Monthly Archives: March 2016

Alexander Borovsky- The Forgotten Scriabinist and his own Reminiscences of Scriabin – by Darren Leaper with material and input provided to the Scriabin Association by William Jones

The recorded history of Scriabin’s piano works has been blessed with a small number of performances with great provenance: those who knew the composer himself and whom he approved. Amongst these precious recordings there are such gems as the performance of Scriabin’s Sonata no. 4 by Samuil Feinberg, whose interpretation the composer particularly admired[1]. Scriabin’s colleague Alexander Goldenweiser performed and recorded several of the composer’s pieces, including a superlative performance of the piano solo part in Prometheus, conducted by Nikolai Golovanov.[2] Elena Beckmann-Scherbina, who premiered many of Scriabin’s works, recorded three pieces by the composer towards the end of her life; Preludes op. 15 No. 1 & 2 and the Valse op. 38.[3]

Whilst it is fortunate for Scriabinists that these recordings exist, it is equally unfortunate that other great pianists with similar provenance were never recorded, and thus now largely forgotten. Names that fall into such a category could include Mark Meichik, who premiered the composer’s fifth sonata, and Vsevolod Buyukli, who was Scriabin’s own favourite pianist. In the instance of Mark Meichik he did make several piano roll recordings, but these were either not issued, or likely those that were no longer survive. [4]

Amongst the ‘greatest Scriabinists never heard’, the Russian-American pianist Alexander Borovsky is most intriguing. Borovsky was born in Mitau, Latvia, on March 8, 1889 (March 18th Old Style), and died on April 27, 1968 in Waban, Massachusetts, USA. After studies with his mother, who herself had been a student of Safonoff, Borovsky went on to study both law and music. He graduated as a ‘free artist’ and won the Anton Rubinstein prize at St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1912, his principal teacher being Annette Essipoff (1851-1914). He also gained a first-class law degree in 1914 from the University of St Petersburg. On 5th October 1915, Borovsky would perform St Petersburg’s second memorial recital in honour of Scriabin, who had died six months earlier. This recital consisted entirely of Scriabin’s works, covering pieces spanning Scriabin’s entire compositional career, from the complete Op. 8 Etudes to the Ninth Sonata, op. 68.[5] The success of this recital would cause him to be hailed as one of the finest interpreters of Scriabin’s music of the day.

Borovsky continued to have a celebrated career as pedagogue and performer, in Europe, South America and Mexico before eventually settling in Boston, USA in 1941 – his brilliance can be heard in several recordings he made of repertoire ranging from Bach to Liszt and Rachmaninov.  However, a notable absence is any audio recording of Scriabin’s works; there exist just two, commercially unavailable, piano rolls of three short Scriabin pieces: Prelude op.9 No.1 for left hand & Prelude op.15 No.2 (Duo-Art roll 6721) and the Impromptu op. 10 no. 2 (Duo-Art roll no. 6704)[6].

This lack of recordings has naturally led to the links between Borovsky and Scriabin’s music being overlooked. Fortunately, through material in the possession of the American pianist William Jones of Delmar, New York State USA, who was a student of Borovsky, fascinating connections between Borovsky and Scriabin’s music can now be rediscovered. William Jones’ unique resources include the vast unpublished memoirs of Borovsky, which contain first-hand accounts of Borovsky hearing Scriabin himself perform. [7]

Alexander Borovsky, 1944 (Photo courtesy of

Alexander Borovsky, 1944 (Photo courtesy of

Borovsky on Scriabin

Borovsky’s own interpretations of Scriabin impressed his contemporaries greatly, as will be discussed later. In view of this, it is a great loss that these performances were not recorded. In Borovsky’s memoirs, however, we are able to inherit something equally precious in descriptions of Scriabin’s own playing, which Borovsky heard at first-hand several times. He describes the difference in approach at the keyboard between Scriabin and Prokofiev; Prokofiev was a young admirer of Scriabin at the time. (NB- Small errors in Borovsky’s English have been allowed to stand)

‘Both Prokofiev and Scriabin were excellent pianists. Prokofiev was not interested in details, his playing was rather full of dash and sweeping audacity, but several details were not given proper attention or were even missed when he played his music and he did not care about the sounds which were mostly harsh and not cultivated. The same could be said of Scriabin who could also sacrifice the exactness and clarity of details for the spirit of his music, but here nothing of robustness or hard tone was admitted. Everything seemed to beeffleuré’ or delicately touched, very hard to be heard, so intimate and so fantastic and poetic. It was a different world from Prokofiev’s.’[8]

Borovsky gives a description of Scriabin’s own playing, with an anecdote recalling the audience’s confusion regarding Scriabin’s encores, in which he played some of his later compositions – many of the audience were not yet accustomed to the harmonic sonorities of these works.

‘I remember one symphonic concert on which Scriabin was soloist playing his own Piano Concerto (1897). As was customary in Russia he was asked to play an encore. He came to his piano and started to play one of his latest Poems. There on the stage three or four musicians of the orchestra were sitting close to composer, they probably did not have time to leave the stage because he came to play his encore almost immediately after playing with the orchestra. The ethereal qualities of his music did not allow him to exert any pressure on the keys of the piano, and it was hardly audible in the big hall what did he do at the piano.

When Scriabin finished to play the public was silent, and it was a moment of embarrassment which I felt as an offense to composer. At this moment the few musicians on the stage started to applaud and I saw Scriabin getting from his chair and making a bow to them. After this he sat and started to play another Poem, of this strange subtle weightlessness sonority. Again the audience did not react when he finished, but some youngsters in the hall clasped their hands to support the musicians on the stage, it was getting too comical, and happily the composer left the stage watched by the mass of indifferent or hostile people.  I did not know then that the music of this composer will serve me as the greatest momentum for my success as a concert pianist in Russia.’[9]

The accounts given by Borovsky confirm other descriptions by Scriabin’s contemporaries, such as the London Times’ review of the composer’s playing with ‘its velvet touch, its exquisite precision of phrasing’[10] and others describing playing of  ‘extraordinary inspiration and élan.[11] Borovsky’s observation that Scriabin did not exert any pressure on the keys has similarities with Alexander Pasternak’s observation that Scriabin appeared to be “drawing the sound out of the instrument”, giving the impression that “his fingers were producing the sound without touching the keys, that he was (as it were) snatching them away from the keyboard and letting them flutter lightly over it.”[12]

On another occasion Borovsky writes:

Scriabin was also unparalleled in his piano playing. For all his last works, when he already pursued an independent path in art and achieved legendary status for his 9th and 10th Piano Sonatas; he was and stays unparalleled in his virtuosity; we will be deprived for centuries of the greatness of his piano performances. [13]

In his memoirs Borovsky speaks of his passion not only for Scriabin the pianist but also the composer:

“Scriabin was changing the patterns of his creation very rapidly. If he dwelled longer on his so called first period which is a sort of opigoneish [sic: epigonic] music to that of Chopin and later reminding of the music of Liszt, from the moment when he discarded these two sources of influence on him he opened the road to his independent ways of creation. And then with almost every new year, with every new piano sonata he was discovering new worlds each time. This ability to go from one unknown field to another with accompanying changes in the structure and in the sonorities was followed eagerly by the Russian musical youth for whom Scriabin soon was an idol, and ideal of modern composer, a genius of tremendous possibilities.”[14]

Finally, Borovsky recounts the moment the catastrophic news arrived to him of the premature death of the composer:

One morning in April my friend BASIL SACHAROFF, called me by phone, in a voice trembling with emotion. He informed me that Alexander Scriabin had died, at 43, of a cancerous carbuncle on the cheek. I could not believe such terrible news at first. Scriabin was something of a symbol for my generation of musicians in Russia; he had been making such remarkable progress, attaining new horizons with each work, filling us all with the expectation of great things as the result of his inspiration, and it seemed to us unbelievable and cruel that his mind should be extinguished at the very height of his creative powers. Nobody could grasp the immediate meaning of his tragic end, although I later thought I understood the reasons for it.”[15]

Borovsky’s Scriabin Memorial Concert 1915

The premature death of Scriabin served as an unintentional catalyst for Borovsky, still only in his twenties, to become one of the most important Scriabin interpreters in Russia at the time. (Borovsky’s initial piano training as a child already had connections to Scriabin, learning from his mother, who was herself a brilliant pianist and whose own teacher had been Vassily Safonov; the same as Scriabin). A number of commemorative recitals had been arranged to mark Scriabin’s death, of which Borovsky was chosen to perform one such recital in Saint-Petersburg.

“In the fall of the year of Scriabin’s death, 1915, the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow organized commemorative festivals of his music, each city selecting three pianists to perform in its festival. Moscow was represented by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Mark Meichik, and Alexander Goldenweiser, while St. Petersburg, chose a man named Romanovsky, a Madame Barinova (if I recall the name correctly), and me, since ST. Petersburg was really my home city, even though I was then teaching in Moscow.”[16]

The preparation of this concert was one which must have been fraught with anxiety, given the hostile reaction to other Scriabin concerts at this time. Such was the devotion of Scriabinists to the composer’s own unique approach to the piano that even titans such as Rachmaninov could not escape criticism. Borovsky was disappointed in the reaction to Rachmaninov’s recitals particularly given the genorisity Rachmaninov had towards the Scriabin family, who were in financial difficulty at the time:

“At Scriabin’s open grave, Rachmaninoff vowed, and carried out the vow, to devote most of his forthcoming season to the music of Scriabin. He also gave all the proceeds from his numerous Scriabin recitals to the bereaved family, who were in financial distress at the time.”[17]

Borovsky himself was in attendance at Rachmaninov’s Scriabin memorial recital, criticising those who rebuked his performances:

Before leaving Moscow for my Scriabin program in St. Petersburg, I went to hear Rachmaninoff to play his music. Rachmaninoff could not put in his program any one of the latest works by Scriabin, as it was a world quite apart from his own, and he probably disliked all these strange compositions of the latest Scriabin. Therefore his program was filled only with the works belonging to the first period of Scriabin’s creation like Preludes, first Poems, some Studies and the cardinal number in the program was a Fantasy, Op 28, a long protracted composition without any plan or form, very repetitious and very noisy one. The composition alone of this program was disappointing to the addicts of Scriabin, and his touch which is so full of singing qualities was considered unsuitable to the subtleties of Scriabin’s world, and in the result the press was condemning Rachmaninoff for the shooting of guns salves upon the orchids. It was a sorry recompense to the artist for his noble gesture to prepare the whole recital program of his colleague who after all left the regions of music where both could be neighbors, and went into the fields of extreme modernism so foreign to Rachmaninoff. Especially wrong was this rebuttal to the artist after he had played with the orchestra the Concerto by Scriabin so wonderfully, so beautifully that for the first time he opened to the eyes and ears of the public what an incomparable pianist he was.[18] 



Amongst those also in attendance at one of Rachmaninov’s Scriabin concerts was Prokofiev, who had himself told Borovsky that the tenor Alchevsky had to be restrained by the coat-tails from accosting Rachmaninov. He was heard shouting “Wait!” I’ll go and have it out with him.” Prokofiev also added his voice to the dissenters, “He [Rachmaninov] played the Sonata no. 5. When Scriabin had played this sonata everything seemed to be flying upward, with Rachmaninov all the notes stood firmly planted on the earth. There was some confusion amongst the Scriabinists in the hall.[19] It is noteworthy that despite Prokofiev’s own evident admiration of Scriabin’s playing, Borovsky’s observations of Prokofiev as pianist suggest that Prokofiev did not attempt to emulate Scriabin’s approach to interpretation.

Prokofiev circa 1918

Prokofiev circa 1918

Borovsky’s anxiety over his own impending performance was heightened further by another scathing review of a Scriabin memorial recital in St Petersburg:

“Just before getting on the train at the Moscow railroad station, I bought a St. Petersburg newspaper and found in it a review of the Scriabin recital by the first of the three St. Petersburg pianists, Mr. Romanovsky. It was just as devastating as Rachmaninoff’s reception in Moscow, and I began to tremble at the thought of my upcoming trial, since it was beginning to appear that the memory of Scriabin’s inimitable piano technique precluded the possibility of anyone else’s success with his music.”[20]

 Amongst the dissenters in Romanovsky’s concert was, again, none other than Prokofiev, who, a year later, wrote in his diary for 1916: “I am very glad I had hissed Romanovsky when he played it [Scriabin Sonata no. 4] in September: he had bashed his way through it then without the slightest understanding.”[21] Borovsky described a “personal alienation by the jealousy of the composer’s nearest friends and of his mistress, who never learned to tolerate hearing anyone praised for playing Scriabin, save Scriabin himself.”[22] Given such hostile conditions it is a testament to the brilliance of Borovsky as interpreter of Scriabin that his concert in St.Petersburg was an unquestioned success. Amongst the fervent applauders was Alchevsky, who had been so contemptuous at Rachmaninov’s recital.

“When I finally began my recital, I nearly lost control of myself, from the expectation of some awful disaster. I played the twelve studies of Op 8 with great tension and verve, and in the last study, a very pathetic and energetic piece of music, I played with real abandon, and was rewarded with the greatest ovation of my life!  My artist room was filled at intermission with the most enthusiastic crowd (headed by the tenor Alchevsky) who were so happy to find someone who had played the music of their idol to suit their tastes.”[23]

Grigory Alchevsky- tenor

Grigory Alchevsky- the tenor hugely approved of Borovsky as Scriabin interpreter.

In the second half of the same concert Borovsky had the audacity to perform the late works which Rachmaninoff had avoided. The overall success of the concert paved the way for Borovsky to become hailed as the “heir-interpreter of Scriabin’s works.”

“After the intermission I played some of Scriabin’s late works, for which I gained the approval of the critics, although the public did not react too favorably to this strange music. But the concert, all in all, was a real success, and I was proclaimed as the heir-interpreter of Scriabin’s works. I was then engaged to give another Scriabin recital on the anniversary of his death, and I did this for several years, until the Revolution disrupted the normal course of events.”[24]

Borovsky’s fame as an interpreter of Scriabin was soon not confined to Russia, as an article in the Musical Times of London, 1916, confirms. Referring to a new Scriabin Society in Moscow set up a year after the composer’s death, the young pianist is mentioned: “Moscow AS [Alexander Scriabin] Society recently founded. Addresses on various aspects of AS art have been given by MM Brando, Makovsky and Bryanchaninov, and the performance of the later works and also of some posthumous pieces has been in the hands of Borovsky, who is considered the finest exponent of Scriabin’s pianoforte music.”[25]

A year later, 1917, saw the founding of another Scriabin Society in New York by Alfred La Liberté. Scriabin’s widow, Tatyana Schloezer, wrote to La Liberté recommending Borovsky as a name to endorse the new venture: ‘I also propose the name of Alexander Borovsky, a young professor at the Conservatory of Moscow, who plays almost all the works of Scriabine, and has already acquired a great reputation as a pianist in Russia. Mr Borowsky is a member of the Scriabine Society’[26]

The Scriabin recitals given by Borovsky continued to make an impression, not least on the young Prokofiev. The reason Prokofiev recalled in his diary of 1916 being glad he had hissed Romanovsky’s fourth sonata a year earlier was his hearing of Borovsky’s own exceptional interpretation at his latest Scriabin recital. Prokofiev wrote “Borovsky played truly wonderfully today, especially Scriabin’s fourth sonata. I am very glad I had hissed Romanovsky when his played it…”[27] Prokofiev’s descriptions of Borovsky’s playing demonstrated the pianist’s ability to give clarity to the complexities of the late works. Again in 1916 he wrote, “Scriabin died a year ago today. Borovsky played a recital of his works with his customary excellence, the Sixth Sonata being particularly fine. I have not hitherto known this sonata very well, but this time it gave me tremendous pleasure.”[28]

Whereas Borovsky had initially been one of the first to perform the later works of Scriabin, unlike Rachmaninov, over time he himself began to favour the later works less, doubting the staying power of the music and the works’ structural integrity:

“Due to the great popularity of these recitals, which were sold out two or three days after the tickets went on sale, I naturally developed a large Scriabin repertoire, including seven of his ten sonatas. But I found that I, too, could not long endure the amorphous quality of his last works, the ascetic lack of accompanying voices, the countless repetition of certain formulas, and the complete lack of formal organization. When Scriabin himself played his music, the unexpected mannerisms and effusive exaggerations were suggestive of some spiritual inspiration, which impressed his listeners. But as I worked over this music for a long period of time, all its defects came out in the open, and I realized that I was more satisfied by the music which better stands the test of times and is not so distinctly “fin-de-siecle.”[29]

Perhaps this loss of conviction regarding the works had, for a time, some detrimental effect on his own performances. Whereas Prokofiev had praised Borovsky’s playing before, a later recital left a markedly different impression, both of Borovsky’s playing and perhaps Prokofiev’s own diminishing regard for Scriabin’s music. “On the 14th I attended a recital of works by Scriabin marking the second anniversary of his death. And it was a strange experience… Scriabin’s preludes seemed to me so neutral, so tame and irrelevant…[30] In particular reference to the seventh and ninth sonatas Prokofiev added, “I did not care much for Borovsky’s interpretation either: it was cold and superficial.”[31]

Despite Prokofiev’s reservations, Borovsky continued to be one of the most celebrated Scriabinists, as is evident by his being asked to perform the solo part of Prometheus under the baton of Sergei Koussevitsky, who was himself a great champion of Scriabin’s music and with whom Scriabin had performed his own piano concerto some years earlier. This concert took place in Paris 1921, and later with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1923, still under the baton of Koussevitsky.

Programme announcing Borovsk's performance of Prometheus, conducted by Koussevitsky.

Programme announcing Borovsky’s performance of the solo part of Prometheus, conducted by Koussevitsky.

It is hoped this article will further the knowledge of the important links between Borovsky and Scriabin, encouraging recognition of the historical importance Borovsky’s piano roll performances of Scriabin, which we also hope may lead to their being eventually made available to the public in digital recordings.

Acknowledgements: I am sincerely grateful to William Jones for contacting the Scriabin Association to share his unique documents that have made detailing the links between Borovsky and Scriabin possible. I am also grateful to Simon Nicholls whose own advice, proof-reading and thorough knowledge of Scriabin has been invaluable.

Darren Leaper 2016.

[1] Feinberg also left a substantial recorded legacy of Scriabin’s works, including most of the Mazurkas and the concerto.

[2] Available on: ‘The Art of Nikolai Golovanov, Vol. 1: Scriabin: Piano Concerto / Poem of Ecstasy / Prometheus, the Poem of Fire’ ASIN: B00008EP3H or  The Art of Nikolai Golovanov: Scriabin – The Poem of Ecstasy & The Poem of Fire “Prometheus” Music Online

[3] Available on Russian Piano School vol. 11-  Melodia 74321332092. Her performance of the Valse op. 38 is also available to listen at

[4] A piano-roll recording of Meichik playing the Scriabin 5th sonata was made, but it is likely no surviving rolls exist, or it was never issued. He also recorded:

  • Etude op 8 no. 8 for Welte-Mignon
  • Etude op. 8 no.12 for Duca
  • Poemes op. 32 no.1 & 2 for Duca,
  • Poeme Tragique for Welte-Mignon
  • Prelude op 37 no.1 for Welte-Mignon and Duca
  • Prelude op. 48 no 2 for Welte-Mignon

(Information from: Daniel Bosshard, Thematisch-chronologisches Katalog der musikalischen Werke von Alexander Skrjabin, Trais Giats, Ardez, 2002.)

If anyone knows the whereabouts of any of the above please contact the Scriabin Association.

[5] See:  Charles Barber, Lost in the Stars: The Forgotten Musical Life of Alexader Siloti Scarecrow Press, 2002 pg. 332

[6] It is hoped these may soon be available to hear. The Scriabin Association will inform members should this be the case.

[7] William Jones’ own dedicated site to Alexander Borovsky can be seen at .

[8] Op. cit

[9] Op. cit.

[10] M.Scriabin At Queen’s Hall. First appearance in England The Times, March 16th 1914

[11] Reminiscence of Ossovsky quoted in Rudakova & Kandinsky – pg. 114, op.cit.

[12] A Pasternak – Scriabin summer 1903 and after, The Musical Times vol 113 pp. 1173-1174

[13] This extract was provided by William Jones from a lecture recital given by Borovsky in 1933 at the Russian Conservatory in Paris.

[14] Borovsky’s unpublished memoirs, information provided by William Jones.

[15] Op. cit

[16] Op. cit.

[17] Op. cit

[18] Op. cit

[19] Prokofiev, Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences, Moscow, pg. 41

[20] Borovsky – Op. cit.

[21] Sergei Prokofiev, Diaries 1915-1921 Behind the Mask- translated by Anthony Phillips. Faber & Faber (2006) pg. 85

[22] Borovsky – Op. cit.

[23] Op. cit.

[24] Op. cit.

[25] Musical Times of London-August 1916

[26] Musical Courier, October 18th, 1917 – It is also of interest that this published letter is signed by Tatyana Schloezer as T. Scriabine. Officially she was not allowed to use this surname given she was never actually married to Scriabin; he and his first wife were never divorced. Tatyana’s children from Scriabin were however given permission to use the surname.

[27] Sergei Prokofiev, Diaries 1915-1921 Behind the Mask- translated by Anthony Phillips. Faber & Faber (2006) pg. 85

[28] Prokofiev diaries, op. cit. pg. 123

[29] Borovsky – Op. cit.

[30] Op. cit pg. 189-190

[31] Op. cit.

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.)