Alexander Scriabin’s Use of French Directions to the Pianist

Alexander Scriabin’s Use of French Directions to the Pianist

Richard E Overill

King’s College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS, UK


Anyone who has played or studied the scores of Alexander Scriabin’s piano compositions, e.g. [1,2,3], cannot fail to notice that while his early works use conventional Italian directions to the pianist, mainly concerned with tempo and volume, in his subsequent works Opp. 32–58 he employs more unconventional, expressive Italian phrases, e.g., con voglio, con stravaganza, accarezzevole, etc., most notably in Sonata 5, Op.53. However, from Op.51 onwards expressive French directions start to be intermixed with the Italian ones, until by Op.59 the only Italian directions employed are the conventional ones, as noted by Susanna Garcia [4]. This is in spite of the fact that virtually all of the expressive French directions used by Scriabin have equivalent Italian alternatives, as demonstrated most particularly in Sonata 5.

These features have also been briefly commented on by Koji Attwood [5], although a convincing explanation for them remains somewhat elusive, pace Garcia [4] who attempts to link them with the ‘Eternal Feminine’ plot archetype. One initial reaction to these observations might be that Scriabin spent six years living and travelling outside Russia between 1904 and 1909 inclusive, most notably in francophone Switzerland, France and Belgium (see Table 2), where he would naturally have become increasingly familiar with the French language. We shall examine this contention later on.

A second approach would link Scriabin’s encounters (in French translation) with Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy movement in Paris in early1905 and in Brussels in 1908–9, his embracing of its mystical, esoteric or occult ideas, and the expressive use of French directions in his piano scores. A separate but related consideration is Scriabin’s links with his cultural heritage of Silver Age Russian symbolism, which had many of its roots in the French symbolist tradition via poets such as Charles Baudelaire.

A third possibility is that Scriabin reserved his expressive use of French directions for specific types of piano composition. It is notable that there are no Valses, Impromptus, Mazurkas or Nocturnes after Op.49 (1905), with the possible exception of the Poème–Nocturne (Op.61), whereas Poèmes and Danses appear only from Op.51 (1906) onwards. Consequently, we shall study the specific types of composition individually to discover whether they differ significantly in their use of expressive French directions to the pianist (see Table 1).


Neglecting the duplicate French-Italian direction in Op. 44/1 (le chant bien marqué / ben marcato il canto) – the sole occasion on which such a linguistic duplication occurs – the compositions within which expressive French directions are to be found range from Op.51 (1906) to Op.74 (1914). These include the Sonatas (from Op.62), the Préludes (from Op.56/1), the Poèmes (from Op.52/1), the Morceaux/Pièces (from Op.51/1), the Danses (from Op.73/1) and the Études (from Op.65/1); the Feuillet d’Album (Op.58) and the Poème–Nocturne (Op.61) are grouped together merely for convenience.

It is necessary to devise a convenient metric with which to measure the frequency of use of French directions by the composer. Clearly, a simple count is unsatisfactory since a longer composition presents more opportunities than a shorter one for the use of expressive directions by the composer. We therefore define the AM/FD metric as the average number of measures (bars) per French direction; we further define a French direction as a single word or phrase in French. To illustrate: “très doux, joyeux, étincélant” (Op.64) is taken to be three separate directions, whereas “de plus en plus sonore et animé” (Op.64) is a single direction. For the purposes of the present study, multiple occurrences of the same direction are counted multiple times. The AM/FD metric described above and implemented in a spreadsheet differs crucially from that used in Stefanie Huei-Ling Seah’s study of the late sonatas [6] where multiple directions are counted as a single direction, thus: “très doux, joyeux, étincélant” (Op.64) is considered to be just one direction in [6], rather than three.

As an aid to comparison and analysis, lists with opus number of Scriabin’s usage of expressive Italian and French directions to the pianist have been compiled. We note in passing a potential ambiguity associated with the marking “Lugubre” (Prélude Op.51/2) which could in principle be either Italian or French; it is taken to be Italian since the other markings in this piece are in Italian. Similarly, the marking “pesante” (Sonata 9 Op.68) could be either French or Italian but it is taken to be French since the other expressive markings in this piece are in French. The present definition of ‘expressive’ directions excludes the conventional markings (mainly concerned with tempo, volume and touch) widely used by composers of piano music. Each Italian or French expressive direction may be classified as one of four types, namely: everyday musical descriptors (e.g. “doux”); descriptive words or phrases applying to musical sound (e.g. “cristallin”); descriptions containing extra-musical significance (e.g. “avec une langueur naissante”); and markings implying multiple layers of meaning (e.g. avec une fausse douceur”). The list of French markings shows that the latter three categories are most prevalent in Opp.61, 62, 64, 68 and 70 (i.e. the Poème–Nocturne and Sonatas 6, 7, 9 and 10) which span the period 1911–2, starting about a year after Scriabin’s return to live in Russia. Sonata 8’s relative paucity of expressive markings, in comparison with the other late sonatas, has been recognised for some time [6].

Based on the foregoing observations it may be instructive to view the sequence of French expressive markings in Opp.61 and 62 as a form of ‘narrative’ by the composer which may yield some clues about Scriabin’s intentions with regard to their inner content. The Appendix contains the markings in question. This sequence could be construed as representing the transition or evolution of an initial dream-like state with periods of alternating confusion and clarity in Op.61, through increasing degrees of creative energy and sensual exaltation finally culminating in a terrifying and nightmarish sense of overpowering disintegration by forces beyond Op.62.

Types of Composition

The third column of Table 1 summarises our results for the frequency of French directions in each type of composition from Op.51 to Op.74 (note that the AM/FD metric is undefined for all the piano compositions before Op.51). We see that that the Sonatas, Préludes and Poèmes all have AM/FD values around 13 to15, the Danses and Morceaux/Pièces both have about twice this value while the Études have around six times. On the other hand, the Poème–Nocturne Op.61 has just 4.65 bars per French direction, making it Scriabin’s most concentrated composition in terms of using expressive French directions. Noting that ‘Nocturne’ derives from the Latin nox (‘night’), this high degree of expressiveness appears to be reflected in the dream-like inner content of the piece.

It is however somewhat arbitrary to use Op.51 as the starting-point, since Scriabin did not include French directions in every type of composition from Op.51 onwards; the Prélude Op.51/1, the Poème Op.51/3, the Danse Op.51/4, Sonata 5 Op.53 and the Étude Op.56/4 are all cases in point so it is preferable to exclude these works from the AM/FD metric. This yields the results in the fifth column of Table 1. A comparison of the third and fifth columns of Table 1 shows that the exclusion of the above works, most particularly Sonata 5 Op.53 and the Étude Op.56/4, has a discernible effect on the corresponding AM/FD values but the overall picture nevertheless remains essentially similar.

It is also instructive to note the year in which Scriabin first introduced expressive French directions into each type of composition, in order to get a sense of the chronology of the Italian to French transition; the year in question is given in the rightmost column of Table 1 and from this it is immediately apparent that while he began using expressive French directions in the Morceaux/Pièces, Poèmes and Préludes from 1906, 1907 and 1908 respectively, Scriabin delayed this linguistic transition until 1911–2 for the Sonatas and Études, and until 1914 for the Danses.

Type of Composition from Op.51 AM/FD from 1st FD AM/FD Year
Sonatas 6 15.76 5 12.28 1911/2
Préludes 10 13.05 9 12.24 1908
Poèmes 11 13.03 10 12.21 1907
Danses 3 27.67 2 24.67 1914
Morceaux/Pièces 6 25.00 6 25.00 1906
Études 4 96.00 3 58.00 1911/2
Feuillet d’Album; Poème–Nocturne 2   5.27 1  4.65 1912

Table 1: Average Measures per French Direction for each type of composition

Locations of Composition

Scriabin’s creative life was based in Russia until early 1904, when he relocated first to Switzerland and subsequently lived for relatively short periods in Paris, the Italian Riviera, Geneva, Amsterdam and Brussels, New York, Paris (again), Beatenberg, Lausanne, Brussels (again), Moscow and St Petersburg, and Brussels (once more). Finally, in early 1910 he returned to live in Russia until his death in April 1915 [7], leaving only for short concert visits to Germany in February 1911, to Holland in October 1912, and to London in March 1914. A three months’ holiday in Beatenberg (mid-June – mid-September 1912) followed by a month in Brussels preceded the Dutch concerts. The details of his locational biography are set out in Table 2.

Date. Location
until February 1904 Russia (first period)
March 1904 Vézenaz, Geneva, Switzerland
November 1904 Paris, France
June 1905 Bogliasco, San Remo, Italy
February 1906 Servette, Geneva, Switzerland
October 1906 Amsterdam, Holland & Brussels, Belgium
December 1906 New York, USA
March 1907 Paris, France
June 1907 Beatenberg, Bern, Switzerland
September 1907 Lausanne, Switzerland
September 1908 Brussels, Belgium
January 1909 Moscow & St Petersburg, Russia
March 1909 Brussels, Belgium
from January 1910 Russia (second period)
except June – October 1912 Beatenberg, Bern, Switzerland & Brussels, Belgium

Table 2: Locational biography (Julian calendar / Old Style)

The piano compositions from 1904 onwards can thus be divided into two main periods, namely Europe and Russia, as shown in Table 3, where it can be seen that the Opp.45­–57 compositions belong to the European period while the remaining works, Opp.58–74, stem from the (second) Russian period.

The results in Table 3 are particularly striking because they show that Scriabin’s residence in francophone Geneva, Paris. Lausanne and Brussels coincided with only limited use of French expressive directions in his piano compositions, as characterised by the AM/FD value of 62.52. By contrast, the AM/FD value for the second Russian period (12.73) is dominated by Sonatas 6–10 with their characteristic AM/FD value of 12.28 (cf. Table 1); the remaining shorter compositions from this period have by comparison a relatively small effect on the overall AM/FD value. This is notably in contrast with Scriabin’s contemporary orchestral works, the third, fourth and fifth symphonies (i.e. Le Divin Poème, Op.43 (1903-4), Le Poème de l’Extase, Op.54 (1905-7), and Prométhée, le Poème du Feu, Op.60 (1910), respectively), which all make extensive use of expressive musical directions in French, interspersed with conventional Italian directions. There is thus a delay of some three years in uptake of French between Symphony 3 (1903-4) and Fragilité (1906). Amongst Scriabin’s piano works there is also a period of linguistic transition during which his use of expressive Italian musical directions declines while the French ones increase; this transition is most clearly illustrated between Sonata 5, Op.53 (1907) with 25 Italian directions but none in French, and Sonata 6, Op.61 (1911–2) with 37 French directions but none in Italian.

Years Opus Nos. Location AM/FD
1904 – 1909 45–57  Europe 62.52
1910 – 1915 58–74 Russia 12.73

Table 3: Average Measures per French Direction for different periods


The analyses above require some explanation. There appear to be three possibilities, which are by no means mutually exclusive: (i) Scriabin’s six-year residence in or near various francophone European cities was sufficient to persuade him of the expressive capabilities of the French language; (ii) Scriabin’s study of theosophical literature in French developed his appreciation of the language’s expressive power; (iii) Scriabin’s return to Russia renewed his links with members of the symbolist Silver Age movement for whom French was a vital aspect of their cultural heritage. We shall examine the evidence for each in turn.

Scriabin’s six years in francophone Europe certainly developed his command of everyday spoken French, both in professional encounters, e.g. with doctors [8], and the domestic environment [9] where his partner from 1904 onwards Tat’yana Schloezer had Belgian origins and spoke good French. However, during 1903–4, he appears to have exhibited a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the French language. In late 1904, when invited by Viscount de Gissac to write an open column for a philosophical weekly publication Scriabin declined on the grounds that he felt he did not know French well enough [10], although this may well have been a polite excuse to avoid entering into a regular commitment. He had previously written a 180-word free-verse poem in French, programmatically describing the union of the soul with the divine, to accompany Sonata 4, Op.30 (1903) [11]. Nevertheless, Scriabin’s earliest use of French instead of Italian for expressive musical directions stems from 1904 (Le Divin Poème, Op.43), suggesting that he felt he had by this time begun to acquire an adequate expressive mastery of the language for his musical purposes. Note that ‘Poème’ derives from the Greek ποειν (‘to create’) which is suggestive of the nature of its inner content.

In Paris in early 1905, de Gissac gave Scriabin a copy of La Clef de la Théosophie, the French translation of Helena Blavatsky’s book The Key to Theosophy (1889) which Scriabin described in a letter of April/May 1905 as a remarkable book and astonishingly close to his own thinking [12]. From that time on, more and more of Scriabin’s circle of friends were drawn from the French and Belgian branches of the Theosophical Society, most notably the painter Jean Delville with whom Scriabin became associated when he relocated to Brussels in 1908. It has been suggested that Scriabin enrolled into formal membership of its Belgian branch at this time [13,14], and that Delville may have introduced him to the Sons of the Flames of Wisdom, a secret Promethean cult within Theosophy [15], but solid documentary evidence for this has yet be produced. Both Leonid Sabaneev and Boris Schloezer later recalled that a French translation of Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine (1888) was always on Scriabin’s work table [16]. It was clear that Scriabin had studied La Doctrine Secrète with great care as he had annotated and underlined in pencil what he considered to be the most important passages [17]. Scriabin also subscribed to Le Lotus Bleu, a monthly francophone theosophical journal, during the period 1904–9 inclusive [18]; this observation can help to account for the presence of the expressive French musical directions in Le Divin Poème, Op.43 (1904). Taken altogether, it is clear that Scriabin carefully studied a very considerable amount of theosophical literature in French during 1904–1909 while he was resident outside Russia, and this would undoubtedly have improved his capacity to express his esoteric, occultist and mystical intentions for his music.

One particular element of Russian artistic culture may have confirmed Scriabin’s continued use of French upon his return to the motherland in 1910. Amongst the 19th century Russian intelligentsia and aristocracy, French, although a foreign tongue, was widely spoken and was considered to be a language of culture and prestige, more refined than Russian.  Cultured Russians liked to express their sentiments in French, for example: “Pour un gentilhomme la musique ne peut être jamais un métier mais seulement un plaisir” [19]. In addition to the two French texts by Blavatsky and the monthly copies of Le Lotus bleu mentioned above, Scriabin also had French translations of Auguste Barth’s The Religions of India and Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia in his bookcase [20]. Furthermore, from 1911 onwards in Moscow Scriabin subscribed to three theosophical journals including the francophone monthly periodical Revue Théosophique Belge [21].

The French poetic symbolist tradition is credited with being a significant influence on the Russian Silver Age poets, writers and musicians [22]. While he was resident outside Russia, Scriabin would have lost direct contact with the Russian symbolist movement, but he was able to re-establish those links on his eventual return to the motherland [23]. In early 1909 he met the symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov for the first time [24], and after a meeting with the symbolist poet Jurgis Baltrušaitis (probably in 1910) Sabaneev recollected that Scriabin began a close and serious study of Russian symbolist poetry [25]. As a consequence, Scriabin was able to blend together their native symbolist ideas with what he discovered in the French theosophical literature into his own Russian texts for the Preparatory Act of the Mysterium, while still retaining French as the most appropriate vehicle for the expressive directions in his musical sketches and in the closely related two Danses Op.73 and the five Préludes Op.74 [26]; the titles were given in French in the international publication.


The most plausible influence to account for his earliest expressive French directions in Le Divin Poème (1904) is Scriabin’s regular perusal of the monthly issues of Le Lotus Bleu in Switzerland from early 1904, although his contact with Boris and Tat’yana Schloezer may also have played a supporting rôle. However, an enhanced impetus to his theosophical studies in French was provided in early 1905 in Paris by de Gissac’s gift of Blavatsky’s La Clef de la Théosophie, which would have greatly strengthened Scriabin’s capacity and motivation for expressing the esoteric and mystical aspects of his scores in French. Along with his final return to Russia in early 1910 and the consequential re-forging of cultural links with his Silver Age symbolist compatriots, he continued to imbibe Theosophy through the monthly issues of the Revue Théosophique Belge, providing continuing support for his view of French as the most suitable language in which to express the musical directions for his subsequent works, including the sketches for the Preparatory Act of the Mysterium, and the related Danses Op.73 and Préludes Op.74.

The apparent delay, noted above, in the transition from Italian to French expressive directions for certain types of piano composition, specifically the Sonata Op.53, the Danse Op.51/4 and the Étude Op.56/4, deserves comment. In fact the Danse and the Étude are both unusual in that neither of them has any expressive directions whatsoever in either Italian or French. The Sonata No.5, Op.53, which is prefaced with a stanza from the text of the Poem of Ecstasy in Russian [27] (and also in Joseph Belleau’s French translation [28], which is somewhat inaccurate [29]) was completed in just 7 days in early December 1907; it appears that Scriabin was not yet prepared to commit himself to using expressive pianistic directions in French for such a major work so soon after beginning the experiment with some of the Op.51 miniatures.


It is a pleasure to thank Ekaterina Likhina (St Petersburg Conservatory) for many stimulating initial discussions on this subject. I am also extremely grateful to Simon Nicholls (Birmingham Conservatoire) for his informative and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

The ancillary material referred to in this article, comprising lists of Scriabin’s Italian and French directions together with a spreadsheet of their occurrences, is available from the author upon request.


[1] Alexander Scriabine, Ten Sonatas for Piano (Ed. H Sheldon), MCA Music, New York (1949)

[2] Alexander Scriabin, Complete Préludes and Études for Pianoforte (Eds. K N Igumnov & Y I Mil’shteyn), Dover, New York (1973)

[3] Alexander Scriabin, Mazurkas, Poèmes, Impromptus and Other Works for Piano, Dover, New York (1991)

[4] Susanna Garcia, Scriabin’s Symbolist Plot Archetype in the Late Piano Sonatas, 19th-Century Music, 23(3) (2000) 273–300

[5] Koji Attwood, Scriabin – Extensive Biography, the Piano Society, available online at:

[6] Stefanie Huei-Ling Seah, Alexander Scriabin’s Style and Musical Gestures in the late Piano Sonatas, M.Phil. Thesis, University of Sussex (2011) p.102

[7] Faubion Bowers, Scriabin: a Biography, 2/e, Dover, New York (1996)

[8] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.I, p.204

[9] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.II, p.237

[10] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.II, p.27

[11] Simon Nicholls, “With Exotic Enthusiasm”; Annotations and Titles in the Music of Skryabin as Clues to Content and Aids to Interpretation, Journal of the Scriabin Society of America, 15(1) (2010–11) 76–101, fn.60

[12] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.II, p.52

[13] Maria Carlson, Fashionable Occultism: the Theosophical World of Russian Composer Aleksandr Scriabin, Journal of the International Institute, University of Michigan, 7(3) (Summer 2000); reprinted in Journal of the Scriabin Society of America, 12(1), (2007–8) 54–62

[14] Simon Morrison, Skryabin and the Impossible, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 51(2) (Summer 1998) 283–330; reprinted in Journal of the Scriabin Society of America, 7(1), (2002–3) 29–66, fn.2

[15] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.II, p.206

[16] Leonid Sabaneev, Reminiscences of Scriabin, Moscow (1925) pp.63, 173, 241

[17] Boris Schloezer, A.Skriabin, Vol.I, Berlin (1923) p.27

[18] Schloezer, op.cit., p.23

[19] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.I, p.51

[20] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.II, p.211

[21] Morrison, op.cit.

[22] Malcolm Brown, Skryabin and Russian “Mystic” Symbolism, 19th-Century Music, 3(1), (1979) 42–51

[23] Brown, op.cit.

[24] Brown, op.cit.

[25] Sabaneev, op.cit. p.148

[26] Morrison, op.cit.

[27] Valentina Rubcova (Ed.), Sonata 5, Henle Urtext Edition (2011), Preface, p.VI:  and Commentary, p.29:

[28] Bowers, op.cit. Vol.II, p.148

[29] Nicholls, op.cit, fn.92

[30] Alexander Skryabin: Notebooks, trans. Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin, Toccata Press, scheduled for publication during 2015


The sequence of expressive French directions from the Poème-Nocturne, Op.61 and Sonata 6, Op.62 [with literal English translations]:

avec une grâce capricieuse [with capricious grace]; comme une ombre mouvante [like an unstable shadow]; comme un mumure confus [like a confused murmur]; aigu [acute]; avec une volupté dormante [with dormant voluptuousness]; cristallin, perlé [crystalline, pearly]; avec langueur [with languor]; comme en une rêve [as if in a dream]; de plus en plus passionné [more and more impassioned]; avec une soudain langueur [with sudden languor]; limpide [limpid]; avec charme [with enchantment]; avec une passion naissante [with nascent passion]; de plus en plus passionné [more and more impassioned]; suave, languide  [suave, languid]; doux, limpide [sweet, limpid]; comme un mumure confus [like a confused murmur]; avec une grâce capricieuse [with capricious grace]; comme une ombre mouvante [like an unstable shadow]; comme un mumure confus [like a confused murmur]; avec langueur [with languor]; comme en une rêve [as if in a dream]; de plus en plus passionné [more and more impassioned]; avec une soudain langueur [with sudden languor]; cristallin, perlé [crystalline, pearly];

mystérieux, concentré [mysterious, concentrated]; étrange, ailé [strange, winged]; avec une chaleur contenue [with contained warmth]; souffle mystérieux [mysterious breath]; onde caressante [caressing wave]; concentré [concentrated]; ailé [winged]; le rêve prend forme (clarté, douceur, pureté) [the dream takes form (clarity, sweetness, purity)]; charmes [enchantments]; avec entrainment [with rapture]; ailé, tourbillonnant [winged, turbulent]; l’épouvante surgit [terror surges]; avec trouble [with disturbance]; charmes [enchantments]; apel mysterieux [mysterious call]; de plus en plus entrâinant, avec enchantement  [more and more enraptured, with enchantment]; charmes [enchantments]; joyeux, triomphant [joyous, triumphant]; apel mysterieux [mysterious call]; joyeux [joyful];sombre [gloomy]; épanouissement de forces mysterieuses [expansion of mysterious forces]; avec une joie exalté [with exultant joy]; effondrement subit [sudden collapse]; ailé [winged]; tout deviant charme et douceur [all becomes enchantment and sweetness]; avec entrainment [with rapture]; ailé, tourbillonnant [winged, turbulent]; l’épouvante surgit, elle se mêle à la danse délirante [terror rises up, it mingles with the delirious dance].