my mother, Galina Aleksandrovna Golovina, a graduate of Moscow Conservatoire, taught solfège in the Gnesin School. I am certain that when my mother took me to the school for an audition and my musical capabilities had been assessed, the question of acceptance had been settled accordingly. I studied fairly well, and combined work in the music school with work in the general school which was obligatory for all, the usual arrangement for many children. I played the piano well and performed successfully.

But when I was getting on for twelve, to be frank, musical studies were a great burden to me. In sum, I announced to my parents that I could no longer study music, I didn’t want to play the piano and, finally, that I wanted to leave the music school! I was so insistent in my desire to part with music that my parents, very sorrowfully, were obliged to comply.

I can’t say that music didn’t interest me. I remember that at the age of ten I was very taken with Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Ludmilla, and listened endlessly to the LP recording of the outstanding performance by the soloists and orchestra of the Bolshoi Opera directed by Kyrill Kondrashin. Later when classical works were broadcast on the radio I was able to listen to my heart’s content. For example, it was like that with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which made a very big impression on me – so big an impression that I went off to the shop and bought an LP of the symphony. Gradually music began to attract me ever more strongly. But the work which had the most profound effect on me was the G major piano concerto of Ravel. I felt that Music’s magical hold upon me was already strong; I understood that it would be very difficult for me to live without music, and I consciously began to return to her with all the spiritual strength I possessed.  The French composers attracted me particularly: Ravel, Debussy, Honegger, Messiaen. The collection of LPs grew quickly; endlessly and insatiably I consumed music in enormous quantities.

But this was a passive activity, and it was time to begin thinking about my future.

Strangely enough, along with this enormous attraction to music I was experiencing a major interest in chemistry. Yes indeed, chemistry! I put together a small laboratory at home; I had flasks, test tubes, chemical ingredients. Music and chemistry! A comparison with the Russian composer Alexander Borodin suggests itself. My form mates in school made up a charming verse about me, which I still remember.

            Great Mendeleev fondly dreamed

            Of things not being as now seemed.

            He considered there’d be one who followed in

            His steps and outshone him: Golovin!

As is well known, Mendeleev was a Russian scholar of genius, creator of the famous tables of the elements. In the rhyme there is a witty hint at the assonance of the surnames Borodin and Golovin!

And so what was it that tipped the scales? Music or chemistry? The Lord decided – Music! I announced to my parents that I wanted to take the Gnesin College exams. To do so it was essential to graduate externally, that is to say, to take the exams for all the years one had missed. (In the USSR musical education had three steps: seven years in music school, four years in college and five years in a conservatoire.) I took the exams and entered the Gnesin college in the musical theory department. A little earlier I had begun to try my hand at composition.

The circle of composers whose music I had got to know was constantly widening. I find it hard to say why one day I decided to buy an LP of works by Scriabin, but I remember distinctly that they were late piano works, performed by Vladimir Sofronitsky. Scriabin’s music stunned me and crowded all other composers out of my consciousness. I became so deeply immersed in it that with time I even began to memorise phone numbers by associating the first two numerals with various opus numbers by Scriabin.

Having discovered that the Scriabin Museum exists in Moscow, I decided to go there straight away. It was not easy to reach the Museum: in those years work was being carried out on the construction of a huge major highway – Kalinin Prospect. (It was renamed in 1994 and is now the New Arbat. Muscovites quickly named this highway ‘The False Teeth’.)

Construction of Kalinin Prospect, 1967.

Unfortunately, a result of this construction was the destruction of some of the Arbat streets and side-streets, among them the famous Sobach’ya ploshchad [‘Dogs’ Square’], where a mansion was situated in which the Gnesin musical school was housed.

No. 5, Sobach’ya ploshchad: Gnesin musical college.

In order to reach the Museum I had to cross the construction works.  I walked to the house in which the Museum is situated, climbed the stairs to the first floor and entered the premises, which turned out to be a big apartment. In the darkened reception room stood a desk, lit by a table lamp. There was nobody there… On the right was a small corridor; I heard footsteps and before me appeared a middle-aged woman. After a few questions I announced to her, in some embarrassment: ‘This year I have discovered Scriabin!’ Thus began my first visit to the museum which became my second home for many long years.

The woman conversing with me was called Irina Ivanovna Sofronitskaya. Her husband, Aleksandr Vladimirovitch Sofronitsky, was the son of Vladimir Vladimirovich Sofronitsky, the great Russian pianist. There was a cult of this musician in the Museum. The piano works of the composer were demonstrated to visitors in recordings exclusively by Sofronitsky. Usually, at the end of an excursion through the Museum, visitors were invited to a small room to listen to Scriabin’s music. In this room there was a small Steinway piano and two ‘prehistoric’ tape recorders. To imagine the size of one of these, just imagine an average-sized fridge placed on its side. The tapes of the performances were on spools of a pretty large diameter, and the tape speed was 38 or even 76 cm per second! The sound was delivered through vast columnar loudspeakers. All this produced a great impression.

I came to the Museum quite often, travelling to the other end of town after lessons and staying there for a long time. I very much loved to listen to the music together with the visitors on the museum excursions. One day Irina Ivanovna said to me: ‘You listened in such a way today – you had simply dissolved in the music!’ I should explain that Irina Ivanovna paid great attention to the way that visitors to the Museum listened to Scriabin’s music, sharing her observations with me afterwards. Scriabin’s music produced such delirium in me that I persuaded half of my class at the general school to go on an excursion to the Museum. We agreed that one should never go to the Museum with empty hands: each person should bring flowers.  Irina Ivanovna recalled: ‘Imagine, a crowd of schoolboys troop in to the Museum, each one of them clutching a flower in a pot! That was very touching!’ I became very good friends with Irina Ivanovna. I wanted to do something for the Museum, to be of some small service to it. In Irina Ivanovna’s office stood a huge safe, where many printed editions of Scriabin’s works were kept higgledy-piggledy. I asked her permission to sort out the sheet music, and filed it tidily according to opus numbers.

The next room was the study of the director, Tatyana Grigor’evna Shaborkina. She was director uninterruptedly from 1941 to 1984. Irina Ivanovna fondly called Tatiana Grigor’evna ‘direktorchik’. According to Irina Ivanovna’s stories, Shaborkina was obstinate to an unusual degree for those days amongst those in ‘high office’ if a higher authority demanded something from her which contradicted her life’s calling – looking after Scriabin’s interests. In her burning eyes I saw an inextinguishable reflection of Scriabin’s music. Everything which did not correspond with the spirit of Scriabin, in Tatyana Grigor’evna’s opinion, was mercilessly rejected. Irina Ivanovna told me how one morning she came into the museum and found Tatyana Grigor’evna quite alone, listening to the recording of Scriabin’s Prometheus by Aleksander Goldenweiser and an orchestra conducted by Nikolai Golovanov, a recording which has become a reference point.[2] When the music stopped, Irina Ivanovna asked in surprise what all this was about. It turned out that the previous evening Tatyana Grigorevna had heard a recording of Prometheus on the radio (I don’t remember the names of the performers) and she had categorically disliked this interpretation. ‘I want to purify myself!’, declared Tatyana Grigor’evna.

I was not exaggerating when I said that the Museum became my second home. I was even allowed to play the grand piano which stood in the work-room. This was a Bechstein with a surprisingly responsive keyboard and a silvery sound. Sometimes Tatyana Grigor’evna would say to me: ‘Andryusha, Irina Ivanovna and I are going out to lunch. Lock up the museum and wait for us.’ Then I would go into the work-room, open the lid of Scriabin’s piano and compose. Of course, at that time I was very strongly influenced by Scriabin’s music. I remember composing a piece: ‘Dedication to Scriabin’, op. 4 in E flat major. I tape-recorded it at home and proudly brought the tape into the Museum. My gift was graciously received and was added to the museum’s collection of recordings.

Irina Ivanovna and Tatyana Grigor’evna supported me in my efforts to compose, in every way. They believed in my composing ability and this opened me up. A few years later, when I decided to apply to enter the composition department of the Conservatoire, Tatyana Grigor’evna allowed me to make a recording of my works on Scriabin’s piano, to be listened to in the entry exam. This recording was made by the audio studio which was on the ground floor of the museum. They stretched a cable from the studio to the first floor and stood the microphone in the work-room.

At the age of seventeen I became seriously ill; in the hospital it turned out that, without exaggeration, my life was hanging by a thread. But the Lord decided to let me remain in this world. To the doctors’ surprise a miracle took place, and I survived.

Whilst in hospital I received two letters: one from Tatyana Grigor’evna and the other from Irina Ivanovna. Tatyana Grigor’evna sent me a postcard with a very rare photo of Vladimir Sofronitsky:

On the back of the postcard was written: ‘Dear Andryushenka’! I have kept this portrait for a long time, intending to give it to the best Scriabinist. This portrait is the only one that Vladimir Vladimirovich himself liked. I am sending it to you as the best of Scriabinists.’

In the letter from Irina Ivanovna I found a marvellous colour postcard with a view of Nervi (Nervi, Marinella and the Gropallo tower), where Scriabin had been in 1905.

Before my illness Irina Ivanovna had given me an entry ticket to the Museum on which was written: ‘A. N. Scriabin Museum. Ticket No. 1. To Andryusha Golovin.’[3]

I had the honour of getting to know Scriabin’s daughters, Maria Alexandrovna and Elena Alexandrova. Elena Alexandrovna resembled her father very closely, lived to be ninety years old and was still exceptionally attractive and charming.

In the remarkable film of Vladimir Horowitz’ concert in Moscow (Horowitz in Moscow 1986) there is a striking frame: we see Scriabin’s two daughters sitting side by side, while Horowitz is performing their father’s Etude in C sharp minor, op. 2.

Scriabin’s daughters Mariya (L.) and Elena in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatoire during Vladimir Horowitz’ concert on April 20, 1986.

In the same film Horowitz’ visit to the Scriabin Museum is shown: Elena Aleksandrovna is presented to him, and he talks to her about having known her father and then plays the same etude on Scriabin’s piano. We can see Elena Aleksandrovna and Irina Ivanovna sitting together (photo below):

Time passed and I was studying at the Conservatoire. I did not lose touch with the Museum, though I began to visit it more rarely. Tatyana Grigor’evna died in April, 1986. I remember very well that on the day of the funeral (April 7) a small group of people were walking in deep silence behind the coffin towards the open grave. And, unexpectedly, a chant resounded: ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.’ Irina Ivanovna began to sing the Funeral Trisagion chant in her frail voice.

Irina Ivanovna died on August 20, 2020. She was one month short of her hundredth birthday. Despite physical weakness Irina Ivanovna preserved a remarkable mental clarity and an excellent memory. We had long conversations by phone and I would visit her at home. We enjoyed our meetings so much!

In finishing my modest memoirs of the Scriabin Museum I clearly understand that the most important thing for me in that remote time was associating with two remarkable women: Irina Ivanovna Sofronitskaya and Tatyana Grigor’evna Shaborkina. They enveloped me with their love and helped me go on building my life in music.

                                                                                                            Andrei Golovin

                                                                                                            trans. S.N.


[1] The ‘seven-year’ school (semiletka) was a Soviet institution, an ‘incomplete middle school’ for years 1-7. They became ‘eight-year’ schools in 1958.

[2] The orchestra was the All-Union Radio Orchestra of Moscow. This 1947 recording was reissued on CD as part of a set of all the symphonies and symphonic poems of Scriabin by Archipel: ARPCD 0266.Trans.

[3] For those who do not read Russian, the ticket is printed with the legend: For free entry into the Museum. In the Soviet era this was a State-maintained museum (according to a decree by Lenin after the Revolution); visitors signed a book, so that it could be proven that this was a popular and significant institution. Trans.