Scriabin@150: Full Report

The Scriabin @ 150 conference and celebration, Reading, 24-25 September 2022

Professor Kenneth Forkert-Smith (Liverpool), joint editor of Demystifying Scriabin, and Mark Richards, senior deputy head of Queen Anne’s School, Reading, were the joint originators of this intense, informative and inspiring event. This happy combination brought about a close collaboration by the school staff in technical back-up, providing unfailing support for many copiously illustrated lectures and a number of participations via Zoom. The school buildings and grounds are exceptionally beautiful. In order to fit a rich programme of events into two days, two, sometimes three lecture rooms were used, and two or three talks would happen simultaneously, which made for some hard choices; but eventually all the talks will be made available on video recordings. We had speakers from Korea, Germany, America, Austria, Greece, Cyprus, Denmark, Serbia, Italy, France, Armenia, Hong Kong (via Zoom) and Hungary, as well as the UK, and many performances took place within the framework of the talks, so that the living music was always in our ears. In addition there was an extremely fine evening performance of Scriabin’s early works by Anita D’Attillis, the school’s outstanding staff pianist:

Sonatas nos. 2 and 3. 2 Poèmes op. 32. Etudes C sharp minor op. 2 no.1; D sharp minor op 8 no. 12.

Here is a list of the presenters and summaries of their subjects:

Session 1a: Ties and Influences

  • Jared Redmond (Seoul National University)

Korsakov scales, the Mystic chord  and Scriabin’s influence on harmony in the 1920s Soviet avant-garde

It was demonstrated that what was claimed by Roslavets as a ‘new’ system was in fact an adaptation of Scriabin’s mature technique.  A similar influence can be shown in the music of Mosolov and Protopopov.

  • Richard Louis Gillies (Universities of Glasgow and Manchester)

The ocean in a grain of salt: Scriabin and the art of fragment

The dichotomy in Scriabin’s creation between gigantism and a love of the miniature was shown to be resolved by his use of the ‘fragment’ as a small work which yet implies something greater; a highly compact, fluid, and unpredictable form of expression.

  • Simon Nicholls (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, retired)

Scriabin and language

Scriabin viewed art as a single unified expression in which music was a link in the chain of meaning. Language was important at early and late stages. Letters and notebooks reveal his tastes and predilections. Contemporary literary influences were examined and there was speculation as to how Scriabin’s interest in a ‘new language’ and with the poetry of Khlebnikov might have combined with his way of fragmenting Blavatsky’s ‘significant word’ Oeaohoo in Prometheus  to lead to a further stage of zaum words combined with music.

  • Wendelin Bitzan (Robert Schumann Hochschule Düsseldorf)

Scriabin and Medtner: latent influences and intercommunities

These two composers are opposites in style and in temperament, and yet there are analogous structures in melodic invention and harmony to be found subcutaneously.

Particular attention was paid to some of the Medtner skazki and songs and certain of the poèmes of Scriabin: opp. 32, 34 and 36.

Session 1B: Forces and Motion

  • Ildar Khannanov (Peabody Institute and Johns Hopkins University USA) (via Zoom)

From unknown Yavorski to Mysterious Scriabin

Yavorski was among the first theorists of Scriabin’s music.  His work is little understood in the West, but a project by Kompozitor Edition, ‘Unknown Yavorsky’, is planning to publish many of his early and unknown papers. His theory may prove applicable to many kinds of contemporary music.

  • Inessa Bazayev (Louisiana State University)

The Scriabin tremor and its role in his oeuvre

An approach from the angle of disability studies and hermeneutics. As a student Scriabin injured his hand. This led to the topic of struggle against difficulty becoming central to his work. Further, a ‘sigh’ motive of regret developed into an  oscillating semitonal motive that became central to his musical style.

  • Wei-Ling Cheong (Chinese University of Hong Kong) (via Zoom)

Scriabin’s Metric and Rhythmic Modernism

The analysis by Messiaen of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring shows many affinities with Scriabin’s elusive use of rhythm. By applying its criteria some approach may be made to an understanding of how rhythmic elements combine with Scriabin’s ‘chord-centre’ technique, ‘the paradox of motion within non-motion’.

  • Lance Russell (Dallas College) (via Zoom)

Enigmatic voice-leading in Scriabin’s Three pieces op.52

An investigation of quasi-Schenkerian Urlinien in these works, treated  as composed-out motivic structures providing a ‘bedrock’ (Scriabin) and linking tertian harmonies which articulate the structure. A connection is made between Scriabin’s guiding notion of the Will and Schenker’s Tonwille, the ‘will’ of the individual note.

Session 2B: Performance and Interpretation

  • Laura Granero (University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna)

Scriabin plays Scriabin (recital)

The Scriabin piano rolls were re-examined through audio-visual analysis and using the invention of the Disklavier, whereby it is possible, for example, to play only one hand while the recording plays the other. Experience drawn from these experiments has been used in developing interpretations of other works not recorded by the composer.

  • James Kreiling (Guildhall School of Music)

Lecture-recital: Deceptive beauty – poetic origins, music and performance.

Oh Beauty! Dost thou come from Heaven or from Hell?

(Baudelaire, Hymn to Beauty, 1857)

An examination of the dichotomy between desire and danger in Scriabin’s conception of beauty, the Feminine Principle, tracing his approach through Baudelaire and Shelley to the mythical figures of Ondine, the Sirens and the Rusalka. Examples include the Sixth and Ninth Sonatas and the miniatures Masque and Etrangeté.

Session 2B: Function, Scale, Referentiality

  • Chris Williams (Duke University)

The Harmonic Multiverse: Harmonic Qualia in Scriabin

Three sources: Matt Chiu and Lewin on the discrete Fourier transform, and Ian Quinn on equal-tempered harmony, were used to approach a late work by Scriabin and the mapping of harmonic qualia. Quinn has constructed a novel insight into possible hearings of Scriabin.

Scriabin’s works, in their turn, may help to explain the elusive and gnomic qualities of the discrete Fourier transform itself.

  • Keith Salley (Shenandoah University)

Functional conflation and referentiality in Scriabin’s early works

A little-explored relation between Scriabin’s early and late styles was shown in the ambiguous use of chords ^1, ^2, ^4 and ^5 (often with the added ^6) and their transposition and arrangement to involve the maximum number of notes common between them, and the similarity between this practice in the earlier music and the use of Scriabin’s later ‘mystic’ chords, which may function as tonics but which have the structure of dominants. This led into a wider study of referentiality in its mimetic, intra-oeuvre and structural aspects.

  • Adrian Childs (University of Georgia, Athens)

Transpositional development, pitch-class invariance, and acoustic signalling in late Scriabin

The acoustic collection (sometimes known as the ‘Bartok’ scale), unlike the octatonic and whole-tone scales, is not symmetrical and can give the listener a foothold amid the multiple ambiguities of Scriabin’s compositional style. From this observation have been derived a number of strategies for the understanding and analysis of Scriabin’s ambiguities and transpositional developments, and a method of graphic modelling of his ‘transformational voice -leading.’

  • Vasilis Kallis (University of Nikosia)

On Scriabin’s transitional period (1903-1908): from harmonic function to scalar quality

This period, which coincides with the composer’s interest in the music of Liszt and Wagner and the spiritual philosophies of Blavatsky, shows the gradual invasion of Scriabin’s music by his preferred post-tonal harmonic and scalar structures, and an increasing haziness in the tonality. Three attributes are noticeable: the concentration on tonic, dominant and Neapolitan functions, articulation of variable scale degrees, and the increasing equivalence of local root with local tonic. Thus the primary tonal functions are pared down to ‘I-quality’ and ‘V-quality’. Scriabin looked to the future with tools ‘forged in the past’.

  • Mark Johnson (University of Chicago)

(Black) Mass and erotic charge: Peter Rowlands’s physics in Scriabin’s 9th sonata.

An analogy was drawn between the Nilpotent Quantum Mechanics of Peter Rowlands and the inner workings of Scriabin’s ‘Black Mass’ sonata. Rowland theorises, starting from Newton’s Third Law of Movement, that the totality of mass/energy in the universe must be zero. By an analogy between quantum entanglement and the physiology of expectation and

eroticism, the dynamics of the total energy of the Ninth Sonata can be shown to be driven by a similar totality of zero – the silence with which all musical works end, but a silence ‘constructed’ by their content.

  • Alexander Jakobidze-Gitman (University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany)

Dread and fascination as the primary affects in late Scriabin

In his late music Scriabin was concerned with evoking non-Christian mystery cults. Associated with these is the study by Rudolf Otto on The Idea of the Holy (1917)

In which the term numinous is coined for the sacred sphere, which is seen as both terrifying and fascinating. Scriabin’s harmonic and acoustic experiments and studies can be fruitfully studied in the light of this concept.

Session 3A: The Wagnerian legacy

  • Ivana Medic (Institute of Musicology, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts)

Scriabin’s and Schoenberg’s approach to Gesamtkunstwerk

The two composers mentioned each had their own vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner. With Scriabin it was the Mystery, which was never completed but which towered as a concept over all his output – it was proposed that he was a proto-pioneer of conceptual art. Schoenberg’s contribution to the concept was Die glückliche Hand, which, despite its numerous innovations, was not performed until 1924 as a consequence of the Great War. When it appeared, there was a new social and cultural climate in existence. These developments and transformations of Wagner’s concept were compared and contrasted.

  • David Haas (Hodgson School of Music/UGA)

Scriabin’s Leitmotivic technique: the progress of a method

Building on Wagnerian scholars such as Dahlhaus and Stein and more recent theoretical work on the Wagnerian Leitmotiv in a context outside opera, Scriabin’s increasing use of this

device from the Divin poème and the Fourth Sonata on was investigated.  His motives, terse and highly expressive, were conceived in this discussion as musical symbols of cognitive content in an evolving context of extra-musical signification, as typically linear, unstable successions of 5–7 notes within a tonal system, and finally as  a set of musical symbols representing human emotions – symbols and emotions being equally susceptible to transformation. Examples were drawn from the Third Sonata,  poèmes from 1903 and a number of preludes, and the significance of their use for works to come was emphasised.

Marina Lupishko (Ruhr University Bochum)

An ‘Artist-hero’: Scriabin’s visions of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the context of the early

Russian avant-garde

The Gesamtkunstwerk vision is both artistic and political/religious. David Roberts has traced its history from 1789, but the post-Wagner history of the concept has been little investigated. The Russian spiritual lineage and the context of other early avant-garde projects, together with the work of Ciurlionis, form a useful background for the study of Scriabin’s own aspirations.

Session 3B: Past and Future: the Late Works

  • Ezra Bartz (Texas State University)

Lecture-recital: From idea to practice: Scriabin’s harmonic principle in the Eighth Sonata.

On the basis of Scriabin’s theory of the identity of melody and harmony, Dr. Bartz demonstrated the unfolding of phrase and form from the work’s fundamental harmony, stated at the beginning. The transposition and chromatic alterations of this harmony create a sense of progression throughout. After the strictness of the Seventh Sonata, this process freed Scriabin to move towards the extended chromatic harmony of the Ninth. A simple but illuminating device was used: a score was projected during the performance in which every bar was coloured according to a system which showed the changing tonalities/roots.

  • Luigi Verdi (Conservatorio Santa Cecilia, Rome)

From Scriabin’s Prometheus chord to kaleidocycles and tiling canons

Scriabin’s method in Prometheus of linking identical chords by tritones or minor thirds can be developed into complete cycles of such transpositions of chords based on a diminished seventh. These cycles were shown in Professor Verdi’s own elegant coloured diagrams. Tiling canons were demonstrated; in these, short excerpts can be combined in the traditional canonic techniques, doubling being avoided. These possibilities of transformation were described by  Professor Verdi as ‘almost alchemical’ and the aggregations created by them as Chemusic – a synthesis of music and chemistry.

  • Christoph Flamm (Heidelberg University)

The future of the past? Diatonic harmonic structures in Scriabin’s late sonatas

Earlier research (Dernova, Eberle) concentrated on harmony; more recent work has focused on scalar structures (Hakobian, 2015). Attention has rarely been given to the tonal, triadic elements which remain in Scriabin’s structures. Professor Flamm discussed the use of such harmonies in the Sonatas 6–10 from the point of view of their dramaturgical function, the meaning of the placing of such chords and their implications for the return of diatonic rather than symmetrical melodic lines, e.g. in the Eighth Sonata. ‘The poetical world of the late sonatas […] seem[s] to re-interpret elements of the musical past as means of the future.’

Session 4A: The Mystery

  • Ali Sansori (Palacky University,Olomuc, Czech Republic

Scriabin and Cosmism

The religio-mystical atmosphere in which Scriabin grew up contained a strong element of what became known as Cosmism in the work of Solovyov, Fedorov and Berdyayev. The paper defined the movement identified as Russian Cosmism and showed how Scriabin transformed these ideas into his own unique philosophy.

  • Hannah McLaughlin (Princeton)

Scriabin’s Utopian ‘Mysterium’

The Mysterium and its associated philosophies were considered alongside twentieth-century utopian theory, the idea proposed by Ruth Levitas as ‘method utopia’ and the role of music in communicating impossibility and realizing imaginary social landscapes.

  • Manon Fabre (CNSMDP, ENS, Paris

“Complexity is the path to simplicity” – about Alexander Scriabin’s Five Preludes op. 74

At the end of Scriabin’s life his unrealised Mystery caused endless discussion. His actual last composition, though, is a set of miniatures. The sketches for the Preliminary Act contain a number of self-quotations, particularly from these preludes. In this paper the preludes, unprecedentedly condensed and rigorous, were examined in relation to the unrealised project and as a musical prism through which Scriabin’s last creative period can be understood.

  • Mariam Asatryan (independent researcher/Institute of Arts, National Academy of Sciences, Republic of Armenia)

The fourth dimension in Scriabin’s experience

Scriabin’s spoken statements and his writings published in Russkie propilei show that his mystical ideas came to him through music and were confirmed in esoteric teachings. These ecstatic  experiences led him to mystical sensations of contact with the Absolute, which inspired further creation in a cyclical process. His drawing  published in Russkie Propilei seems to evoke this process, combing space and time in a four-dimensional model.

The writings and the drawing were interpreted in this paper from the points of view of the philosophies of Solovyov and Dane Rudhyar. 

Session 4B: Scriabin’s Reception

  • Akos Windhager (PhD, Budapest)

Russian Bartok: Hungarian reception of Scriabin in the twentieth century

The response of the Hungarian public, critics and musicologicalists to Scriabin in the twentieth century was examined. It became clear that the orchestral works created interest, despite infrequent performance. In particular a performance of The Poem of Ecstasy conducted by Issay Dobrowen in 1935 awakened musicological interest: from being regarded as a follower of Strauss and Debussy, Scriabin was re-assessed as ‘The Russian Bartok. Post 1990 interest focused on the influence of Liszt, in artistic and spiritual aspects, on a Scriabin now recognised as autonomous.

  • Akvile Stuart (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire)

Unfitting introduction to a tea party? English critical reactions to Scriabin’s Prometheus, 1913–23

The Times published letters from members of the public asking to hear Prometheus twice in one evening, in the interests of comprehension. This was done, but the majority of the musical press was sceptical, exhibiting an amused attitude of superiority very typical of the British musical press of the period: conservative, cautious, profoundly insular.

  • Lindsey Macchiarella (University of Texas at El Paso)

Skryabin and Wagner: A Reception Study

The idea that Scriabin is an outlier of musical history grew after his death, partly under the influence of Boris Schloezer. During his lifetime, though, Scriabin was discussed in conjunction Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Schoenberg. Initially he fostered the Wagner connection but later strove to overcome it. Whether he was regarded as an extender of canonical Romantic works or as someone who had left the concept of music behind depended on the commentator’s position as a supporter or detractor of Scriabin.

  • Natalia Gorbunova (A. K. Glazunov Conservatory, Petrozavodsk)

Scriabin’s legacy reputation in USSR: classic or outsider?

The principle material for this study is the periodical Sovetskaya muzyka  in the period 1933-1953. In general Scriabin’s high professional status and authority was confirmed, despite a degree of controversy about the later music, which is sometimes described as ‘delusional’. This ‘inconsistency’ meant it was not possible to  accept him as a ‘classic’.

Session 4c: Flight, dance, and time

  • Areg Mekhakyan (A.N. Scriabin Memorial Museum, Moscow)

Secular and sacred dance in the oeuvre of composer A. N. Skryabin

Starting in the early compositions with secular dance, the dance element in Scriabin moves through lyrical dance themes in the middle period to sacred dance in the last music. The Dionysiac element in this dance character was recognised by Vyacheslav Ivanov, and Scriabin’s meeting with the Sufi musician Inayat Khan enhanced his awareness of the sacred whirling dances of the Sufis.  The Greek ekstasis (for Scriabin, ‘dematerialisation’) and the Sufi wajd are cognate.

  • Kristen Topham (Shenandoah University)

Crossmodal creation: Light and Sonata no. 4 op. 30

Interpretation of the emotional content Sonata no. 4 can be made clearer through a combination of movement and light. The aim is to introduce a wider use of a multi-media approach to Scriabin’s music, taking the cue from his own initiatives.

  • Natalie Pang (Eastman School of Music)

Performing the flight topic in Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata

Flight, a central theme for Scriabin, becomes a topic in his middle and later works. This topic can only be adequately expressed in the Fourth Sonata by the use of the movements, leaping and staccato; a physical embodiment as a complement to the structural and poietic analytical modalities.

Keynote Address: Marina Frolova-Walker

Professor Walker gave a fluent, typically entertaining but penetrating account of Scriabin’s character and his relations on those around him, based on a re-reading of the composer’s letters.

Posters were exhibited by D. Mus student David Mott (Southampton) on Neo-Riemannian structures and musical affect in Scriabin’s Poème languide and by Béatrice Isidora Beer promoting The evolution of harmonic style in Scriabin’s oeuvre by Joseph Beer.

Report compiled by Simon Nicholls. The accounts of the speakers’ contributions were compiled from their own summaries, but S.N. takes full responsibility for any inaccuracies.