Author Archives: admin

Igor Zhukov: obituary

Igor Zhukov, a leading Russian pianist who was also a conductor and a recording engineer, died in Moscow on January 26, 2018. He was 81, having been born in 1936 in Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky in the Soviet era); his family moved to Moscow a year after he was born. He studied at Moscow Conservatoire with Emil Gilels and Heinrich Neuhaus, and won the second prize for piano in the Long-Thibaud competition of 1957. He was a pianist of profound insight, which was vividly conveyed by an enormous, seemingly infallible technical capacity. His authoritative recording of all ten Scriabin sonatas was the first complete recording to be made in Russia, and was issued in the composer’s centenary year of 1972. It aroused great interest in the West, and has been reissued on CD; but Zhukov’s formidable discography contains, besides other works by Scriabin, a wide repertoire ranging from Bach to Prokofiev, including the Brahms second concerto, the Medtner first concerto, and all the music for piano and orchestra by Tchaikovsky. The Sonata op. 22 and the Quintet by Medtner were also recorded by Zhukov. He performed and recorded in a trio with the violinist and cellist Grigory and Valentin Feigin, and proved to be an outstanding partner to the soprano Natalia Gerasimova in a disc of songs by Glinka and Rachmaninov.

As conductor Zhukov worked with the Chamber Orchestra of the Ulyanovsk Philharmonia, New Moscow Chamber Orchestra and, more recently, with another chamber orchestra, the Nizhny Novgorod Soloists.

As a human being Zhukov was warm, generous, hospitable and hugely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about all aspects of music. His enormous repertoire as pianist and conductor was predominantly Russian and German, but it is a testimony of his breadth of sympathies that he conducted moving and eloquent performances, with the Nizhny Novgorod Soloists, of works by Elgar and Britten.

Tracks from Zhukov’s recorded archive are being assembled on the official website of the Nizhny Novgorod Soloists (Russian language):

Review – The Alexander Scriabin Companion: History, Performance, and Lore. Lincoln Ballard, Matthew Bengtson with John Bell Young. Rowman & Littlefield.

Here is a comprehensive and many-faceted book for confirmed and potential Scriabinists, a collaboration between a scholar and a performer, with a contribution from a notable Scriabinist who is no longer with us.

The music is examined from the angles of harmonic and stylistic development and also from the point of view of interpretation; as well as giving advice on tackling the major piano works, Matthew Bengtson wisely suggests introducing less advanced players to some of the miniatures. Lincoln Ballard is an expert in the reception history of Scriabin’s music, and recounts the vicissitudes of its popularity, not only in the West but also in the Soviet period in Russia. The chapter on harmony will be found useful by many who may have found Scriabin’s scores hard to read and who have not yet found out the deep logic of what he is doing, the ‘pattern in the carpet.’

Scriabin’s own performing style is examined with reference to the work done by Pavel Lobanov in Russia and Anatole Leikin in America. The recommendations of recordings for many works are useful, and will encourage investigation – many fine Scriabin performances can be heard on the internet now. The reader is made aware of important historic performers from the Russian tradition: Sofronitsky, Feinberg, Fyodorova (or Fedorova). Some more recent reissues of historical performances are not mentioned: in particular, most of Sofronitsky’s performances are now available on the Russian label Vista Vera.

It should be said that some views expressed in the contribution of the late John Bell Young, a distinguished player of Skryabin’s music who had close contact with the Russian tradition, may be regarded as quite idiosyncratic, and these should be read critically.

Do acquire this book: like Larousse’s encyclopedia, it could carry the motto ‘Je sème à tout vent’ ­– ‘with every puff of wind I sow a seed.’

Simon Nicholls

The Alexander Scriabin Companion: History, Performance, and Lore (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). By Lincoln Ballard and Matthew Bengtson, with John Bell Young.

Critics, scholars, and students who seek reliable information about Scriabin have long contended with journalistic exposés and outdated publications that can be more anecdotal than factual, most notably the two books by Faubion Bowers. On the other hand, a wealth of academic studies tackle more complex issues of performance practice, theoretical analysis, and stylistic influence, but can overwhelm readers with their technical jargon and dense writing style. These writings also remain largely inaccessible those who lack subscriptions to such databases as JSTOR and Project MUSE. A century’s worth of Scriabin scholarship is now collated and clearly organised in a new book that bridges the divide between popular and scholarly writings, and presents a unique collaboration between a historian and a performer: The Alexander Scriabin Companion: History, Performance, and Lore.

Co-written by a musicologist (Ballard) and a performer/scholar (Bengtson), this interdisciplinary study adds to a growing body of companion-titled books on classical composers that have appeared since the early 2000s.[1] The Scriabin Companion corrects many of the myths and misconceptions that have enveloped the composer’s music for over a century. It offers new information on Scriabin’s critical reception and the interpretation of his music at the piano, and provides a modern and comprehensive account of his legacy. The book does not assume any familiarity with music theory or critical theory. It is written in an accessible style that will appeal to readers who are just discovering Scriabin’s music for the first time, and those whose knowledge of his life and music runs deep.

The book opens with a foreword by the English pianist Stephen Hough and an introductory chapter written by the late American pianist and critic John Bell Young (1953-2017). Part I, written by Ballard, introduces readers to Scriabin’s biography and cultural background as well as his musical and philosophical influences. Brief synopses of his major works for solo piano and for orchestra supply readers with essential historical background and performance histories for each work. High quality recordings are recommended for each piece, including historical recordings and recent releases. Part I also documents the great pianists and conductors who championed Scriabin’s music, many of whom built their careers on this repertoire. Part II, also written by Ballard, discusses four major topics in Scriabin’s reception history: the myths and fallacies that originated with his biographers; the composer’s claims to synaesthesia or “colour-hearing”; the major revival of interest in his music during the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially among the American counterculture; and the charges of anti-Russianness that have been levelled against his music. Part III was written by Bengtson, Assistant Professor of Piano Literature at the University of Michigan, and a specialist in Scriabin’s music. His six chapters explore stylistic issues in Scriabin’s piano music, and offer analytical observations as well as interpretive and technical strategies for performing his works. Bengtson breaks down Scriabin’s style into its core elements (harmony, melody, rhythm, sound, and technique) in an effort to help pianists of all skill levels more clearly communicate the composer’s music and message.

The Alexander Scriabin Companion aspires to be the authoritative modern source for anyone who is interested in learning about this composer’s life, legacy, and music. It broadens our understanding of early twentieth-century Russian style by identifying some of its key stylistic markers, and Scriabin’s unique thumbprint in particular. The book presents a fresh perspective on some of the most heavily discussed topics in the Scriabin literature, and its extensive citations offer ample avenues of research for the next generation of scholars. Armed with these materials, readers will be able to better appreciate the stylistic innovations and colourful imagination of this extraordinary composer. Scriabin Association members can use the discount code “RLFANDF30” to purchase The Alexander Scriabin Companion for $30 off the listed price of $100. Please place your order today at:

A video introducing the book can be viewed here.

[1] Examples include The Mahler Companion, ed. Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson (Oxford University Press, 2002); The Liszt Companion, by Ben Arnold (Greenwood Press, 2002); The Szymanowski Companion, by Paul Cadrin and Stephen C. Downes (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), as well as a series of music-related titles published in recent years by Cambridge University Press.

For a review of the book from the Scriabin Association please click here.

The Enigma of the ‘Dragonfly-Woman’

1024px-Lalique_dragonflyScriabin’s miniature Enigme op. 52 no. 2 (1905), with its aerial main section, languid middle part and flyaway ending, is the subject of some startling comment from the composer and his partner Tat’yana de Schloezer, as reported in Sabaneyev’s Memoirs.

‘I wrote it and showed it to Tat’yana Fyodorovna’, Alexander Nikolaevich recounted, ‘and I said:  ‘Now then, what is that, guess?’

‘And I immediately told Alexander Nikolaevich what I imagine here:  a sort of winged  small being, not exactly a woman, not exactly an insect, but certainly of female gender; in her there is something prickly and wriggly, a sort of segmented quality. And it is terribly slippery and evasive, and in this slippery evasiveness there is great coquetry. And there’s no way you’ll ever catch it…’

Alexander Nikolaevich finished this ‘duo-narrative’:

‘And, after all, imagine, what a graphic quality there is in music! For, you see, I imagined exactly something of that sort when I was writing. That sort of strange creature, all the same it’s one of the elementals, it must be….Mischievous,’ he added his favourite word.[1]

Is it possible that Tat’yana de Schloezer and Alexander Scriabin recalled the famous ‘Dragonfly Woman’ brooch made by René Lalique for Sarah Bernhardt in 1897–8, and shown in the Paris World Fair of 1900? This remarkable piece is made of gold, enamel, chrysoprase, chalcedony, moonstones and diamonds. The tail is articulated so that it can move with the wearer. Lalique was, perhaps, inspired by the seductive quality of Bernhardt herself, in such roles as Cleopatra, which she played in the 1890s. The Dragonfly Woman is now in the Gulbenkian Museum, but perhaps she comes alive in Skryabin’s strange little composition – a work which marks a step forward in the development of his personal style.[2]

Simon Nicholls

[1] Leonid Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Skryabine, Moscow, 1925, p. 140–141.

[2] Sokolov plays Enigme:

Scriabin Association Concert, Saturday 29th April, Coventry University Ellen Terry Building

scriabin-poster3The Scriabin Association is pleased to announce its next concert of Scriabin’s piano music, which will be held on Saturday 29th April at 7pm. Thanks to support from Coventry University the concert will take place at the University’s Ellen Terry Building, CV1 5RW. The evening marks the 145th Year since the composer’s birth, and presents repertoire spanning the composer’s entire working life. Those who attended the Association’s Centenary concert will know a thrilling evening awaits…

The concert is free admission on the door with all welcome. For further details contact: OR Phone: 024 75 013905. See below for full programme:

Scriabin Concert 29th April, 7pm – Ellen Terry Building, Coventry University

Andrew Thayer:
Op.9, No. 1 in C sharp minor, for left hand (Andante)
Op.11, No. 2 in A minor (Allegretto)
No.11 in B major (Allegro assai)
No.18, in F minor (Allegro agitato)
Op.22, No. 1 in G sharp minor (Andante)
Op.51, No. 2 in A minor (Lugubre)
Op.67, No. 1 (Andante)
Op.74, No. 1 (Douloureux, déchirant)
No. 2 (Très lent, contemplatif)
No. 3 (Allegro drammatico)
No. 4 (Lent, vague, indécis)
No. 5 (Fier, belliquex)

Darren Leaper:
MAZURKAS Op.25, No. 1 in F minor (Allegro)
No. 3 in E minor (Lento)
VALSE Op.38 in A flat major (Allegro agevole)
QUASI VALSE Op.47 in F major
TWO DANCES Op.73, No. 1, Guirlandes (Avec une grâce dolente)
No. 2, Flammes sombres (Avec une grâce languissante– Presto)


Cecilia Xi:
SONATA No. 2 Op.19 in G sharp minor, Sonate-Fantaisie
I Andante.
II Presto.

Iain Laks:
SONATA No. 5 Op.53

Simon Nicholls:
SONATA No. 8 Op.66

Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata – a new aspect of sonata form

Many listeners perceive Scriabin’s later music, to which the fifth sonata may be regarded as a doorway, as free and improvisatory, and indeed the surface of the music often gives this impression. The early listeners to Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata were puzzled by the work. At the abrupt ending, a famous singer in the audience for a performance by Scriabin in Moscow, 1909, remarked to her neighbour, Leonid Sabaneyev, ‘What happened – did he get a stomach ache?’[1] The leading composer Taneyev, who had taught Scriabin harmony, said: ‘This is music which does not finish, but stops’ – a penetrating remark from this great conservative.[2] Scriabin’s younger associate, the pianist Mark Meichik,[3] was entrusted with some early performances of the work, one of them being in Lausanne to the widow of the much older composer Alexander Serov (1820–1871). She was, Meichik recalled, ‘dumbfounded’ by the piece; ‘and when she was told that this “monster” was written in a strict form, she just threw up her hands.’[4] Meichik remembered seeing a sheet of paper bearing a ‘plan’ of the Fifth Sonata: ‘this “plan”’, he wrote,  ‘was numerical and consisted of a whole series of circles of some kind and figures which took up an entire sheet of manuscript paper. Scriabin showed this plan to musicians who had visited him in Lausanne, and he gave it to one of them, the Canadian La Liberté.’[5] Many manuscripts of Scriabin’s later works contain such tables of figures, relating to numbers of bars.

The existence of this plan is all the more remarkable, considering that the sonata was completed in a few days in the wake of the composition of the Poem of Ecstasy. As the composer’s partner, Tatyana Schloezer, wrote to the pianist Mariya Nemenova-Lunz [or -Lunts], three days after a previous letter describing the hurry of preparing the score of the Poem: ‘Sasha has already managed… to compose a 5th sonata!!! I don’t believe my ears, it is unbelievable! The sonata flowed from him in a kind of stream. […] What you have heard is nothing, the sonata is unrecognisable, it cannot be compared with anything.’[6]

Scriabin described the work as ‘a big poem for the piano’,[7] and the plan is akin both to the form of the orchestral Poem of Ecstasy and to that of its literary counterpart, published by Scriabin in 1906. Indeed, the Sonata bears as epigraph a quotation from the literary poem:

I call you to life, hidden strivings!

You, drowned in the dark depths

Of the creative spirit, you, timid

Embryos of life, to you I bring audacity.[8]

The form begins to become clear if we examine the adventures of the opening music, an extremely original passage representing, perhaps, ‘audacious’ flight from ‘dark depths’, and of the languido section that follows it – here we have shapes that foreshadow the material of the sonata, the ‘timid embryos’ of Scriabin’s epigraph. The opening ‘flight’ appears in its original key at the beginning and the end – does this ‘ending’, the sudden stop that puzzled early listeners, represent a new beginning, a renewal of the process in the sonata?

That process is characterised by an upward spiral of ascent and enhancement. The second appearance of the opening music, at b. 157–184, is transposed up by a tone. It appears a third time: the ‘flight’, transformed in aspect and harmony, occurs at b. 247–250 and is immediately followed by the languido material, transformed and transposed up by another semitone. As Scriabin’s friend and chronicler Sabaneyev wrote in 1916, ‘the tonalities change by intervals which grow smaller.’[9] The languido material, in a grandiose version marked estatico, recurs finally at b. 433, transposed up by a further semitone, and the piece ends with the original ‘audacious flight’, in the original key, as mentioned earlier. In the vibrant stillness of the pause bar which follows (as Schnabel often writes at the end of movements in his Beethoven edition: respect the fermata!) we do not know what to expect: is this the end, or is the work going to start over again? Like all true artistic ‘surprises’ and ambiguities, this one is to be relished increasingly every time one hears or performs the sonata.

The recurrences of the ‘flight’ mark turns in Scriabin’s upward spiral. The second occurrence of the opening music coincides with an important formal division in the sonata form. Thus, the ‘upward spiral’ operates simultaneously with the sonata process, but does not invariably coincide with it.

After the first languido comes the Presto con allegrezza, nominally in F sharp major[10] – a dance similar to that of the Fourth Sonata’s prestissimo volando. A series of three imperioso calls (b.96 ff), answered by fearful affanato rhythms and culminating in a fanfare, quasi trombe, which will become important later (b. 114–116),[11] leads the tonality towards a meno vivo section nominally in B flat major (enharmonically the mediant [A sharp] of the tonality of the Presto con allegrezza) (b. 120–139). Two bars of Allegro fantastico and a bar of silence (the significance of these will become apparent later) lead to a Presto tumultuoso esaltato (b. 143–156) which in its turn leads to the recurrence of the opening flight. This passage remains ‘in’ the same key. The quasi trombe figure is reiterated three times during this section, like an invocation, and leads into the next formal division.

The music from the beginning to this point, then, may be summed up in the following scheme:

b.1–46: Prologue

b.47–156: Sonata exposition:[12]

 b.47–79    first subject

b.80–95     transition (stage 1) – continuation of first subject

b.96–119   transition (stage 2) – dialogue: calls and affanato responses

b.120–139 second subject

b.140–156 closing group

In the following section, the material already presented is transformed and led through restlessly varying tonalities. After the initial recurrence one tone higher of ‘flight’ and ‘prologue’ (b. 157–184), there are three ‘stages’ involving the ‘dance’ and ‘call’ material:

b.185–206 (8 + 6 + 8 = 22 b.)

b.207–226 (6 + 6 + 8 = 20 b.)

b.227–246 (8 + 8 + 4 = 20 b.)

This brings us to the second, transformed recurrence of the ‘flight and prologue’ material, which is transposed up by a further semitone as mentioned above, b. 247–262. We may say that this passage does not mark a new main formal section, but is a new turn of the upward spiral which leads into the middle of this central area of the sonata. Bars 263–270, which twice present the famous harmony known as the ‘Promethean chord’, con delizia, and are formed around the initial phrase of the languido prologue, represent the ‘heart’ of the sonata.

In the last part of this central section, two statements of the second subject, one pianissimo (b. 271–280), the other growing from forte to fff (b. 313–328) and transposed up by one tone, enharmonically speaking, frame a section of thirty-two bars in which an allegro fantastico idea is developed. This idea was originally ‘planted’ at the beginning of the exposition’s closing group (b.140–141), like a clue in a thriller. Evoking the concept of increasingly wild Bacchic dance (con una ebrezza fantastica), which gradually takes over from the languor of the second subject, the iambic rhythm of this idea is transformed into vibrating triplets and combined at b. 305–312 with the fanfare which earlier formed the culmination to the ‘calls’ in the exposition (cf. b. 114–116).

The section from b. 157–328, analysed above, plays the role of the development section in a traditional sonata scheme. It is followed by a recapitulation, which has the features of the ‘subdominant recapitulation’ familiar from Schubert’s Trout quintet, to quote a well-known example. It starts at b. 329, nominally in B major, whereas the corresponding passage in the exposition was in F sharp major, and the relations in the ensuing music to b. 400 correspond to those in the exposition.

At this point the listener’s expectation is of the ‘closing group’; this does eventually come, and in the key determined by the pattern of transposition in the recapitulation – E flat major. But it is considerably delayed by a coda:

b.401 – 432 allegro fantastico idea and ‘fanfare’ (cf. b. 289 ff.)

b.433 ­– 440 languido theme from prologue, now estatico. This restatement is again one semitone higher than the appearance at b. 251 ff.

b.441 – 450 ‘closing group’ material

b.451 ­– 456 opening ‘flight’

The delaying of the ‘closing group’ material for forty bars increases the listener’s expectancy and therefore the tension in the music; and at the return of the opening ‘flight’ material the logic of Scriabin’s ‘subdominant recapitulation’ is revealed: the E flat tonality of the ‘closing group’ corresponds enharmonically to the original bass of the ‘flight’ material – D sharp. The circle is closed.

As a prominent Russian musical writer of the Soviet period, Sergei Pavchinsky,[13] suggested, Scriabin overlays the traditional sonata scheme with a second principle in many of his works – here, the second principle is the previously mentioned ascending spiral, a spiral which contrives to meet itself and to complete a ‘cycle’.[14] Perhaps this phenomenon explains the ‘circles of some sort’ on Scriabin’s ‘plan’ as remembered by Mark Meichik. Meichik was by no means the only one to maintain that Scriabin’s music was ‘entirely free from elements of chance, especially in the formal sense’.[15] Scriabin expressed the belief that thought expressed as a principle should govern creative work.[16] It was this rational basis which made possible the creation of such an extravagantly innovative work as the Fifth Sonata.

Simon Nicholls

December 2016

This short article is offered as a memorial to Rosalie Heller (1931–2016), wonderful human being, musician and teacher.

[1] L. L. Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Skryabine, Moscow, 1925/2003, p. 37.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Meichik (1880-1950) was a student of Safonov, Scriabin’s teacher, at Moscow Conservatoire. A successful pianist until 1917 and highly regarded as a performer of Scriabin’s music, he turned after the Revolution to administration, education and publication.

[4] Mark Meichik, A. Skryabin, Moscow, 1935. p. 39. Meichik identifies the performer as ‘one of the Russian pianists’, but we may take this as a way of referring to himself. In mid-May 1908, Meichik visited Lausanne and studied the Fifth Sonata with Scriabin. M. P. Pryashnikova and O. M. Tompakova, Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva A. N. Skryabina, Moscow, 1985. P. 161.

[5] Op. cit. p. 23. Alfred La Liberté (1882–1952), Canadian pianist and composer. His widow Madeleine ‘donated a number of materials, including the manuscript [of the Fifth Sonata], to the A. N. Scriabin Memorial Museum in Moscow’ in 1971. [Scriabin, Sonata no. 5 op. 53, Urtext and facsimile, Moscow 2008. Preface by Valentina Rubtsova, p. 8.] Whether these ‘materials’ include the ‘plan’ remembered by Meichik is not clear.

[6] Letter of November 22/December 5, 1907, quoted in V. Rubtsova, op. cit., p. 5.

The generally accepted story of the Fifth Sonata’s having being composed in a few days needs to be modified, it seems, in the light of correspondence. Nemenova-Lunts wrote enthusiastically about a fifth sonata being composed in August 1907 – this links up with Tatyana Schloezer’s remark in her letter of Nov 22/ Dec 5, ‘What you have heard is nothing […]’. Scriabin wrote later in a letter to La Liberté (Dec 16 [presumably New Style], ‘I am busy now with the 5th Sonata; it is nearly finished […]. I hope to send it to the printer a fortnight from now […].’ The editor of the Bärenreiter edition, from which this information comes, Christoph Flamm, suggests plausibly that ‘work on the sonata dates back at least to the previous summer […]. The completion of the orchestral score [the Poem of Ecstasy] put an end to the compositional process in late autumn, after which Scriabin’s bottled-up creative urge exploded in early December.’ Christoph Flamm, preface to Bärenreiter [Skrjabin Complete Piano Sonatas vol 1, Basel, 2011], pp. XXV–XXVI. To Flamm’s well-informed surmise we may add that work on the Poem of Ecstasy may have had a radical effect on Scriabin’s conception of the Sonata, both in harmonic language and in form – this would account for Tatyana Schloezer’s remark. The surprisingly long interval suggested by Scriabin before he would be able to send the sonata to the printer may have been caused by previous experience of the difficulty he had in correcting his own work, compounded by the fact that this piece was to be published at his own expense, the cost of corrections therefore coming out of his own pocket.

[7] Letter to Margarita Morozova, between November 25/December 8 and Dec 1/14, 1907,  loc. cit.

[8] This translation is from Scriabin’s Russian, rather than from the French translation which is often the source rendered into English. The ‘hidden strivings’ become ‘mysterious forces’ in the French. This tends to imply that some sort of ‘magic’ is being invoked, rather than the composer’s own impulses and thoughts as implied in Scriabin’s original. This was pointed out to me by the leading scholar of Russian literature, Avril Pyman (private communication).

[9] Leonid Sabaneyev, Skryabin, Moscow 1916, p. 133. Much of this first book by Sabaneyev about Scriabin was written during the composer’s lifetime.

[10] In the Fifth Sonata, Scriabin is on the verge of stepping into his later ‘extra-tonal’ harmonic style. Where keys are implied, the tonic is avoided. The present analysis refers to the key signatures which are still used by the composer at this point in his development.

[11] The affanato rhythms are closely related to the rhythms, known as ‘rhythms of alarm’, in the orchestral Poem of Ecstasy which first emerge at the Allegro non troppo, eight bars after figure 3 in the score.

[12] The ‘sonata form’ evoked here is that expounded by A. B. Marx in his Kompositionslehre, which was in Scriabin’s personal library. Marx based his concepts on close observation of the practice of classical composers, Beethoven in particular. The highly disciplined training of Russian composers in Skryabin’s era was based in part on such materials.

[13] Sergei Pavchinsky, Sonatnaya forma proizvedenii Skryabina. Moscow, 1979.

[14] In 1905 Scriabin had made his first acquaintance with the writings of H. P. Blavatsky, which became an important influence on his thinking. A cyclic concept, comparable to the Hindu concept of recurring manvantaras, is central to her Theosophical speculations.

[15] Meichik, op. cit., p. 38.

[16] Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya, p.254.

The ascending direction in the harmony of Chopin and Scriabin and its semantics by Ildar Khannanov

*Translator’s introduction; The Scriabin Association is privileged to present here an article by the distinguished Russian scholar Ildar Khannanov. Dr. Khannanov teaches musical theory at the Peabody Institute, Baltimore. He studied music under the supervision of the prominent Russian theorist Yuri Kholopov[2] at Moscow Conservatoire, and philosophy under Jacques Derrida at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Khannanov’s publications have appeared in Russia, America and Europe.

The present article was originally published in Russian in the Scriabin Museum’s series of scholarly publications, Uchenye Zapiski, in 2012. An article written for a specialist Russian readership may need some introduction to a more general English-speaking public. 

Dr. Khannanov engages, in a strictly scientific and disciplined manner, with the problem of what music – and Scriabin’s music in particular – ‘means’, and how it ‘means’. There may be a need to explain to the general reader one theoretical concept, important in Dr. Khannanov’s article, which is rooted in Russian musical thought, and in the theory of Kholopov. This is the idea of vvodnotonovost’, a term without an exact English equivalent, meaning literally ‘leading-note-ness’, the leading-note having by definition a tendency to lead upward. It was defined by Kholopov in his article on ‘Chromaticism’ in the Musical Encyclopedia edited by Yu. V. Keldysh (published in Moscow from 1973–82) as ‘the introduction of leading-notes into any sonority or chord without the factor of alteration as a progression towards an augmented unison [the enharmonic equivalent of a major second].’ As a simple example, take a dominant ninth chord of C – B flat – E – G – D, and sharpen G to G sharp. The G sharp in the harmony thus produced lends to the harmony the quality of vvodnotonovost’. This is the opening harmony of the Prelude op. 48 no. 4, one of a group of preludes of which sketches are to be found amongst the sketches of the Poème de l’Extase.[3]  

Simon Nicholls

Amongst the scientific problems of the study of Scriabin’s music there is one which occupies an extremely modest position in the works of researchers. It concerns the individual qualities of voice-leading in the composer’s harmony and, in particular, of ascending motion in this voice-leading. This characteristic of Scriabin’s harmony is completely obvious, and it is significant both stylistically, in part, and, in a broader sense, in relation to the scientific study of harmony and of the theory of the Romantic style. But first let us specify that there are varying means of ‘moving upwards’ in music. There are various significances and meanings of such movement.

Ascending tendencies of a particular type appear for the first time, it may be said, in the harmonic language of Romanticism and in the music of Frédéric Chopin. Thus, for example, whereas ascent in Bach was the product of a figure of anabasis[4] and represented a melodic movement upwards, in Chopin this tendency was expressed in harmony by two means: the substitution of a sixth for the fifth of a tonic triad (as in the Mazurka op. 67 no. 2, bar 2) and by movement from the tonic to the mediant, I – III (in a great number of the themes of the mazurkas, etudes and polonaises.) The significance of ascending motion is also different in Bach and in Chopin. Whereas for the Baroque composer ascending motion was associated with ascending into Paradise, in the music of the early Romantics ascending motion was above all associated with an attempt to flee from reality.


As may be seen from the present example, at the beginning of the Cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54) Bach proposes a figure of ascent, of anabasis, starting with a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point.  The voices making up the harmonic arrangement move slowly upwards with effort, through the opposition of the material, and it is this which underlines the text: ‘Resist sin’. But this ascent does not break away from earth’s gravitational attraction; it acts within the framework of that field.

In comparison with this, an example from Chopin’s Mazurka op. 67 no. 2 represents a more complex, hidden, tragic version: gravitational support – the triad – becomes confused through the substitution of a sixth in place of the of the fifth.

Ex. 2

Ex. 2

This barely perceptible gesture (differing from the direct line of ascent in Bach) overcomes the power of the triad for a brief moment. Ascent as such does not take place, but a strong desire is expressed to leave ‘this vale of sorrow’. The interplay of non-harmonic notes is very interesting here: in the left hand, in the chord on the third beat [of the second bar] (in G minor) the tonic triad is replaced by a first inversion chord of the sixth degree by means of the substitution of the note E flat for D. Schenkerian theory[5] wholly ignores this gesture, inasmuch as it regards such a change, on the last beat of the bar, to be insignificant. It is even possible to reduce the E flat to an auxiliary note at the foreground level. The composer is sending us signals, as it were: the melody gallops past the note D, which here is no longer the fifth of the tonic triad, but an appoggiatura to the structural note E flat!

Regarding the other means of upward motion, the well-known movement in Chopin’s music from I – III in the bass, here too proponents of Schenker’s theory have blundered (this applies in part to Janet Schmalfeldt’s paper ‘One and the same, but in a different way: Chopin and the succession of ascending thirds’, given at the European Music Analysis Conference [EuroMac] VI, Freiburg, 2007): they regard this progression as part of an arpeggiation of the tonic triad in the bass. But how far this is from the truth! For the triad of the mediant, arriving directly after the tonic, does not express continuation, the prolongation of a static tonic, but an attempt to leave the tonic triad, to ‘fly up’ above it.

Ascending gestures produced by specific harmonic means also found their continuation in the music of Alexander Scriabin. In the Fantasy, op. 28, in the first subjects of the first movements of the sonatas nos. 2, 3 and 4, in a large number of preludes, etudes and poèmes, the ascending gesture is directed into the realm of the transcendental. The technique employed by Scriabin is different from Chopin’s: in it, ascending flows of harmonic energy are called forth by leading-notes which are breaking away from control, by a new interpretation of vvodnotonovost’[6] as a part of voice-leading.

Ex. 3

Ex. 3

The beginning of Scriabin’s Sonata no. 4 represents one of the most enigmatic and profoundly significant harmonic successions in European music. Novel and complex as it is, it occupies just eight bars, and refers to a prototype, to the form of an antecedent in ‘sentence’ form.[7] The succession starts with a major seventh chord, with its root, fifth and seventh in the left hand. And from the very moment this chord first appears there arises a sensation of a distortion of space of some kind, and of a striving of its lines to the right and upwards (which, above all, is evoked by the upward attraction of the major seventh). The first note of the melody, as always in Scriabin, is both separated from the harmony in the left hand and, simultaneously, indivisible from the harmony which pertains to it. It originates in the silence which surrounds it. It is isolated metrically (it appears on the first quaver of the second beat in the 6/8 metre), but it is represents the third of the major seventh chord and, as such, is understood as a long-awaited completion of the chord’s structure. It should be mentioned that this seventh chord is a subdominant. As it is the first in the melodic succession, it appears as completely isolated and absolutely undefined tonally. The neutral function of a subdominant in the absence of the tonic sonority completely disorients the listener. We find ourselves, as it were, in a cosmic expanse, although only one chord has been sounded.  If this chord were a dominant seventh, then its third would produce an unconditional attraction to the degree above it (as a leading-note to the tonic). But precisely because this chord is a major seventh, its third, in the melody, turns out to be in the field of activity of several gravitational centres.  Scriabin proposes the most interesting movement – a repetition and a leap of a fourth upwards, so that a quartal ascending harmony is obtained: B – E sharp – A – D sharp, and, further, G sharp. This rhythmically organised structure moves away upwards infinitely.

At the same time, the chord in the left hand undergoes irreversible and unpredictable changes. This technique is borrowed above all from Chopin, from his chromatic linear descending successions, but here it acquires new significances. The initial major seventh chord, instead of a ‘textbook’ resolution into the octave above, is suddenly ‘deflated’: its two upper notes ‘come down’. The obvious leading note and major seventh, A sharp, suddenly moves to A natural. According to the terminology of Yuri Kholopov, dezal’teratsiya takes place.[8] In its turn, the fifth of this seventh chord (F sharp) moves to a tritone (E sharp), which may be called a sign of a functional inversion. For a moment, a very familiar chord emerges: B – E sharp – A – D sharp – the ‘Tristan chord’. However, it passes over in a moment, without the resolution which is due to it (Chopin, it may be remarked, does the same thing in the mazurkas, that is to say he gives us a harmony which passes through just as speedily.) This chord adds a nostalgic meaning to the already complicated multiple significance of the vvodnotonovost’.

On the other hand, the ‘Tristan chord’ on B must resolve, according to rule, into a dominant seventh chord on A sharp. The most surprising thing is that this harmony does partly appear after the ‘Tristan chord’, but it has a different third: instead of the C double sharp which is presupposed, first D sharp is heard and then C sharp. And this is also a means of leaving the gravitational field of tonality.  As a whole, as is well known, post-Romantic harmony uses three principal methods of development: the substitution of more complex chords for simpler ones, the propagation of more complex harmonies from simple ones, and the presentation of the function of a simple chord as more complex. But there are also many variations on these three methods. Thus, the unexpected partial alteration of an expected chord (a minor seventh chord instead of a dominant seventh) holds back something of what is expected, but also adds something completely new. A technique of this sort is related to the succession and interaction of images in a dream, when we see places and people that are familiar, but strangely altered.

Further: above the notes of this minor seventh chord (bar 3), above the A sharp in the bass, the melody suddenly decides to ‘fly up’ to the seventh. The upflight takes place as a result of a circular, spiralling movement (G sharp – D sharp – E sharp – C sharp). It is strange that the harmony has not supported this upflight with an increase of tension. The melody has managed to generate energy by itself by means of the most simple revolving motion. The leap has proved to be incorporeal. In it is no terrestrial energy; there is only the graphical trace of a meteor silently flashing through the heavens. And here Scriabin does not make use of standardised methods, breaking away by a long distance from his predecessors Wagner and Liszt.

Beneath the C sharp which the melody reaches in its leap (second beat of bar 3), an altogether strange harmony also emerges: A natural – C sharp – E sharp – G sharp – a major seventh chord with augmented fifth, which, moreover, is constructed on the lowered third degree in the key of F sharp minor! With a third doubled at the octave (C sharp), this chord brings to mind contrapuntal lines solidified and fettered in the ice. By its geometry it also brings mind the pose of a hero who has prepared himself to fly up to the stars, but is suddenly paralysed under the influence of an enigmatic cosmic cataclysm. This chord characterises Scriabin’s poetics: he does not fly into the cosmos, but he wants to fly away.

The subsequent transformation in this unique harmonic succession is as follows: the lowering of the seventh of the chord of the major seventh with augmented fifth – from G sharp to G natural. An association involuntarily arises with a secondary dominant seventh chord (to the lowered sixth degree) with a raised fifth. But this complex chord behaves in a way that exceeds all our expectations: it suddenly resolves into a tonic chord in first inversion! In truth, the simplest chord in such surroundings acquires an unprecedented radiance.  This first inversion chord, with A sharp in the bass, begins to sound like a dominant to the subdominant.[9] Scriabin knows the tendencies of standard voice-leading excellently and is playing with our expectations. It may be mentioned that the bass voice has taken a remarkable path: from A sharp to A natural and back to A sharp, while the return to A sharp has coincided with a movement in the melody from E sharp to F sharp.  The sliding chromatic sixths evoke an almost tactile sensation of movement.

But a minimal amount of time is also allotted to the first inversion chord of the tonic – only the last upbeat of the bar; and on the downbeat another ‘stretched’ chord is sounded: D natural –  F sharp – C sharp – A sharp.  Scriabin’s chords are remarkably adept at conveying a movement which has been momentarily captured, as in a photograph of the highest artistic quality. Here it is a very complicated task to define the function of the chord, but the movement of the voices in it is very clear. Whither the voices move after becoming ‘unfrozen’ is comprehensible. It is essential to mention that this last ‘stretched’ chord represents the culmination of a development over five bars, after which two simpler chords are sounded in bars 6 and 7. These two – Scriabin’s favourite enhanced dominant and dominant ­­– are a kind of cadence, a dénouement to the events. Scriabin follows the ancient law of harmonic succession and gives us simpler chords for the cadence. But the most interesting thing is that after this cadence an ‘epilogue’ is sounded which returns us to the cosmiс expanse of Scriabin’s ‘suspended’ and ‘flying’ harmony. There are 8 bars in all, but a contraction takes place at the beginning, so that the cadence is reached in bars 6 and 7 and a non-tonal epilogue has its place in bar 8.

As a whole, the harmony in the present succession does not break with the tradition of centuries. In contrast to, let us say, the American music of such composers as Leon Kirchner or Ned Rater, the harmony of Scriabin is striking in its meaningful syntax and correct voice-leading. In essence, the principles of vvodotonovost’ are retained, while purposeful chords are constructed, and functional arches and large-scale connections guarantee linear continuity and meaningfulness. The present    succession differs from academic harmony in the interspersion of leading-notes and the new interpretation of the degrees to which they lead. Leading-notes break away from the control of standard voice-leading and take Skryabin’s music off into an open cosmos, beyond the limits of reality, into the realm of the transcendent.

How did Chopin and Scriabin understand the transcendent: in what respect is their understanding more similar, and what respect does Scriabin’s understanding differ from Chopin’s? Situated in the overall context of the philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their concepts of the transcendent were based on the ideas of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But each had his own complementary tendencies. For example, in Chopin the transcendent is also connected with the heroic fate of Poland, whereas in Scriabin a whole bouquet of ideas is presented, including the mystical role of art, the role of technology (of new forms of tonality and harmony) and the idea of the highest refinement. All these ideas had an effect on the birth of musical images which strive into the boundless, into the cosmos, and without the attraction of the ideas which have been mentioned a discussion of the new tonality seems to be without meaning or purpose.

Returning to the problems of harmony and tonality, it is essential to mention that in the music of Scriabin, Chopin and also of Rachmaninov differing resolutions of the geometry of tonal space are presented. In the works of these composers, in particular, certain tendencies emerge in chordal connections, and directional aspects of harmony are manifested. Chopin was the first to displace the fifth of the tonic, which together with the first degree of the scale forms the basis of tonal stability, and to open, speaking figuratively, the path upward. Rachmaninov displaced the fifth in his own way: he substituted the fourth for it and created a special type of ‘falling’ harmony, in which the principle event is the fall of the subdominant to the tonic. Scriabin, though, created a symphony of free vvodnotonovost’, as a result of which the cosmos became much nearer and more comprehensible, and the transcendental principle in music was manifested in all  fullness.

Translation: Simon Nicholls

[1] Original publication: ‘Voskhodyashchee napravlenie v garmonii Shopena i Skryabina i ego semantika’, Uchenye zapiski, issue 7, book 1, Memorial’nyi muzei A. N. Skryabina, Moscow, 2012, p. 57–63.

[2] Yuri Kholopov (1932–2003), prominent Russian musicologist and educator. Taught at Moscow Conservatoire from 1963. His numerous and influential publications cover practically all aspects of musical theory; his textbook Harmony: theoretical course (in Russian) can be consulted at Kholopov’s article Scriabin and the Harmony of the 20th century, first published in the Scriabin Museum’s Uchenye zapiski, issue I, 1993, p. 25–38, was translated with a commentary by Philip Ewell and published in the Journal of the Scriabin Society of America, vol. 11 no. 1, Winter 2006–2007, p. 12–25.

[3] V. V. Rubtsova, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Skryabin, Muzyka, Moscow, 1985, p.263.

[4] Anabasis (classical Greek): literally, ‘moving away from the foundation’, movement upwards – the name of one of the rhetorical figures employed in music of the Baroque. It also signifies ‘Ascension’ in Scripture.

[5]  The theory of Heinrich Schenker is based on graphical analysis of voice-leading and its reduction to three level. [The first level is the foreground, the composition itself or a close approximation to it, the second the middleground, where the music is reduced to a more basic, simple form, and  the third the background, where the fundamental structure is intended to be revealed. See Oswald Jonas, Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker (Macmillan, 1987); Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition, ed. and trans. Ernst Oster (Longman, 1979). trans.]

[6] See introduction [trans].

[7] In the terminology of musical analysis a ‘sentence’ (Satz) consists of two elements, the ‘antecendent’ (Vordersatz) and the ‘consequent’ (Nachsatz). [trans.]

[8] Kholopov’s concept of dezal’teratsiya refers to the movement of a chromaticised note to its diatonic equivalent. The term is not anglicised here in order to avoid confusion with the quite different German concept of Disalteration (a note resolving simultaneously upwards and downwards). [trans.]

[9] For a simpler example of this phenomenon see the end of the Prelude for left hand, op. 9 no. 1 [trans.]

The Development of Dissonance in Scriabin’s Piano Preludes – by Anthony Hewitt

It is astonishing that these most beautifully intricate and sonorous of works are to this day known to few, even by performers. Scriabin’s Preludes have an incredible depth and variety of material, and it was a joy to play these miniatures, each with its own very distinctive character and mood.

Inspired by the 100th anniversary of Scriabin’s death in 2015, and with the encouragement and support of Mary and David Bowerman at Champs Hill Records, I was privileged to record all 90 in two volumes.

There are of course many facets and joys in such a project, but one of the aspects I found most fascinating was to trace the development in Scriabin’s style, from lavish romanticism in the early Preludes, to the bleak vulnerability and stark atonality in the later ones. He stretched the boundaries of tonality, and has sadly been given little credit for it.

If there is one element which I found encompasses the whole span of Preludes, irrespective of style, it’s the sense of tonality as a means of conveying colour and mood, and latterly atonality and dissonance playing a key part in communicating a very specific emotion, often one of rage or violence, unresolved tension, and an accompanying mystical element. We know that Scriabin attributed a particular colour to a particular key, and used a musical light lamp to help illustrate the colour of tonal areas (still housed in the Scriabin museum in Moscow). He even devised a legend showing the colour of each key in the cycle of fifths, which is the the tonal structure of the early Op. 11 set. Fast forward to the very end of his life, before he died unexpectedly in 1915 of septicaemia, and he was planning a vast project ‘Mysterium’, to be set in the Himalayas over seven days and marrying every conceivable art form, with billowing scents, and using the sunrises and sunsets as ‘stage lighting’.

It’s in the set of 24 Preludes Op.11 where we sense the strongest influence of Chopin: the shape of many of the Preludes feels so similar, and it’s hard not to see some of them as a kind of homage. For example, the opening one, Op. 11/1: the pulsating, sweeping, figurations with falling 2nd’s in the treble, is the inverse of Chopin first Prelude, where it’s a rising 2nd. They are structured in the same key as Chopin’s, utilising the aforementioned cycle of fifths (starting at C major alternating between major and relative minor).

This tonal structure gives more credibility to playing and recording them as a set, but let’s not forget the original use of the Prelude in mediaeval times as an improvisation to test the acoustic of a venue, or tuning of an instrument. The Prelude evolved in the Baroque era as an opener to a Baroque Suite or before a fugue, into the soundscapes of Liszt and Wagner, and tonal paintings of Debussy. I felt Scriabin’s late Preludes return to its original meaning, with meandering states of transcendental suspension, albeit without losing the overall arch structure which forges a clear path to a climax, often suddenly and impulsively.  The infusion of energy and passion can happen quite out of the blue, but there is clearly nothing ‘off-the-cuff’ and improvisatory about these.

Scholars have ‘cordoned off’ Scriabin’s style into 2 periods, roughly speaking: pre and post Op. 30, and indeed I could make out a clear line in the sand at Op. 31, where the serenity is stopped suddenly in its tracks by a harsh augmented 5th. Chromaticism had hitherto functioned as a means to achieving a line within a polyphonic context – not dissimilar to its function in Chopin. One can make comparisons to Bach too: the Preludes up to and including Op. 17 had been primed as a group of 48 musical mementos to his concert travels  – at the behest of his publisher Belaev. He stopped short at 47, and the style of these may have much to do with the need for performing on his tours: many are virtuoso piano pieces and could have been more ‘audience-friendly’, but the youthful exuberance and vigour are slowly but surely replaced towards the Opp 40’s with a thinning out of textures and clear development of dissonance which depicts strong emotions, and associations with more austere and barren musical landscapes.

He wrote prolifically during the year of his marriage – perhaps aided by domestic bliss, and ‘let go of the tonal leash’. By the time we arrive at Opus 48, atonality is becoming the dominant musical language. Interestingly at this juncture, Scriabin stops using metronome markings and tempo indications, replacing them with idiosyncratic directions: “Con Stravaganza”, “Festivamente”, “Poetico con delizio” (poetic and with delight), “Bellicoso” (war-like), “Déchirant” (tearingly) perhaps speaks of the time, the world being torn apart by the Great War.

He is very specific in the states of mind needed to capture the spirit, and this we find  in a more extended sense earlier in his career with the ‘soul states’ attached to the 3rd-5th Sonatas. This is testament to the importance he placed on philosophy, and of music being a means of elevating the spirit and achieving a transcendental state. As Scriabin himself said: “why write JUST music – how boring?!.”

Learning and memorising all 90 posed specific challenges, for the sheer volume of material. In a Sonata or Variation form, an inherent part of unifying the structure is the repetition of material. Needless to say, no repetition exists between Scriabin’s Preludes, the longest of which is four pages long. Despite this brevity, it’s remarkable to think that Scriabin wrote so many Preludes, all of which are completely different; testament to his limitless imagination.

Many are fiendishly difficult and virtuosic with awkward leaps (Op 11,14) that are not altogether written in a pianistic manner, and because of the injury to his RH he incurred in a challenge with his peer Joseph Lhevinne, the LH is where we often find the most virtuosic or technically awkward passages (Op 11,11). However, the virtuosity is rarely for its own sake and the density of texture and richness of sonority is clearly woven into the contrapuntal thread . The challenge was to achieve this mass of sound without losing textural transparency.

The later Preludes are technically less difficult than the earlier ones, and it was possible to play each one through in its entirety, sometimes using a complete take for the final edit. This definitely helped in honing in on the character of the work during the recording process. The medium of recording inevitably leads to repeating sections, and in doing so one delves deeper into the mood and feeling: advantageous for capturing the essence of each, but there is often such a seismic mood shift between Preludes that to cross that divide took quite an adjustment. I found the loneliness of the recording studio went with the sense of isolation and mystery of some of the later works.

As is often the case in performing, the challenge is to keep a sense of perspective and not get too caught up in the here and now. Maintaining a sense of line and flow was certainly aided by playing them through numerous times.

I’ll certainly perform these works for many years to come, either in sets, or individually, as a Prelude to another work.

© Anthony Hewitt

Anthony Hewitt’s critically acclaimed recording of the complete Scriabin preludes is available here.

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.