Biography

Aleksandr Nikolaevich Scriabin: A short biography
by Simon Nicholls

Aleksandr Nikolaevich Scriabin was born on Christmas Day (Old Style) 1871[1] in Moscow into a family in which the males were predominantly military men. His mother, Lyubov’ Scriabina, née Shchetinina, however, was a gifted and successful pianist who played concerts including her own compositions. Ten days after the birth she was diagnosed as having a lung infection and was sent to Italy, where she died of tuberculosis in the following year. Scriabin’s father, who had been studying law, resumed his studies, which he had broken off to get married. After graduating and studying foreign languages he joined the diplomatic service; eventually this took him to Turkey.

The child was looked after by his grandmother Elizaveta and his aunt Lyubov’. At the age of three he was already able to pick out melodies at the piano with one finger. It was about this time that Lyubov’ asked to be allowed to renounce her own prospect of a family life and to devote herself to the care of the child, ‘Shurin’ka’ as he was known. By 1877 Shurin’ka was playing by ear with both hands. In 1879 he was given a toy theatre, for which he composed tragic plays and made scenery. In the same year, Anton Rubinstein, who had known Shurin’ka’s mother and admired her playing, heard the boy play. His advice was not to bother the child with demands but to let him go at his own pace, to compose and play when he wished.

In 1882 Shurin’ka joined the cadet corps, having been prepared for the entrance exams by his aunt. He was excused arms-bearing exercises but was good at gymnastics, and popular because of his musical abilities. It was in the corps that he first played to an audience, a Mendelssohn Venetian Gondola Song and a Bach gavotte, again by ear. The following year he started formal piano lessons with Georgii Konyus, who noted the child’s weak tone-production and low standard of music reading. In this year, however, Shurin’ka composed a skilful Canon in D minor  dedicated to Konyus.

In 1883 Shurin’ka also suffered from measles (or German measles) complicated by dropsy. A common description of him for most of his life was ‘pale, fragile’…  –  he was short and slight in physique.

In 1885 Scriabin, whom we will now refer to by his surname, started piano lessons with Nikolai Zverev, whose reputation as a teacher was built on preparing students for the Conservatoire. Among the students in Zverev’s class was Rachmaninov. Zverev’s students often lived in, but Scriabin was a ‘day boy’. At the same time Scriabin started lessons in theory and harmony with Sergei Taneev, who noted his extraordinary aural abilities. Composition was now a constant activity for Scriabin.

Scriabin commenced study at Moscow conservatoire in 1888, studying piano with Vassily Safonov and, later, composition with Anton Arensky. Attendance at the cadet corps continued until 1889. In 1891 A. N. met and fell in love with Natalya Sekerina, to whom he wrote numerous letters from then until 1895, when she turned down his proposal of marriage. By her own account, this was despite their mutual love and because of feelings of inadequacy. Parental disapproval probably also played a major part.

1891 was also the year in which Scriabin developed a repetitive strain injury in his right arm or hand (probably both) from over-practice in the vacation, striving to emulate his brilliant classmate Joseph Lhévinne. He may well have been predisposed to this injury by an earlier accident at the age of fourteen, when he was driven into by a horse-drawn vehicle while crossing the road and fractured his right collar-bone. The injury developed again in 1893. It was also in 1891 that relations between Scriabin and Arensky broke down and that Scriabin ceased to attend composition classes. This led to Scriabin’s graduating from the Conservatoire in 1892 with what was known as the small gold medal, the great gold medal being awarded for successful study in both piano and composition. In that year, however, the first of Scriabin’s compositions to be published (without payment to the composer) appeared in the imprint of Jurgenson publishing house, and in the summer Scriabin travelled to St. Petersburg, Vyborg and Finland.

The following year, under doctors’ instructions, Scriabin spent some time in Samara, taking a cure involving the drinking of kumis, a fermented mares’ milk which was highly regarded at the time for medicinal properties, and later in Gurzuf in the Crimea. The famous Prelude and Nocturne for left hand op. 9 were composed at about this time.

1894 saw Scriabin’s debut as composer-pianist in a concert in St Petersburg attended by Mitrofan Belyayev (Belaieff is the French transliteration and the name of the publishing house, which will be given below in quotes), who became Scriabin’s publisher, mentor and patron. The first Sonata op. 6 and the twelve Etudes op. 8 were published in 1895, a year when Scriabin took a long tour in Germany, Switzerland and Italy; impressions gained on this trip went into a number of the Twenty-four Preludes op. 11. In the autumn Scriabin became acquainted with Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, who became an influence in the development of the composer’s  philosophical outlook.

Scriabin’s first concerts abroad took place in 1896: Paris, Brussels, Berlin, the Hague, Amsterdam and Cologne. In August of the following year he married the fine pianist Vera Isakovich. The Piano Concerto op. 20 received its premiere a month later, with Scriabin playing the solo part and Safonov conducting. In the following year the Twenty-four Preludes were published.

The Scriabins travelled to Paris and gave a joint concert of Aleksandr Nikolaevich’s works in the Salle Erard on Jan 19th 1898. Their first child, Rimma, was born two months after their return from Paris, in July.

In this year the Second and Third Piano Sonatas, opp. 19 and 23, and Scriabin’s short symphonic poem, Mechty (Daydreams) op. 24 were published by ‘Belaieff’, and Rimsky-Korsakov conducted the first performance of Mechty. Scriabin took up an appointment teaching in Moscow Conservatoire, which continued until the end of 1902. His interest in philosophy began to grow at this period.

In 1900 the Scriabins’ second daughter, Elena, was born. A tour to Berlin and Paris was undertaken, and the first performance of the First Symphony op. 26 took place under Anatoly Lyadov in St. Petersburg, the choral finale being omitted. Scriabin became involved in the circle of philosophers in Moscow. An important page of notes, recounting an inner victory over despair, renouncing religious faith and affirming self-reliance, dates from about this time.

1901 saw the Moscow premiere of the First Symphony and, in November, the completion of the Second Symphony op. 29. Work also commenced on the Fourth Sonata op. 30. The Scriabins’ second daughter, Maria, was born; their son Lev followed in 1902. In January of the same year Scriabin read the libretto of a projected opera to Emilii Rozenov, and in November he made the acquaintance of Tatyana Schloezer.

The summer of 1903 was spent in the country, at Obolenskoe, where Scriabin, who owed Belaiev money, worked at piano pieces  (opp. 31–42), finished the Fourth Sonata op. 30 and started work on the Third Symphony, ‘Divine Poem’, op. 43. Belaiev died that December.

In February 1904 Scriabin moved to Switzerland; the family joined him in Geneva in March. They moved to Vésenaz in late February or early March and Tatyana Schloezer moved to Belle-Rive, nearby, shortly afterwards. Much of the year was taken up with the orchestration of the Third Symphony, sent to the publishers in November, and with the composition of the piano pieces opp. 44-47.

In September the Second International Philosophical Congress took place in Geneva. From Scriabin’s notes in the detailed report of the conference, a large volume which shows the dominance of idealist thought at that period, we know that Scriabin took a close interest in it, and his name appears in the list of subscribers. There is no conclusive proof that he attended this conference, but it is very likely that he did. In the summer a notebook was filled by Scriabin with pencilled philosophical speculations on the nature of consciousness, and with an early prose draft of the verse for the Poem of Ecstasy. In November Scriabin travelled to Paris in order to arrange a performance of the Symphony no. 3. Tatyana Schloezer joined him there in November. Scriabin and Vera Ivanovna agreed to separate in December, but there was never a divorce.

A second philosophical notebook, the first part of which is written in an ecstatic style sometimes suggestive of Nietzsche, but also showing the influence of the Russian poet Bal’mont, was written in 1904-5.

In 1905 the Third Symphony received its first performance, in Paris, and two letters from Scriabin to Tatyana Schloezer written on  April  22 and 25 (Old Style) recount the composer’s awakening interest in the Theosophical system of H. P. Blavatsky. Scriabin commenced work on the composition of the Poem of Ecstasy op. 54 in this year. Scriabin and Schloezer moved to Bogliasco, Italy, some time before  June 4 (Old Style), and their daughter Ariadna was born there. Scriabin’s daughter with Vera Ivanovna, Rimma, died in July. At the end of the year Scriabin and the board of the ‘Belaieff’ publishing house had a disagreement: the board wished to reduce Scriabin’s fees, and the annual prizes and awards previously given by Belyayev himself were discontinued. In 1906, however, the ‘Belaieff’ board awarded Scriabin the Glinka prize for his Third Symphony.

In this year (1906) Scriabin printed privately the final version of the verses for the Poem of Ecstasy. The four piano pieces of op. 51 were composed.

There is a further extensive notebook containing attempts to formulate theories of consciousness and its relation to physical phenomena, together with a rough version of the verses for the Poem of Ecstasy, nearly complete, dating from 1905-1906.

Scriabin and Tatyana Schloezer travelled to Brussels in 1906. Scriabin commenced an American tour in December; in March 1907 it was prematurely brought to an end because of scandal involving Scriabin’s non-marital relationship with Tatyana Schloezer, who had joined him in the States.

In the aftermath of this disaster Scriabin and Schloezer travelled to Paris. At a meeting with the board of the ‘Belaieff’ publishing house it was agreed that ‘Belaieff’ should publish the Poem of Ecstasy, but Scriabin did not this year receive the prize for it that he had come to expect. Scriabin tried self-publishing; the three piano pieces of op. 52 were privately printed in Leipzig at his expense. Scriabin and Schloezer travelled to Beatenberg, Switzerland, where work continued on the Poem of Ecstasy, which was finished in November in Lausanne, to where they had moved in September. A few days after the completion of the Poem, the Piano sonata no. 5   op. 53 was begun, and finished in seven days (November 25 – December 1, Old Style).

Scriabin’s first piano roll recordings, for the firm of Hupfeld, were made in January 1908. In February a son was born, Yulian. At the beginning of June the conductor and virtuoso bass-player Sergei (Serge) Kussevitsky (Koussevitzky) visited Lausanne with his wealthy wife, offering Scriabin concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg. Kussevitsky’s ‘Russian Music Publishing company’ took over the publishing of the Three pieces op. 52, the Fifth Sonata op. 53 and opp. 58-64. In November the Sonata no.5 and the Poem of Ecstasy received their first performances, the sonata played by Mark Meichik in Moscow, the orchestral work by the Russian Symphony Orchestra Society of New York conducted by Modest Altschuler. The Glinka Prize for 1908 was awarded to the Poem of Ecstasy.

1909 saw the return of Scriabin and Schloezer to Moscow. Concerts of Scriabin’s compositions took place in St Petersburg (Poem of Ecstasy, and later a recital by Scriabin), and Moscow (Scriabin played the Waltz op. 38, pieces from opp. 52 and 57, two preludes and the Fifth Sonata in January, and in a February concert in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatoire he repeated the Sonata in a ‘Scriabin evening’ which also included performances of the Divine Poem and the Poem of Ecstasy conducted by Emil Cooper.) A short piece of great significance for Scriabin’s musical language, the Feuillet d’album op.58, was composed in this year, and work was started on Prometheus.  Scriabin met Vyacheslav Ivanov, the philosopher and poet, at an evening arranged for the composer by the magazine Apollon. This friendship was to have a significant influence on Scriabin’s aesthetic and outlook.

On a personal level this was a time of difficulties with old friends who were not able to accept Scriabin’s ménage with Tatyana Schloezer, and Scriabin, Schloezer and their children moved to Brussels in March, staying until January 1910, when they returned finally to Moscow. Here, according to a letter from Tatyana Schloezer to the pianist Mariya Nemenova-Lunts, Scriabin composed “a great deal, again new, again infinitely beautiful! He is feeling elation and a flood of creative energy…” This must refer to work on Prometheus. In Brussels Scriabin met a number of Theosophists, among them being Jean Delville, who designed the symbolic cover for the score of Prometheus.

A tragic note was sounded by the death of Scriabin’s son with Vera Ivanovna, Lev, in 1910. In the same year Scriabin recorded a few pieces on piano rolls for the firm of Welte.

Life continued with the birth of another daughter, Marina, in 1911, with successful concert performances, including the première of Prometheus in St Petersburg, conducted by Kussevitsky, in March 1911 and intensive compositional work: the Piano sonatas nos. 6 and 7 opp. 62 and 64 were composed in 1911-12; the Sonatas no. 8 op. 66, no.9 op. 68 and no. 10 op. 70 were finished by June 7 1913 (Old Style), the Eighth being the last to be composed. After a dispute with Kussevitzky, Scriabin reverted to his first publisher Jurgenson, and the Three Etudes op. 65 and all subsequent works were published by that firm.

Scriabin was obliged to give concert tours in provincial towns and cities to support his family. It was perhaps in these years that Scriabin really established his reputation as a unique interpreter of his own music, though controversy continued over the characteristic qualities of his playing.

At this time Scriabin was increasingly concerned with being able to turn to his long-cherished project, the Mystery, whose origins can be seen in the choral finale to the Symphony no. 1 and in the unfinished opera project, and which ‘became more minutely crystallized’, Alfred Swan states, in the time spent in Brussels. It had now assumed such gigantic proportions that Scriabin had recourse to a projected work for voices and orchestra which he named Preliminary Action. The music of some of the 5 Preludes op. 74 and of the Flammes sombres in op. 73 (both composed in 1914) relates to the sketches which remain of this work, which Scriabin had in his head, stating that he only needed to write it down – he played long stretches of it to friends at that time. The libretto was written in Summer 1914, after Scriabin’s highly successful visit to London, during which he performed his Piano concerto and Prometheus in the Queen’s Hall with Henry Wood and gave two recitals in the Wigmore Hall (then the Bechstein Hall). But it was during that visit that an infected boil on Scriabin’s upper lip gave him great pain. The infection returned in April 1915 after Scriabin had given concerts in Moscow, Petrograd (the new non-Germanic name for St Petersburg), Kharkov, Kiev and what turned out to be the final concert, again in Petrograd.  In the course of an agonising few days, and despite desperate attempts at treatment, septicaemia set in; Scriabin died in great agony and delirium.

The funeral was such a huge affair that tickets had to be issued. There are two postludes to this tale, one tragic, the other heartwarming. In 1919, while Tatyana Schloezer was staying with her children in Kiev, her son Yulian Scriabin, who showed extraordinary talent and musical ability, accidentally drowned. Tatyana, it may be said, never fully recovered from this second blow. But the heartwarming episode had happened earlier. Scriabin died without being able to leave his family enough money to pay for the funeral or to live on; and the lease on the flat in Bolshoi Nikolopeskovskii pereulok (now the Scriabin Museum in Moscow) ran out on the same day that he died. Many efforts were made to raise money for the widow and her family. Sergei Rachmaninov, who had long considered Scriabin to have gone off on a ‘wrong path’ compositionally, went on a concert tour playing only works of Scriabin – all profits to go to the Scriabin family. Humanity and altruism took precedence over aesthetic differences between two great artists.

Note: In compiling these notes I have made use principally of the chronology in Skryabin by Sergei Fedyakin (Moscow 2004). But I have also made reference to the following:

Myzykalnyi Sovremennik (Musical Contemporary) 4-5, Dec. 1915-Jan. 1916.
Handbook to the Piano Works of A. Scriabin, M. Montagu-Nathan, London and Brighton, 1916.
Scriabin, Alfred J. Swan, London 1923.
A. N. Skryabin. Sbornik k 25-letiyu so dnya smerti (Anthology for the 25th anniversary of his death) Moscow/Leningrad, 1940.
Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva A. N. Skryabina (Chronicle of the life and work of Skryabin), M. P. Pryashnikova and O. M. Tompakova, Moscow, 1983.
A. N. Skryabin, Valentina Rubtsova, Moscow 1989.

[1] Until January 1st 1918 Russia followed the Julian calendar (‘Old Style’) which differed from the  universally used Gregorian calendar (‘New Style’) by twelve days: Christmas Day 1871 Old Style corresponds to January 6 1872 New Style.