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.)