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Scriabin Association Honorary President

The Scriabin Association is privileged and delighted to welcome Aleksandr Serafimovich Scriabin as its Honorary President.

Aleksandr Serafimovich, a relative of the composer, is a leading figure in Russian and international music, and president of the Scriabin Foundation, Moscow. He founded the A. N. Scriabin International Piano Competition, of which he is organiser, and he is a board and jury member of several Russian and international piano competitions. His publishing activity includes the musical journals Fortepiano [‘Piano’] and Muzykal’naya Akademiya [‘Musical Academy’]. Having been senior researcher of the Alexander Goldenweiser Memorial Flat Museum in Moscow, he is responsible for a series of publications about Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Safonov, Goldenweiser and Sofronitsky, and he is the editor and compiler of the volume A.N. Skryabin v prostranstvakh kul’tury XX veka [‘Scriabin in the expanses of twentieth-century culture’.] Aleksandr Serafimovich Scriabin is a leading researcher at the Glinka Museum, Moscow, and teaches at Moscow International University.

Critique of subjectivity: An examination of Vospominaniya o Scriabine [Reminiscences of Scriabin] by Leonid Sabaneyev – by Alina Ivanova-Scriabina, Moscow

We can state that literature about the life and work of the genius Russian composer Alexander Scriabin is very extensive and diverse. During the composer’s lifetime numerous articles and books about his music and philosophy were published, and after his death almost every one of his associates considered it important to write an article or a book about him. And in the year dedicated to the memory of Scriabin[1] researchers continue to study his musical legacy – in part, owing to the publication of new books as well as organization of exhibitions and conferences devoted to Scriabin.

One of the first Scriabin’s biographers was Leonid Sabaneyev, who wrote numerous reviews of his works, published a monograph, Scriabin, in 1916 after the composer’s death, and in 1925 published the book Reminiscences of Scriabin. Perhaps everyone who is interested in the music and personality of Scriabin is familiar with this work of Sabaneyev. Moreover, researchers of the composer’s work have not passed this book by. Still, as in the twentieth century, ‘passions run high’ concerning opinions on Sabaneyev[2]. This phenomenon is aided by reprints of his books in Russia[3]. Nevertheless, his work has not yet been reassessed.

Opinions about Reminiscences of Scriabin have been divided: many consider this book quite true and convincing, while there are certain critics of Sabaneyev’s work who have noticed its inaccurate facts. At the same time, in the musicological literature we have a significant group of critics who are opposed to Sabaneyev; they even use the Russian term ‘sabaneyevschina’[4], negatively evaluating his work.

Despite the fact that the monograph by Sabaneyev represents great scientific interest, it must be admitted that it contains a number of inaccuracies, and that it cannot be the only correct interpretation of the version of events from the life of the composer.

From the first pages of Reminiscences of Scriabin Sabaneyev tries to convince the reader (and probably himself) that his work contains ‘perfectly accurate, factual material, which could then be applied as biographical information’[5]. However, this approach is simply not possible, as Sabaneyev had close contact with Scriabin, who later became his idol: ‘Of course, the latter [Sabaneyev] could not be impartial as to the characteristics of participants in the life of Scriabin, no matter how much he said about  this in the pages of his books’[6]. Like Scriabin, Sabaneyev was taught by Nikolai Zverev and Sergei Taneyev. Moreover, he studied music with Pavel Schloezer – an uncle of Scriabin’s second wife. Also, the musical critic belonged to the same musical environment that Scriabin was organically connected with. Later, Sabaneyev lived with the thoughts of Alexander Nikolayevich’s project, the ‘Mystery’, so he could not be objective, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself that he was just an observer.

In addition, you may notice that the critic changes his opinion very often about certain events and sometimes about people. So, when Scriabin was at the very beginning of his career, Sabaneyev, the young student of Taneyev (who was a major figure at the time) received early Scriabin with indifference. The composer made an impression on Sabaneyev as an unintelligent, poorly educated young man, but with admirable self-conceit. Scriabin’s music did not make any spiritual impact on him.

Only after the concert in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory where Leonid Sabaneyev heard the Third Symphony did he start loving the work of Scriabin. About this concert he wrote a glowing review[7]. Since that time Scriabin becomes for Sabaneyev ‘not only a favorite composer, but also a man to whom he became infinitely close whom he loved not only as a creator, but as a person’[8]. All the interests of the composer become Sabaneyev’s as well; he states that all five years – from 1909 to 1915 – he passed ‘under the sign of Scriabin.’

For a long time, and to this day, it is still widely believed that Sabaneyev existed as a critic predominantly of one subject (‘Allah Scriabin and his prophet – Sabaneyev’, as the musical critic Vladimir Derzhanovsky said). Sabaneyev created a whole series of original writings about Scriabin: articles on the individual works and the analysis of the composer’s oeuvre. Mainly, they were published in the journal Muzyka. In addition, he published two books: Scriabin in the publishing house of the symbolists, Scorpion, in 1916 and the Reminiscences of Scriabin in the musical sector of the State Publishing House in 1925 (reprinted in 2000).

‘The controversial attitude towards Sabaneyev in the musical circles of the beginning of the XX century was based on his position of “Scriabin’s adept” – at the time he looked at the phenomenon of the contemporary art through the eyes of his idol. This was due to a peculiar feature of Scriabin’s work: with a deep immersion in him, the works of other composers somehow fade in the perception,’ writes Grokhotov, the commentator of Sabaneyev’s book[9]. Leonid Sabaneyev admitted many times himself: ‘“Mystery”, “Mystery”, “Mystery”, everything about it. All around it, it became not only his own credo – certainly it was that, but we all were unwittingly captured by this hothouse atmosphere, these ideas, which are known to have a certain “infectiousness”’ [10].

Many contemporaries of Scriabin engaged in the disclosure of ‘Sabaneyevschina.’ Regarding the negative impact of the ‘hothouse atmosphere’, Heinrich Neuhaus writes in his article ‘Notes on Scriabin. On the 40th anniversary of his death’: ‘Mystics and obscurantists like  Sabaneyev  and Schloezer were extremely harmful for Scriabin; they created an unhealthy atmosphere of [the] unrestrained worship around him, attaining the level of a cult’[11]. Among other things, the pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky discussed the problem of Sabaneyev’s vision of Scriabin. Here is an example of lively, hard-hitting discussion about the composer in the conversation of Neuhaus and Sofronitsky: ‘Sabaneyev is the smartest critic, a remarkable musical scholar, but, unfortunately, a man of “flexible morality”’, Neuhaus remarked, referring to Sabaneyev’s characteristic ability to instantly rotate one hundred and eighty degrees in his judgments and even actions, depending on the situation. ‘Yes’, agreed Sofronitsky, ‘in fact he is a talented writer, a deep musician, but Satan was inside him and apparently it was not possible to understand: judging by appearances he was very sincere, sweet, simple, delicate’[12].

One of the main arguments of contemporaries against the Reminiscences of Scriabin was the fact that Sabaneyev imbued all Scriabin’s activities with a tinge of mysticism, and attributed traits that were not inherent in the composer. For example, what is surprising is that Sabaneyev considered his idol ‘a psychologically impressionable man’[13], thinking that it was possible to have influence on the composer’s thoughts. However, Scriabin was ‘an extraordinarily strong-willed man, strongly at odds with the people, who could not understand him’[14]. We can assume that Sabaneyev just wanted to believe that he could have influence on the ideas of a genius.

In addition, the prominent pianist and teacher Alexander Goldenweiser, Scriabin’s friend and one of the founders of the Scriabin Society in Russia, believed that Sabaneyev was telling lies (‘podviraet’) in the Reminiscences. He writes that the book even made a painful impression on him: ‘At 2 o’clock I went to visit Lyubov Scriabina [Scriabin’s aunt]. I was there for an hour. She groans at Sabaneyev’s book (really villainous) about Scriabin’[15].

Sabaneyev was subjective, inconsistent in judgments, and could make up stories and make errors in dates. Once, he even wrote a review of a non-existent concert. The chronicle of the journal Muzykal’nyi sovremennik [Musical Contemporary] published an open letter by Prokofiev, exposing the critical ‘review’ by Sabaneyev of a cancelled concert by Koussevitzky in which the Scythian Suite should have been performed.

Many contemporaries negatively treated Sabaneyev’s work as well as his personal qualities, in particular  owing to his characteristic of constantly changing opinion:

Prokofiev to Myaskovsky

March 27, 1926, Frankfurt

Someone has just seen Sabaneyev in Paris. I do not have any feelings of hatred towards him for the past, but there is a clear awareness that this is a man who has loudly and violently been wrong all his life and has changed his opinion to the opposite every few years. Consequently, he is a harmful phenomenon and he must be treated according to this.[16]

Sabaneyev changed his attitude towards his idol Scriabin after his death in 1915. Time and life-experience not only softened the harshness and intolerance of some earlier views, but they also significantly changed them. But the most curious metamorphosis occurred in the relation to Scriabin and Rachmaninoff – they were rebuilt in his hierarchy of values. The critic acknowledged that in his time he had ‘overlooked’ Rachmaninoff, and, comparing them in the article ‘Rachmaninoff and Scriabin’, he preferred Rachmaninoff, emphasizing his full genius (as a pianist, composer and conductor) and his rare human dignity. And here is what Sabaneyev wrote regarding Scriabin in his later article[17]:

‘I think that Scriabin is a composer of genius – and the “degree” of his genius could be compared to Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, but is inferior to […] of course, “the greatest”, which I think are Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Chopin and Mussorgsky’[18].

As a matter of interest, we can discover the changeability of Sabaneyev’s ideas in the title of his articles and the changing position in relation to Scriabin. So, in 1912 his article was named ‘Scriabin and Rachmaninoff’ (Muzyka. 1911. №75.) and in 1956 two geniuses of Russian music of the XX century are reversed: now Rachmaninoff eclipses Scriabin in his world and the titles changes –‘Rachmaninoff and Scriabin’ – this is how the publication is entitled in a collection of articles over the years[19].

At the end of the Reminiscences of Scriabin, Sabaneyev notes that after the death of Scriabin he was the one who organized a society for the preservation of the creative heritage of the composer. However, the critic exaggerated his contribution to the organization of this society. In fact, the head of the society was Princess Gagarina, and the board included Goldenweiser, Jurgenson, Sabaneyev, Ivanov, Baltrušaitis, Bogorodsky as well as many friends of Scriabin. And again this episode reflects the desire of Sabaneyev to bring himself closer to the composer, to show that he was a major figure, one of the closest.

However, despite the many uncertainties, it is impossible not to appreciate the interesting observations of Sabaneyev from Scriabin’s everyday life: ‘His [Sabaneyev’s] critical voice… was characterized by keenness of judgment, brilliance of literary style, sharpness and subjective characteristics’[20]. Therefore, it is worth recognizing a few entertaining character references of Scriabin given by his close friend, as well as notes on the composer’s creative plans.

Sabaneyev writes that the creator of Prometheus was an open and sociable person; every evening, he gathered his friends at his house and discussed with them  musical preferences, philosophy, he played his works, talked about his plans. In the composer’s study we can find volumes of The Secret Doctrine by Helena Blavatsky, Russian symbolist poetry, musical scores. As to his appearance, Scriabin was very neat, he curled his moustache before going out, indeed his entire toilet took a lot of time.

Communicating with Scriabin almost daily (except for the periods when he left Moscow) Sabaneyev collected extensive material on the work of the composer as well as his philosophical views. Musical creativity, to Scriabin, was inseparable from philosophy. However, the composer’s first biographer says that his idol did not get a deep philosophical education, but often his ideas often echoed the works of other philosophers. Scriabin was fond of Western philosophers, learned a lot from communicating with his contemporaries – Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Trubetskoy. Much more important to him was Theosophy, which preaches a universal divine principle that pervades the world and all its aspects. By the way, it should be noted that Scriabin’s daughter Maria, an actress, was a follower of ​​Rudolf Steiner.

Thanks to the Reminiscences of Sabaneyev we manage to understand better how Scriabin himself presented his work: ‘Creativity is life and it is the game of contradictions and struggle, in contrasts, in the ups and downs […] It is necessary to have a celebration of life, to have an upflight, somewhere to take off from’[21], – says the composer.

From the Reminiscences we can learn a number of factual information about the work of the composer. For example, in Prometheus the composer creates a ‘colour-music’ complex. Scriabin was the first one in the world of music who added to his work a part for light (luce) – that is to say, changing colour which accompanied the music. One of the most valuable documents, the appearance of which has a direct connection to Sabaneyev, is a copy of the published score of  Prometheus in which Scriabin, at Sabaneyev’s request, made a transcript of  what should happen in the luce part. In many ways, the appearance of such a ‘colour symphony’ was due to the fact that the composer had ‘colour hearing’ (when hearing music he saw images of colour). According to the composer the integration of the ‘colour symphony’ intensified the experience of the music itself.

Scriabin believed that humanity would come to the culmination of its existence by the overcoming of the entire material world through art. The artistic, creative act is the only means of the salvation of the world, of its transformation. Scriabin imagined the ‘Mystery’ as a grand work of art which combines all kinds of arts – music, poetry, dance, architecture and so on.

However, it should have been according to his idea not a pure work of art, but more particularly a collective ‘action’[22],  to be attended by neither more nor less than the whole of mankind. There will be no separation of performers and listeners-viewers. The implementation of the ‘Mystery’ would entail some tremendous upheaval and the global advent of a new era. According to Scriabin’s plan the process of the cosmic evolution of human consciousness would have been presented in the ‘Mystery’. From Sabaneyev’s records we learn that Scriabin dreamed of building a domed temple in India (when Scriabin was on a tour in 1914 in London he even inquired buying some land), where the ‘Mystery’ was to occur.

 The text of the ‘Prefatory Action’ was a step towards the creation of the ‘Mystery’, a so-called ‘safe Mystery’, which was to prepare the humanity for the transition to the new consciousness. In the 1914 Scriabin was busy working with the text for the ‘Prefatory Action’. He wanted to learn poetic technique in order to create a poetic text. Scriabin had finished the poem and even read it to contemporary poets, but the music remained in brief sketches. Here is an example of lines taken from the ‘Prefatory Action’:

We are all a single
Current, striving
Towards a moment away from eternity
Onto a path towards humanness
Down from transparency
Towards stony obscurity
In order to impress upon stoniness
In fiery creation
Your Divine countenance[23].

Sabaneyev, who strongly supported Scriabin in the creation of the ‘Prefatory Action’, again changes his mind at the end of the Reminiscences: ‘While I recognize now that the “Prefatory Action” was an unsuccessful poetical composition […]’[24].

We should consider that besides the Reminiscences of Sabaneyev there were a number of memories of Scriabin that appeared after his death. These works are of great importance for the profound understanding of the composer as these authors were people who knew him closely. For example, Yulii Engel created the first documentary biography according to the memories of Scriabin’s friends and his own recollections[25]. The musical critic Karatygin was a propagandist of Scriabin’s work during his lifetime and after his death (works:  Vyacheslav Karatygin, ‘Young Russian composers’, Apollon, 1910. No. 11/12; V. Karatygin, Scriabin. Ocherk [an outline], P., 1915; “Memories of Scriabin”, in his book: Izbrannye stat’i  [Selected articles], M., 1965).

A ‘circle of scriabinists’ was organized in order to promote Scriabin’s music. The circle included Vladimir Derzhanovsky, who wrote a series of articles about Scriabin’s creations[26] and the musical critic Evgenyi Gunst, who was a friend of Scriabin, published a book A. N. Scriabin i ego tvorchestvo [A. N. Scriabin and his art] in 1915. Vyacheslav Karatygin released an essay about the music of Scriabin[27]. In 1916, the critic Aleksandr Koptyaev wrote the book A. Scriabin. Characteristika. [A. Scriabin. Characteristics].

In 1919, Mikhail Gershenzon edited a volume in the series Russkie propilei in which the Prefatory Action was first published.  Boris Schloezer – brother of the second wife of the composer – wrote ‘Notes on the Prefatory Action’ for this collection, and afterwards he published a book[28].

In the 1930s a work by Mark Meichik, the student of the composer, appeared[29].

On the 25th anniversary of the death of Scriabin a collection devoted to his work titled Alexander Scriabin was published[30].

Among the works published in the last decade, the following should be emphasized;

  1. Viktor Delson. Ocherki zhizni i tvorchestva. [Scriabin. Essays on the life and work], M., 1971.
  2. Igor Boelza. Alexander Scriabin. M., 1987.
  3. Valentina Rubtsova. A.N. Scriabin. M., 1989.
  4. Sergei Fedyakin. Scriabin. M., 2004.
  5. A.S. Scriabin (comp.), Scriabin v prostranstvakh kul’tury XX veka [Scriabin in the cultural space of the XX century]. M., 2008.
  6. Alexander Goldenweizer. Vospominaniya. [Memories]. M., 2009

The aim of the authors of these books was to present objective biographic data, make an analysis of the composer’s works and of interpretive approaches. It is interesting that in all the researches authors refer to Sabaneyev.

There is still an unflagging interest in Alexander Nikolaevich’s works. This claim is confirmed by a set of scholarly conferences devoted to Scriabin’s art. Moreover, the question of Sabaneyev’s contribution to research into the composer’s work is frequently discussed. So, after the first conference Grokhotov’s article Bog i Prorok: Scriabin i Sabaneyev [The God and the Prophet: Scriabin and Sabaneyev] was published in the book Scriabin v prostranstvah kul’tury XX veka [Scriabin in the cultural space of the XX century]. In this article  the question is considered of how far the description given in Sabaneyev’s Reminiscences coincides with Scriabin’s real personality. Tatyana Maslovskaya read a paper entitled A. N. Scriabin in L. L. Sabaneyev’s life at the conference devoted to the 140 anniversary of Scriabin’s birth. Scriabin’s influence on Sabaneyev’s life, as well as  contradictions in the estimates of works of the composer, were revealed in Maslovskaya’s paper[31].

At the same conference Irina Medvedeva, the councillor of science of the Glinka national museum consortium of Musical Culture offered to create “a general collection” of information on all aspects of life and Scriabin’s works. This collection of documents can include museum heritage, musical heritage, literary heritage, epistolary heritage, documents (personal and of people close to the composer), research (researchers), performance of works, chronicle of life and works (chronology by days and by years). The question of work in specific research areas within this collection is also considered: Scriabin as a performer, Scriabin as a teacher, Scriabin as a reader, Scriabin and colour music (including the ANS synthesizer)[32], Scriabin and philosophy, Scriabin and poetry. It is planned to cover exhibitions, concerts, conferences, symposiums, to collect the press, criticism, a bibliography of printed music in a broad sense (including the history of publication), bibliography, a discography.

Certainly, the Reminiscences of Scriabin by Sabaneyev represent a great interest, especially from the point of view of the artistical value of the work, but also in the general context of extensive research literature on Scriabin; this book is not the only reliable source for the study of the personality and works of the composer. It has been proved by Scriabin researchers that in Sabaneyev’ book there are factual inaccuracies and a subjective approach to events. In our work we managed to find out that the view of Scriabin through the prism of Sabaneyev’s perception is insufficiently objective.

Alina Ivanova-Scriabina, Moscow

Alina SkryabinaAlina Ivanova-Scriabina is Scriabin’s great grand niece. Her family belongs to the branch of Scriabin’s cousin – Apollon Alexandrovich Scriabin. Alina studied Art and Literary Criticism in The Faculty of Journalism, Lomonosov Moscow State University and is a music journalist in “Piano” magazine. She has conducted research projects on Scriabin: Pushkin and Scriabin; Scriabin and Pasternak; thesis The image of Scriabin in criticism of the late XIX – early XX century. She has participated in international conferences with further publications: “The Art of Scriabin in the light of history, artistic and stylistic trends of the XXI century” (2012), “The way to Scriabin” marking the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death in the Scriabin Memorial Museum in Moscow (2015), “Taneyev and Scriabin. The teacher and the student” in the Moscow Conservatory (2015).

[1] The article was written in 2015.

[2] Sergei Grokhotov: ‘Bog i Prorok: Scriabin i Sabaneyev’ [The God and the Prophet: Scriabin and Sabaneyev]. A.S. Scriabin (comp.), Scriabin v prostranstvakh kul’tury XX veka [Scriabin in the cultural spaces of the XX century] M., 2008. p. 142. [editor’s note: throughout, the initials M., L., P. in this context denote places of publication: Moscow, Leningrad, Petrograd/St. Petersburg.]

[3] Leonid Sabaneyev: Vospominaniya o Scriabine [Reminiscences of Scriabin,] M., 2000; Vospominaniya o Taneyeve [Reminiscences of Taneyev], M., 2003; Vospominaniya o Rossii [Reminiscences of Russia], M., 2004.

[4] Adding the suffix ‘shchin’ to the surname of the critic characterizes the phenomenon of similar works with a hint of disapproval, the ending -shchina being pejorative. E.g. Zhdanovshchina – ‘the Zhdanov business’, Khovanshchina – ‘The Khovansky affair’, etc.

[5] Leonid Sabaneyev: Vospominaniya o Scriabine, op. cit., p. 5.

[6] Sergei Grokhotov, afterword to L. Sabaneyev, ibid., p. 374.

[7] Leonid Sabaneyev: ‘The Divine Poem of A. Scriabin’, Muzyka, 1911. No. 31.

[8] Sergei Grokhotov, afterword to L. Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Scriabine, op. cit., p. 29.

[9] Sergei Grokhotov: ‘Bog i Prorok: Scriabin i Sabaneyev’, op. cit., p. 142.

[10] Leonid Sabaneyev: Vospominaniya o Scriabine, op. cit., p. 212.

[11] Sovetskaya muzyka [Soviet music],1955, No. 4.

[12] A. Scriabin, I. Nikonovich. Vspominaya Sofronitskogo [Remembering Sofronitsky], M., 2008. p. 89.

[13] Leonid Sabaneyev: Vospominaniya o Scriabine, op. cit., p. 197.

[14] Sergei Grokhotov: ‘Bog i Prorok: Scriabin i Sabaneyev’,  op. cit., p. 148.

[15] Alexander Goldenweiser. Dnevnik, tetrady vtoraya–shestaya [Diary, notebooks 2-6]  (1905-1929). M., 199, p. 39.

[16] Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky. Perepiska [Correspondence]. M., 1977, p. 239.

[17] Leonid Sabaneyev, ‘Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin’,  Novoye Russkoye slovo [The new Russian word]. November 14, 1965.

[18] Tatyana Maslovskaya, Leonid Sabaneev ‘o proshlom’ (Vmeste predislova) [Leonid Sabaneyev ‘on the past’ (Instead of a preface)], Leonid Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Rossii, op.cit., p. 14.

[19] Leonid Sabaneyev, ibid., p. 14.

[20] Sergei Grokhotov, afterword to Leonid Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Scriabine, op. cit., p. 372.

[21] Leonid Sabaneyev: Vospominaniya o Scriabine, op. cit., p. 209.

[22] The old Russian word deistvo, or its modern equivalent deistvie, signifies a collective ritual with religious or spiritual significance. This is the word translated by ‘Action’ in the title  ‘Prefatory Action’ [Predvaritel’noe deistvie]. (Ed.)

[23] Alexander Scriabin: Predvaritel’noe deistvie [Prefatory Action], Russkie propilei. Materials on the history of Russian thoughts and literature, Volume VI. M., 1919, p. 240. Trans. Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin (from Skryabin’s Notebooks, Toccata Press, in preparation).

[24] Leonid Sabaneyev: Vospominaniya o Scriabine, op. cit., p. 339.

[25] Yu. Engel: ‘A.N. Scriabin. Biograficheskii ocherk’ [Biographical outline], Muzykal’nyi sovremennik [Musical Contemporary]. 1916. No. 4/5.

[26] Vladimir Derzhanovsky. ‘Posle “Prometei’” [After Prometheus], Muzyka, 1911, No. 14.

[27] Vyacheslav Karatygin. Scriabin. P., 1915.

[28] Boris Schloezer. Scriabin. Berlin, 1923.

[29] Mark Meichik. Scriabin, M., 1935.

[30] Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin. 1915-1940. Sbornik k 25-letiyu so dnya smerti. [Alexander Scriabin. Anthology for the 25th anniversary of his death]. M./L.,  1940.

[31] Tatyana Maslovskaya. A. N. Scriabin v zhizni L. L. Sabaneyeva [A. N. Scriabin in L. L. Sabaneyev’s life], report at conference ‘A. N. Scriabin’s Art in the light of history and art and stylistic tendencies of the XXI century’. Moscow, 2012.

[32] The sintezator ANS (the initials memorialising Scriabin) was an early musical synthesiser developed in the Soviet Union by Evgenyi Murzin and completed in 1957. Its first home was at the electronic musical research facility established in the Scriabin Museum, Moscow; a second version of the instrument can now be seen in the Glinka Museum. Among composers who made notable use of the instrument are Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina and Edward Artem’yev. The synthesiser as used by Artem’yev may be heard on the sound tracks of several films of Andrei Tarkovsky. (Ed.)

The texts of Scriabin’s works: some observations of a performer-researcher-teacher. By Simon Nicholls

The handwriting of any individual is a kind of self-portrait, and reading a handwritten letter can give an indication of the writer’s character and state of mind, and of his or her attitude to the content of the letter. An author’s manuscript often yields valuable information about the creative process; the manuscripts of Dickens or Dostoevsky provide many examples. Examining such a document is a very different experience from reading a novel in cold print. With a musical manuscript, the spacing, the character of the pen-strokes and of the musical handwriting, as well as details of layout which cannot always be exactly reproduced by the process of engraving, give similar information, valuable to the student and to the performer. Beyond factual information, the visual impression of the manuscript, the Notenbild, can be a direct stimulus from the composer to the interpreter’s imagination. In this way, study of the composer’s manuscript can lead both to a narrowing of the possibility of textual error and to a widening of the possibilities of imaginative response to interpretation.

Examining the manuscripts of any great composer or literary author is always a thrilling experience. I have spent many hours studying Scriabin’s manuscripts in the Glinka Museum, Moscow, which holds in its vast archive many fair and rough copies of complete works as well as sketches by Scriabin. The first thing which strikes one is the extreme beauty and clarity of the scores. The slender exactitude of the writing and drawing corresponds to the delicacy and transparency of Scriabin’s own playing of his music, and makes it clear to the interpreter that a similar clarity, precision and grace is demanded in his or her own performance – something extremely difficult to achieve. The care with which the manuscripts were prepared confirms the testimony of Scriabin’s friend and biographer, Leonid Sabaneyev, who was bemused by the care taken by the composer in the placing of slurs, the choice of sharps or flats in accidentals (contributing in many cases to an analysis of the harmony concerned), the spacing of the lines of the musical texture over the staves and the upward or downward direction of note stems.

It was Heinrich Schenker who pointed out the expressive and structural significance  of the manuscript notation of Beethoven, and who was instrumental in establishing an archive in the Austrian National Library, Vienna, of photographic reproductions of musical manuscripts. His pioneering work has led gradually to the present wealth of Urtext editions and facsimiles of many composers’ manuscripts. Reproductions of Skryabin’s manuscripts have been published by Muzyka (Moscow), Henle (Munich) and the Juilliard School (New York; their manuscript collection is available online).[1]  These reproductions cover several significant compositions by Scriabin: Sonata no. 5, op. 53; Two pieces, op. 59; Poème-nocturne, op. 61; Sonata no. 6, op. 62; Two poèmes, op. 63; Sonata no. 7, op. 64. The remarks below have no pretensions to system or completeness; they are merely observations based on initial study, and intended as a stimulus to others to examine the manuscripts for themselves.

In maturity, Scriabin took immense care with his manuscripts. Speaking to Sabaneyev, he compared the difficulty of writing down a conception in sound to the process of rendering a three-dimensional object on a flat surface. As a student and as a young composer, though, Scriabin was by no means ideally accurate or painstaking in his notation. This was the cause of Rimsky-Korsakov’s irritated response to the manuscript score of Scriabin’s Piano Concerto – the elder composer initially considered it to be too full of mistakes to be worthy of serious attention. Mitrofan Belaieff, Scriabin’s publisher, patron and mentor, frequently begged the composer to be more careful in correcting proofs. The original editions, particularly of the early works, contain many errors which originate in some cases from Scriabin’s manuscript and in others from poor proofreading – as far as we can tell; some early manuscripts are now lost.

We are indebted to the fine musician Nikolai Zhilyayev for correct editions of Scriabin’s music. Zhilyayev knew Scriabin well and discussed many misprints with the composer; others he detected by his own scrupulous and scholarly work and prodigious memory. As Scriabin’s harmony and voice-leading were impeccably systematic and logical at all stages of his development, those who have had to do with the old editions will know that is often possible to correct mistakes by analogy or knowledge of harmonic style.

 Zhilyayev was the revising editor for a new edition of Scriabin’s music, published by the Soviet organisation Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo muzykal’nyi sektor (State publisher, musical division – ‘Muzsektor’) from the 1920s on, each work or opus number being issued separately. These beautifully prepared editions are painstakingly annotated, corrections being indicated in two layers: those discussed with the composer and therefore beyond doubt, and those which Zhilyayev considered likely (and he was usually right). This work was the basis of the complete edition of the piano music published by Gosudarstvennoe muszykal’noe izdatel’stvo (State musical publishing house – ‘Muzgiz’) in three volumes (1947, 1948 and 1953).[2] Zhilyayev fell victim to Stalin’s terror; he was arrested in 1937 and shot in the following year. His name does not appear on this three-volume edition.

A new complete edition is appearing gradually under the imprint Muzyka–P. Jurgenson. The general editor is Valentina Rubtsova, biographer of Scriabin and head of research at the Scriabin Museum, Moscow, assisted by Pavel Shatsky. As in Rubtsova’s editions for Henle, full credit is given to Zhilyayev, and the annotations as to origins and variants are very thorough in this valuable new edition.

A  very  limited  number  of  Scriabin’s  manuscripts has been  available  in  facsimile until now. The collection of ‘Youthful and Early Works’ prepared by Donald Garvelmann and published in New York in 1970 by Music Treasure Publications[3] contains a facsimile of the early E flat minor sonata (without opus number) of 1889, a typical youthful manuscript of the composer, rather heavy in its style of penmanship. The manuscript of the op. 11 preludes (excerpts are shown in ill.1), though tidier, shows a similar style.

Extract of maunscript for Op. 11 preludes

ill. 1) Extract of  Op. 11 Preludes manuscript

The Russian website ‘Virtual’nye vystavki’ (‘Virtual exhibitions’)[4] gives in facsimile the first page of the Etude op. 8 no. 12, with more fingering than is shown in the Belaieff edition, and also the first page of the manuscript score of the Poem of Ecstasy, providing a striking example of the change in the composer’s manuscript style. A facsimile on the site of the first two pages of the score of the Piano Concerto shows some of the copious blue-pencilling of Rimsky-Korsakov from the occasion mentioned earlier, and the site also reproduces Skryabin’s letter of apology to Rimsky-Korsakov apologising for the errors and blaming neuralgia.[5] Comparison of this letter with the one to the musicologist N. F. Findeizen dated 26 December 1907, also viewable on the site, gives another clear example of the change in Scriabin’s handwriting.[6]

Op. 53: Sonata no. 5

A facsimile of the Fifth Sonata has been published by Muzyka.[7] The manuscript of this work was presented to the Skryabin Museum, Moscow, by the widow of the pianist and composer Alfred Laliberté, to whom Scriabin had given the manuscript. This is a very different document from the early E flat minor sonata manuscript, and shows Scriabin’s fastidious and calligraphically exquisite mature hand. By this time both Scriabin’s music manuscript and his handwriting had developed an elongated ‘upward-striving’ manner. We might make a comparison with the remark of Boris Pasternak that the composer ‘had trained himself various kinds of sublime lightness and unburdened movement resembling flight’[8] – the handwriting is expressive of this quality. Examples of Scriabin’s handwriting in letters to Belaieff in 1897 (ill. 2) and to the composer and conductor Felix Blumenfeld in 1906 (ill. 3) show the dramatic difference in handwriting style that developed.

ill. 2) Scriabin's handwriting 1897

ill. 2) Scriabin’s handwriting 1897

ill. 3) Scriabin's handwriting 1906

ill. 3) Scriabin’s handwriting 1906

The manuscript of the Fifth Sonata shows that, although Scriabin spoke French, he did not immediately provide a French text for the epigraph, which is from the verse Poem of Ecstasy. This poem was written in Russian at the same period that the symphonic poem was composed. There is a request on the manuscript to the engraver to leave space for a French version. The French text, which is the usual source of English translations, does not reflect the Russian with complete accuracy: the forces mystérieuses, ‘mysterious forces’, which are being called into life are skrytye stremlen’ya, ‘hidden strivings’, in the original.[9] In other words, it is open to doubt that any sort of ‘magical ritual’, in a superstitious sense, is being depicted in this work, a suggestion made (perhaps in a figurative sense) by the early writer on Scriabin Evgenii Gunst and elaborated upon by the composer’s British-American biographer, Alfred Swan. The epigraph may be regarded as an invocation of Scriabin’s own inner aspirations, the creative power which the composer equated with the divine principle.

Work on the Fifth Sonata started in 1907, at a period when a rift had developed between Scriabin and the publishing house of Belaieff. The committee running the publishers after the death of Belaieff had proposed a renegotiation of fees. It is possible that Scriabin was unaware of the preferential and generous treatment Belaieff had accorded him; certainly, he was offended by the proposals and withdrew from his agreement with the publishers. The Sonata was published at Scriabin’s own expense, but was taken into the publishing concern run by the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, Rossiiskoe muzykal’noe izdatel’stvo (RMI). Later still, Scriabin quarrelled with Koussevitsky too, and the composer’s last works were published by the firm which had brought out his very first published compositions, Jurgenson.

The main differences between the manuscript of the Fifth Sonata and most modern printed texts are:

1) a missing set of ties at the barline between  bars 98 and 99. These ties are also missing in RMI, and in the edition printed at Scriabin’s own expense.[10] Muzgiz adds the ties in dotted lines, by analogy with the parallel passage at bars 359–360. The commentary to the Muzgiz edition states that sketches of the work make use of an abbreviated notation at this point which could have led to this misunderstanding, as the editors describe it.  Christoph Flamm’s notes to the Bärenreiter edition are definite as to Scriabin’s intention not to tie over this barline, citing the repetition of accidentals in bar 99 as being conclusive proof.[11]

2) the movement of the middle voice in bars 122–123, 126–127, 136–137, 383–384, 387–388, 397–398  (Meno vivo sections): the manuscript gives a downward resolution in the middle voice (d flat – c in the first passage and g flat – f in the second) whereas the printed editions give an upward resolution (d flat – d natural and g flat – g). It is as if only at a second attempt (as revised for the printed version) has Scriabin fully realised the implications of his own (then very new) harmony: the resolutions as printed resolve into the augmented harmony around them, whereas the resolutions in the earlier version do not. Knowing about this early version, moreover, adds point to the grandiose version of the same section at bars 315–316, 319–20 and 323–324, where the downward resolution is retained. One might think of the meno vivo sections as being potential states, and the grandiose version as representing a fully realised condition.

It should be remembered that the Sonata was composed at breakneck speed, completed in a few days, and revised afterwards; Valentina Rubtsova, editor of the facsimile, suggests that the manuscript provides a glimpse into the composer’s creative laboratory. She further points out that Scriabin uses double barlines to indicate structural divisions, whereas publishers’ house style often requires a double bar at any change of key-signature or time-signature. This has resulted in the insertion of a number of non-authentic double bars in some published versions of the Fifth Sonata. Double bars occur in the manuscript in the following places only:

            before bar 47 (beginning of main sonata exposition)

            before bar 120 (Meno vivo, the second subject area)

            before bar 367 (indicating, perhaps a slight hesitation before this rising sequence)

            before bar 381 (parallel passage to bar 120).

The visual effect of the manuscript is therefore more continuous than that of the printed edition. It should be mentioned that the Urtext printed version given in the volume containing the manuscript is a corrected version of the RMI edition. This edition was prepared with the composer’s agreement and during his lifetime. The manuscript, though, is an invaluable source for the reasons given above.

A similar use of double barlines to that in the Sonata no. 5 is made elsewhere by Scriabin, including in the Sonata no. 6 (see below) and the Sonata no. 8. It can be said, from these examinations, that Scriabin uses double barlines structurally or even expressively, and that they often should be made audible in some way, in sharp contradistinction to the purely ‘grammatical’ double bars referred to above. The definition of ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’ is a non-scientific one and comes down to the player’s own interpretive insight, but where there is a double barline and no change of time- or key-signature, the double bar clearly has  structural significance.

The addition of a double bar by a publisher can confuse the interpreter. For example, Bach’s engraved edition of his own Second Partita has no double bar, in fact no barline at all, at the beginning of the third section of the Sinfonia (ill. 4.) The insertion of a double bar at this point, even in some ‘Urtext’ editions (because of the change of time-signature) leads many performers to treat the final chord of the middle section like a ‘starter’s pistol’ for the quicker final section, which, as consideration of the musical content will quickly demonstrate, starts on the second quaver of the bar with the fugue subject.

ill. 4) Manuscript of Sinfonia from Bach's Keyboard Partita no. 2

ill. 4) Manuscript of Sinfonia from Bach’s Keyboard Partita no. 2

The notes by Valentina Rubtsova to the facsimile of the Fifth Sonata mention Scriabin’s differing use of rallentando in its full version and of the abbreviation rall., and the possible implications of such usage for performance:

[…] in b. 382 Scriabin indicated molto rallentando, while in b. 386 and 390 he confined himself to [a] shortened and somewhat careless rall.  It seems that the theme sounded to him just like that: with a more substantial broadening in b.382 and in a somewhat generalized manner in b. 386 and 390.[12]

A related expressive function of details in the writing of performance directions will be noted below in the case of the Poème-Nocturne, op. 61.

Now we move to a group of Scriabin’s manuscripts, recently published on line by the Juilliard School of New York. The works with opus numbers 52, 53 and 58 to 64 were published by Koussevitsky’s firm, RMI, mentioned above. (The Poem of Ecstasy, op. 54, was already contracted to Belaieff, as were opp. 56 and 57; there is no work with the number 55.) Opp. 59 and 61 to 64 (op. 60 is an orchestral score, Prometheus) were bound together in one volume at some time. Koussevitsky’s archive went with him when he left Russia in 1920. The majority of the archive is now in the Library of Congress, but this volume somehow came onto the open market, and was sold at Sotheby’s in 2000. The purchaser, Bruce Kovner, businessman, collector and philanthropist, generously donated his entire collection to Juilliard School in 2006, and Juilliard have made the contents of the volume he purchased available in excellent facsimile online[13] – a huge step forward in making Scriabin manuscript facsimiles available to the musical public. The Sonata No. 7 has also been published in an equally excellent facsimile by Henle with informative notes by Valentina Rubtsovsa.[14] Some observations on these manuscripts follow.

Op. 59 no. 1, Poème

      b. 13: the two d sharps (the sharp sign was omitted) in the r. h., third and fourth quavers, are not tied. Perhaps they should be made uniform with the beginning, but this small variant could be seen as going with the more significant change of r.h. rhythm in b. 15. This detail raises the familiar problem: to what extent should a manuscript be preferred to a first edition? The editor has not queried this missing tie, but the tie was inserted in the first edition – possibly, a correction at proof stage by Scriabin. Cf. b. 36 for another tie which is missing in the manuscript but present in the first edition, probably corrected by Scriabin.

b. 15: an accidental is missing before the r. h. d sharp, third quaver of the bar. This mistake, as well as the missing accidental in b. 13, was reproduced in the first edition, but corrected by Zhilyayev.

b.19: the fifth quaver in  r. h. is spelled in the manuscript as b double flat, harder to read than the a natural printed in most editions, but consistent with the d flat bass of this bar and typical of Scriabin’s fastidiousness in his choice of accidentals. The spelling was reproduced in the first edition, but altered without comment by Zhilyayev, who did not have the manuscript available. (This manuscript was also not available to the editors at the time of preparation of the Muzyka-Jurgenson edition.) Subsequent editions, including Muzyka-Jurgenson, followed Zhilyayev’s reading. The ‘spelling’ of a note may well have an effect on the player of a wind or string instrument as regards actual pitch, and Sabaneyev discussed this with Scriabin. But a good pianist will often respond by minute adjustments of touch to the difference of inner hearing caused by enharmonic differences of spelling.[15]

b. 23–25: there is evidence in these bars of erased octave doublings in the right hand phrases, though the lower octave to the initial a, r.h. second quaver of bar 23, has not been erased – a mistake rightly queried by the editor. Here, the texture is delicate and transparent, but it will be remembered that Scriabin often preferred single notes to octaves in passages of powerful sonority where an effect of brightness was desirable (e.g. final climaxes of the Fifth Sonata and Vers la Flamme). Sabaneyev criticised the composer for scoring his orchestral music with doublings at the unison rather than the octave, but this seems to have been Scriabin’s preference in many places.

b. 28 and 30: The three r.h. quavers which continue the middle voice at the end of these bars were first written by Scriabin in the upper staff, but then erased and put into the lower staff, clarifying the voice-leading. This is an example of the care taken by the composer in the optical presentation of his voices.

b. 34: the manuscript and the first edition have d natural in r.h. upper voice, second, fourth and sixth quavers. This error was corrected by Zhilyayev, who changed these notes to d sharps, noting the analogy in bar 6.

b. 36: the tie between third and fourth quavers of the bar in r.h. is missing in the manuscript, but was supplied in the first edition – possibly a correction in proof by the composer.

b. 38: the acciaccatura at the beginning of the bar for both hands was written by Scriabin with a quaver tail without the customary cross-stroke. This seems to have been the composer’s usual habit – compare the beginning of the Sixth Sonata, written in the same way, as well as other instances – and, in the case of the present Poème, the notation was altered in the first edition. The RMI edition of the Sonata, however, shows the acciaccatura with a quaver-type tail, though many later editions add a cross-stroke. It may be felt that in both cases Scriabin’s notation may suggest a more deliberate execution of the acciaccaturas.

b.39: note the beautiful and unusual notation of the final sonority, a single stem uniting sounds many octaves apart and played by two hands. It is suggestive of the deep and strange sonority of this ending. It is given by most editions, but not by Peters, who ‘normalise’ the notation here.[16]

 Op. 59 no. 2, Prelude

A number of errors in the manuscript were correctly questioned by the editor, and further inconsistencies were corrected by Zhilyayev.

The rhythm at the beginning of bar 40, though, (marked avec defi – Scriabin omitted the acute accent on the second letter of défi) written as three even quavers, was retained in the first edition and subsequent ones despite having been questioned by the editor. Muzgiz, following Zhilyayev, queries whether it should be made consistent with the dotted rhythm of other similar bars. The Peters edition by Günter Philipp adopts this suggestion.[17] The present writer is of the opinion that the three even quavers help to express Scriabin’s suggested ‘defiance’.

Intriguingly, a slip of paper was pasted over the original manuscript at bars 26–28. This is at the position, characteristic of Scriabin’s short pieces, where the opening material begins to be repeated in transposition. The repeated chords on the paper slip, which anticipate the coda from bar 54 to 57, may have been a late compositional addition by Scriabin. (Other paper slips are observable, pasted into the manuscript of the Sonata no. 6.)

Op. 61, Poème-Nocturne 

(The manuscript of this work was also not available to the editors of Muzyka-Jurgenson, who were, however, able to consult a rough draft, as in the case of op. 59.)

Space will not permit a detailed analysis of longer works such as this, but some interesting features present themselves. The first page of the manuscript is written in two inks, blue and black. On the first system, the clefs and the r.h. phrase from the downbeat of bar one are written in blue, whereas the upbeat is written in black. A list of incipits for projected works by Scriabin exists in the Glinka Museum archives, and has been examined by the present writer. This list corresponds to a description by Sabaneyev of a collection of thematic material ‘for sonatas’. In the list, the Poème-Nocturne theme lacks its upbeat. Perhaps the addition of the upbeat was a late inspiration, like Beethoven’s last-minute addition of a two-note upbeat to the slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata. At the recapitulation, b. 109, the theme starts on the downbeat.

In bar 3 and the corresponding passage, bar 110, Scriabin writes the  molto più vivo directly over the l. h. figure on the second beat. This is placed too late in Muzgiz, but correctly in Muzyka-Jurgenson.

Scriabin’s usual practice is to write his performance directions or remarki in lower-case letters, but in the Poème-Nocturne and some other works this practice is departed from in certain places. The new ideas at bar 29 and 33 are marked in the manuscript Avec langueur and Comme en un rêve – suggesting, perhaps, that the arrival of these new ideas should be ‘shown’ by the player in some way, possibly by a very slight elongation of the rests before them, as with the start of a new sentence or paragraph in a text which is read aloud. The same thing happens at Avec une soudaine langueur  (sic) in bar 52, and Avec une passion naissante and De plus en plus passionné in bars 77 and 79. The first edition reproduces this peculiarity, but not Muzgiz or Muzyka-Jurgenson. It has not been possible to determine whether they are following Zhilyayev, as seems likely.[18]

The addition in printed editions, including the first, of a poco acceler. [sic in RMI] over the barline of bb. 46-47 is clear evidence of intervention by the composer at proof stage.

The long slur at comme un murmure confus (bar 103 to 110) is correctly reproduced in the editions known to this writer, but seeing it drawn so clearly and with such certainty in the manuscript is a reminder not to yield to the temptation to ‘explain’ the structure of this mysterious passage, and especially not to render the arrival of the recapitulation in bar 109 with any excessive degree of clarity. The piece reflects Scriabin’s exploration of states of consciousness on the borders of sleep, as he explained to Sabaneyev. On the other hand, the remarka at the point of arrival of the recapitulation (Avec une grace [sic] capricieuse[19]) does have the capital letter we have come to expect in this work when important thematic ideas are presented.

Op. 62: Sonata no. 6

This work is so successfully suggestive of dark areas of the spirit that a listener once suggested to the present writer, after a performance of the Sixth Sonata, that the music was evidence of psychosis in the composer’s own mind. The listener was, of course, making an error like that of Don Quixote at the puppet show – mistaking dramatic presentation for reality. The lucidity of the manuscript, as well as the highly organised and disciplined musical structure, show that Scriabin knew very well what he was doing.

Towards the end of the work there is a notorious high d written, which exceeds the range of the keyboard (bar 365). This note has also been quoted to me by music-lovers as evidence of Scriabin’s supposed delusional condition. Firstly, it should be pointed out that the d is dictated by analogy with bar 330. We can make a comparison with Ravel in this case. In the climax of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau there is a bottom note which, harmony dictates, should be G sharp, but as the note does not exist on most keyboards, Ravel wrote A.[20] Similarly, Ravel ‘faked’ octaves at the bottom of the piano in the recapitulation of Scarbo by writing sevenths. Scriabin, ever an idealist, preferred to write the pitch required by the music and to leave the solution to the interpreter.[21] Furthermore, the whole phrase from bar 365 to 367 is written an octave lower in the manuscript than in the first edition, thus bringing the d within the keyboard range.[22] An explanation for the late change between manuscript and first edition, which transposes the phrase up an octave, may be that Scriabin never performed this very difficult work – the premiere was entrusted to Elena Beckman-Shcherbina. Perhaps, in working on the piece with her and hearing the passage played up to tempo, Scriabin suggested that she try the phrase an octave higher, as the analogy with bar 330 demands, and realised that the chord flashes by with the substitution of c for d as the top note practically unheard. In her memoirs, Bekman-Shcherbina describes Scriabin’s detailed work with her on his compositions, but, alas, gives no details of the work which must have taken place on the Sixth Sonata.

The composer’s notation of the acciaccatura which starts the Sixth Sonata has already been mentioned (see above, Poème op 59 no. 1.) As in the case of the acciaccatura which sets off the Sonata in A minor by Mozart (K.310), this opening should not be played too glibly, but with a certain weight. Indeed, for a player whose hand cannot stretch the initial chords, it is a help to know that this arresting opening should not be hurried over. More importantly, an execution on the slow side helps to emphasise the sombre, unyielding severity of the opening sonority. It is perhaps unfortunate that publishers’ ‘house styles’ lead to a routine ‘correction’ of Scriabin’s notation of the acciaccatura.

‘House style’ has also led to the omission in some editions of the Sixth Sonata of a number of ‘structural’ double bars provided in the manuscript by Scriabin. Scriabin wrote double bars  before b. 92 (coda of exposition), 124 (beginning of development),  206 (recapitulation), 268 (end of recapitulation of second subject. As this last-mentioned place involves a change of time signature, the double bar is technically required, and is reproduced in printed editions, but there is a definite break in the atmosphere here.) The calligraphic beauty and clarity of b. 244–267, a notoriously complex passage, repays study.

Op. 64: Sonata no. 7

The manuscript of Sonata no. 7 is commented upon in detail by Valentina Rubtsova in her notes to the facsimile published by Henle, and these notes are published online.[23] They repay careful study, and Rubtsova gives an account of the other manuscript versions of the Sonata, one of which the present writer has examined in the Glinka Museum. The existence of this text, with its many alterations and differences from the finished version, calls into question the accusation, made by Sabaneyev and since repeated, that Scriabin established a ‘scheme’ of empty numbered bars and proceeded to ‘fill’ it with music. While numbers were clearly important to the composer in establishing a ‘crystalline’ form, the procedure of composition was far more complex than that, as the painstaking work shown in these manuscripts reveals.

Ill.5 is a reproduction of the first page of Scriabin’s earlier draft, with the remarka ‘Prophétique’ for the opening ‘fanfare’ motive. This marking, later rejected, gives a sense of the gesture of this musical idea, which is essential to the close connection of the Sonata with Scriabin’s idea of the ‘Mystery’, something he discussed with Sabaneyev. While visiting an exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery of paintings by the English artist George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), the present writer was struck by the convulsive, ‘prophetic’ gesture depicted in Watts’ ‘Jonah’ (1894), a painting which is reproduced online.[24] The performance of these opening bars needs to be as striking and dramatic as Watts’ painting.

ill. 5) 1st page from Manuscript of Sonata 7

ill. 5) 1st page from manuscript of Sonata 7

Op. 63, 2 Poèmes

In the second of these short works, some l. h. notes in the chords in b. 6 and 7 have been erased; these notes are relocated to the upper stave, where they belong musically, and marked m.g. (The m.d. in bar 7 is a characteristic slip, rightly questioned by the editor). The top note of these chords is shown in the manuscript as f natural and was so published in the RMI edition. Zhilyayev, who had discussed this passage with the composer, corrected this to f sharp.[25] The first notation shows how essential the gesture of hand-crossing was to Scriabin’s conception of the sonority here. Some pianists make the simultaneity of sounding of notes into a priority, but a letter by Scriabin to Belaieff which has been dated to December 1894 shows that spreading of chords was essential to his conception at times (such spreading was, in any case, far more prevalent at that period than now). In this letter, Scriabin writes that the ‘wide chords’ in bb. 9-10 of the Impromptu op. 10 no. 2 ‘must be played by the left hand alone, for the character of their sonority in performance depends on this.’[26]

The Scriabin facsimiles which have been made available in Russia and America are invaluable sources of information and inspiration, and studying them brings us just a little nearer to the composer. It is hoped that the notes above will encourage players and music lovers to investigate them, and also that more facsimiles may follow in the future.

Simon Nicholls, 2016.


[2] This edition was the basis of those of the sonatas, preludes and etudes reprinted by Dover, though some of the editions chosen for reprinting contained errors not present in the complete edition. Dover did not reproduce the essential information that nuances and rubatos given in brackets in these editions, notably in the op. 8 etudes, were from instructions given by Skryabin to Mariya Nemenova-Lunts while she was studying with the composer.

[3] This edition was republished in limited numbers by the Scriabin Society of the U.S.A.


[5] The letter is dated ‘19th April’ by Scriabin and dated to 1896 on the website. The edition by Kashperov of Scriabin’s letters (A. Scriabin, Pis’ma, Muzyka, Moscow, 1965/2003, attributes it to 1897 (p. 168–169, letter 144.)

[6] This letter is given by Kashperov (op.cit.) on p. 492–3, letter no. 545.

[7] Scriabin: Sonata no. 5, op. 53. Urtext and facsimile. Muzyka, Moscow, 2008.

[8] Boris Pasternak, An Essay in Autobiography, trans. Manya Harari,  Collins and Harvill, London, 1959, p. 44.

[9] I am grateful to the distinguished scholar of Russian literature Avril Pyman for pointing this out (private communication). The French text was added by hand by the composer to the proofs of the first edition (information from the notes by Christoph Flamm to Skrjabin: Sämtliche Klaviersonaten II, Bärenreiter, 2009, p. 43), but perhaps we should trust Scriabin’s Russian, his native tongue, rather than his French in this case.

[10] Ibid.,  p. 44.

[11] Muzgiz, vol. 3, commentary, p.  295. Christoph Flamm, loc. cit. The printed version supplied in the Muzyka edition of the facsimile adds the ties in dotted lines, following Muzgiz. It is certainly tempting to make the ‘correction’: most pianists play the tied version, which persists in many editions. But such bringing into line of parallel passages should not be done automatically.

[12] Valentina Rubtsova, notes to facsimile of Scriabin Sonata no. 5, p.57.

[13] Cf. n. 1, above.

[14] Alexander Skrjabin: Klaviersonate Nr. 7 op. 64. Faksimile nach dem Autograph. G. Henle Verlag, Munich, 2015. The foreword is also available online:

[15] Cf. Paul Badura-Skoda, Interpreting Mozart on the Keyboard, trans. Leo Black, Barrie & Rockliff, London, 1962, p. 290 for a brief discussion of one example of this problem. Brahms wrote against any attempt to improve on Chopin’s orthography at the time of the preparation of a new complete edition of the Chopin piano works (letter to Ernst Rudorff, late October or early November 1877, quoted in Franz Zagiba, Chopin und Wien, Bauer, Vienna, 1951, p.130.) All this comment is made about a single accidental because the orthography of Scriabin’s late music is such a wide-reaching, fascinating and important topic, perhaps seen by some students of the music only as an irritating difficulty of reading, and this is one small example of it. For a discussion of Scriabin’s orthography and its significance see George Perle, ‘Scriabin’s Self-Analyses’, Music Analysis, Vol. 3 no. 2 (1984), p. 101–122.

[16] Skrjabin, Klavierwerke  III, ed. Günter Philipp, Peters, Leipzig 1967.

[17] Ibid. Philipp notes the variant in an editor’s report, p. 98.

[18] Christoph Flamm discusses Scriabin’s remarki, and comments that the composer accepted with indifference the publishers’ treatment of his upper or lower-case letters (op. cit., p. 42). Nonetheless, these small ms. differences can be infinitely valuable suggestions to the performer. Flamm points out that even the size of the letters in which a remarka is written can be of significance for the performer.

[19] Scriabin spoke good French, but accents sometimes go missing in his writing. This circumstance could perhaps be compared with his tendency to miss out accidentals.

[20] The present writer has read a gramophone record review in which this famous bass note was described as a ‘wrong note.’

[21] The Austrian piano firm Bösendorfer added a few bass notes to the range of its largest instruments. Apart from making Ravel’s bass notes possible to ‘correct’, the bass strings add to the resonance of the piano. No such advantage attaches to an addition to the top of the keyboard.

[22] Noted by Darren Leaper.

[23] Cf. n. 15, above.


[25] Muzgiz, vol. 3, commentary, p. 296.

[26] Kashperov, op. cit., p. 87.

New Generation Scriabinists

Below are live recordings by students of the Scriabin Association’s co-chair, Dina Parakhina. Five of her students from Chethams School of Music, aged just 12-16, performed the complete Scriabin op. 11 preludes at a festival held at the RNCM concert Hall. There are two further performances from postgraduate students of Dina Parakhina’s at the RCM of the 8th and 9th sonatas.

Preludes op. 11:

Preludes op. 11 Nos. 1-6. Live performance by Mariam Loladze-Meredith (aged 12)
Preludes op. 11 Nos. 7-11. Live performance by Laura Newey (aged 16)
Preludes op. 11 Nos. 12-16. Live performance by Matthew McLachlan (aged 15)
Preludes op. 11 Nos. 17-20. Live performance by Callum McLachlan (aged 15)
Preludes op. 11 Nos. 21-24. Live performance by Varvara Maniichuk (aged 16)

Sonatas Nos. 8 and 9:

Sonata no.8 op.66 performed by Arsha Kaviani
Sonata no.9 op.68 performed by Poom Prommachart

James Kreiling – Recording of the late piano music

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

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

James writes for the Scriabin Association:

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

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

Pavel Vasil’evich Lobanov (1923–2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Nicholls, Jan 2016

Selected publications by Pavel Lobanov:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scriabin, Poet of Fire and Ecstasy by Guillaume Fournier

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

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

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

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

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

One can read in his notes:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wrote elsewhere:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He explains in his notebooks:

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

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

Thus, for Scriabin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, an excerpt from the Poem of Ecstasy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barenreiter Urtext Editions

Coinciding with the centenary year Barenreiter have produced exceptional new editions of the sonatas (volumes I, II & IV currently published with volume III in preparation). These Urtext editions reflect the latest scholarship, taking previously unknown sources into account, and include:

–        All fragmentary works, some published for the first time

–        Extensive foreword (Ger/Eng) and critical commentary (Eng) from Scriabin scholar, Christoph Flamm

Christoph Flamm has written for the Scriabin Association:

This new critical edition of Scriabin’s piano sonatas pursues a variety of objectives.

Firstly it is taking the title “complete piano sonatas” literally: for the first time, this edition is combining the 10 numbered sonatas with the unnumbered youthful sonatas as well as with all extant sonata fragments, music which has hardly ever (and even never before) been published.

Secondly the musical text is based on a comparison of all sources available, including sketches, first drafts, and autographs which have been deemed lost until recently, such as the autographs of the sonatas nos. 5, 6, and 7. In many cases, this material is being published as well, for example some sketches for the Third Sonata or the fragmentary first draft of the Ninth Sonata.

Thirdly the critical commentary seeks not only to list the discrepancies in the sources, but to discuss the editorial choices at length whenever this seems appropriate. Already Scriabin’s contemporaries have complained about the amount of errors in Scriabin’s manuscripts, many of which have entered the corresponding first editions. Then, we know from Scriabin’s own playing conserved on piano rolls that he did not follow any notion of Urtext, changing not only details, but even structural elements of his music when performing it. Both the composer’s errors and his flexible understanding of the written musical text have to be taken in mind when judging about variant readings in the sources.

Finally it is the editor’s conviction that a real understanding of Scriabin’s sonatas is possible only when being informed about the background of the music: the historical place of the sonatas, the composer’s biographical situation and aesthetical profile in the respective periods of composition, the composer’s programmatic ideas as discernible not only in the verbal elements of the scores, but in his letters and philosophical writings as well as in reminiscences of his contemporaries. It is for this reason that the prefaces to the editions are of exceptional length, not only covering genesis, source tradition and editorial principles, but giving in-depth information about the formal and semantical layers of the music, ultimately leading to a hermeneutical understanding of the sonatas as an artistic whole.

Further reading

Nils Franke has published an extensive interview with the editor of the new Bärenreiter Scriabin sonata edition in Piano Journal, Issue 95 (Winter 2011), pp. 30-32. A history of the attempts and problems of Scriabin philology, in German language, can be found in: Christoph Flamm, ‘“Die Notation […] deutet immer nur an.” Philologische Bemerkungen zu Skrjabin’, Alexander Skrjabin zum 100. Todestag, ed. by Christoph Flamm, Laaber: Laaber-Verlag 2015 (= MusikTheorie. Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft 30, 2015, no. 2), pp.171–186.

Christoph Flamm

Samples of the clear text are below and more information click on the samples or to purchase visit here.

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Articles Page

A page has now been added for new Scriabin articles. The first article, by Scriabin scholar and society co-chairman Simon Nicholls, is entitled On the tracks of Scriabin as pianist and is now available to view here. The Association hopes to add further articles over the coming months.

EPTA Publication

An article by Scriabin Association co-founder, Darren Leaper, entitled, “A Recorded History of Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Music: From the Composer as Pianist, to his First Pioneers at the Moscow Conservatory to Present Day” will be published across the next two EPTA magazines in April and September 2015. Visit here for information of the publication.