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Yulii Engel’ Biography of Scriabin, Chapter I, with introductory notes

ALEXANDER NIKOLAEVICH SCRIABIN

A biographical outline [1]

I. Family; years of childhood

The first complete biography of Scriabin (1915)

By Yulii Engel

Translated by Simon Nicholls

Translator’s Note:

Yulii Engel (1868–1927), a leading Moscow critic and musical writer, published this ‘outline’ in the Scriabin memorial edition of Muzykal’nyi sovremennik (‘Musical Contemporary’), a double issue (4–5) for December 1915–January 1916, p. 5–96. It was subsequently published separately. It is still a primary source of great importance, owing to Engel’s unvarnished clarity of exposition and the many contemporary witnesses available to him. The list of names as Engel gave them is reproduced below. As some of these names are obscure now in the west, while others are or have become illustrious, a  commented glossary has been prepared:

Glossary of Engel’s contributors:

Alexander Bryanchaninov, writer, a close friend who accompanied Scriabin on his visit to England; Emil Cooper, conductor of the premiere of The Poem of Ecstasy; Pyotr Jurgenson, music publisher, published Scriabin’s first and last works; Gyorgii Konyus, Scriabin’s first piano teacher apart from his aunt; Leon (Lev) Konyus, brother of Gyorgii, pianist and composer; Sergei Koussevitzky, publisher, patron, conductor, famous in the west in later years as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra;  Mariya [Nemenova]-Lunts, pupil and friend; Margarita Morozova, patron, pupil and friend; Alexander Podgayetsky, close member of the Scriabin circle; Sergei Rachmaninov, conductor, composer, virtuoso pianist; Emilii Rozenov, mathematician, pianist, composer, pupil of Zverev and Safonov; Leonid Sabaneyev, member of Scriabin circle, trained scientist and musician, author of two books, a brochure and numerous articles about Scriabin; Vassilii Safonov, piano professor, conductor; Lyubov Scriabina, Scriabin’s aunt who brought him up and gave him his first instruction in music and general subjects; Tatyana Scriabina (de Schloezer), Scriabin’s partner. Theirs was what is known in Britain as a ‘common law’ marriage and the surname Scriabina, through granted by decree to the children they had together, was a courtesy title for her. Vera Ivanovna Scriabina (Isakovich), pianist, estranged wife of Scriabin;  Sergei Taneyev, composer, teacher; Princess Evgeniya Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya, early Russian aviatrix, follower of Rasputin; Boris de Schloezer, brother of Tatyana, close friend of Scriabin, author of a monograph about the composer (English edition: Scriabin: Artist and Mystic).

Engel’s rare footnotes to his text are marked Y. E. All others are the present translator’s.

Ancestors – Nikolai Alexandrovich Scriabin – Lyubov Petrovna Scriabin, her appearance, character, musical gift – their marriage – Birth of Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin – Death of his mother – father’s career – those who brought up Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin: Elizaveta Ivanovna Scriabina, Lyubov Alexandrovna Scriabin – music with Lyubov Alexandrovna Scriabina – attitude of his elders to Sasha – his character, activities, work – domestic theatre, ‘tragedies’ – first signs of musical gifts – love of musical instruments – inclinations towards  composition – ‘Lisa’ – beginning of musical ‘instruction’ – with Anton Rubinstein.

The Scriabins are an old family of the nobility, amongst whose members have always been many military people. The composer’s grandfather, Alexander Ivanovich Scriabin,[1] a colonel of artillery, lived in Moscow. From his marriage with Elizaveta Ivanovna Podchertkova he had eight children: seven sons and a daughter. The second of these sons, Nikolai Alexandrovich, was destined to become the father of the composer; the only daughter, Lyubov Alexandrovna, to be the closest of those bringing him up.

No member of the Scriabin family had dedicated himself to music, and evidently there were no outstanding musical gifts either. But nearly all of them had an ability for music. The composer’s father, all his uncles and his aunt were interested in music in one way or another. Some played from music, others by ear. The young boys studied at the cadets’ college, and there nearly all of them played in the orchestra, on the flute,  on the clarinet, on the cornet or violin. At Christmas and Easter they all met at home. Their father loved these noisy meetings, and so music resounded in the Scriabin household for whole days: they played, they sang, they danced. This music was, perhaps, often of a low standard in performance or repertoire, but it gave much pleasure to all, it proceeded merrily and in a friendly way. As will be evident later, Lyubov Alexandrovna studied music more seriously than anyone else in the family.

The composer’s father, Nikolai Alexandrovich, also played the piano and could read music; his musicality, though, could hardly be called outstanding. He was born in 1850 and educated in Moscow Gymnasium[2] no. 4. After graduating from there he entered the legal faculty of Moscow University. He was an energetic person, with a powerful character which towards the end became severe, almost despotic, concealing even his innate kindness from others. What he demanded had to be fulfilled.

As a student of the university, spending the summer as a guest on the estate of some friends (the Bernovs) he made the acquaintance of the pianist Lyubov Petrovna Shetinina, and it was she whom he married a few months later (probably at the beginning of 1871).[3]

Lyubov Petrovna was 22 years old at that time (she was born in 1849, coming into existence a year earlier than her husband.) Her father was the director of a State porcelain factory near Petrograd, her brother an artist, not without repute in his day, who spent his short life rather restlessly. Lyubov Petrovna, on leaving Leschetitzky’s class at Petrograd Conservatoire, was amongst the first students to graduate from there. She was considered to be his best pupil. On graduating, indeed, she received the ‘great artistic medal’.

As a student at the conservatoire she was a protégée of the Grand Princess Elena Pavlovna[4] owing to her outstanding abilities. The director of the Conservatoire, Anton Grigorievich Rubinstein, also got on with her very well. She called him ‘papasha’ and Nicolas Grigorievich Rubinstein ‘uncle’.

But, beyond music, Lyubov Petrovna was a very gifted person, responsive to everything, especially to questions of art. Her musical gifts, then, and her artistic characteristics as a composer she inherited from her mother; but from her father, surely, a strong will and persistence (to a high degree in matters of art; in other respects he was much more tractable).

Lyubov Petrovna’s significant, interesting face involuntarily attracted attention, but she could not be called a beauty. She had hair of an unusual ashen colour and black eyebrows. A large portrait of Lyubov Petrovna has been preserved, painted by her brother, the artist Shetinin. Latterly it always hung in Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin’s studio, above his writing table.[5] In the portrait is a young woman with a lively, open, sympathetic face, in the features of which – clearly soft, not prominent, but well-proportioned – there is a definite resemblance to the composer’s face at the same age.

On her graduation from the Conservatoire Lyubov Petrovna appeared in concerts in Petrograd and in provincial Russia. A programme printed on green silk has been preserved, of a concert she gave together with the singer Khvostova[6] on December 18 1870. Judging by the note, ‘Printed in the regional typographic works’, this concert took place in the provinces, in one of the principal towns (most likely in Saratov).[7] Lyubov Petrovna Shetinina appeared here in a demanding programme: she played two pieces by Liszt (the Fantasia on Rigoletto and a Hungarian Rhapsody), a Romance by Rubinstein and a Nocturne by Leschetitzky.

It was at about this time that Lyubov Petrovna and Nikolai Alexandrovich Scriabin were getting to know each other and becoming more intimate. Their marriage, though, was not destined to be long-lasting. Soon after their wedding the newly-weds moved to Saratov. Here Nikolai Alexandrovich tried being an advocate, a very tempting position then because of its novelty ­– there is no doubt that he did not work as a qualified lawyer, as he had left the university without completing the course. Probably, though, business in Saratov worked out poorly. In December 1871 the young couple set off for Moscow; by now it was clear that they had no intention of returning. At this period the time was approaching for Lyubov Petrovna to give birth to her first child. On the way, in the train, she became hot and several times went out onto the ploshadka,[8] breathed the frosty, windy air and immediately felt ill somehow. She was ill on arrival in Moscow and on the same day, at 2 in the morning, gave birth to a son, the future composer.

 This took place on December 25 exactly, on Christmas Day precisely. Later, Alexander Nikolaevich more than once pointed out this coincidence, attributing to it some special mystical significance. At that time, Alexander Nikolaevich’s parents lived close to the Pokrovsky barracks, in the Khiryakova house, which now does not exist. It was here, too, that Alexander Nikolaevich was born. He was christened on December 31 in the Сhurch of the three Holy Hierarchs at the Kulishki. As the birth certificate relates, the godparents were: Alexander Ivanovich Scriabin, colonel of artillery, i.e. the new-born child’s grandfather, and Maria Ivanovna Podchertkova, daughter of a naval lieutenant, i.e. the sister of the new-born’s grandmother.

Lyubov Petrovna recovered from the birth, but her illness seemed to be serious: a suspicious cough appeared after a few weeks, and the doctors diagnosed tuberculosis of the lungs. At first, the illness did not hinder Lyubov Petrovna from working at music; she played a lot, even preparing for concerts. During this time Nikolai Alexandrovich re-enrolled at university.

But the illness began to take on an ever more threatening turn. In September 1872, on the advice of the doctors, the patient was conveyed to South Tirol (Arco, a small town near Lake Garda). But even the last hope of a healing climate was not realised. In April 1873 Lyubov Petrovna died, in the arms of her husband, of the continuing consumption; it was there in Arco that they buried her. It should be mentioned that the children of Lyubov Petrovna’s sister all died of consumption.

After the death of his wife, Nikolai Alexandrovich graduated from university and afterwards moved to Petrograd, where he enrolled at the institute of foreign languages. It was hard to get into this institute, the breeding-ground for diplomatic representatives in the countries of the Orient. There were ten participants in all, enjoying various benefits and privileges. But, owing to his energy (he went himself to Prince Gorchakov),[9] Nikolai Alexandrovich got into the institute, graduated after two years (which was itself unusual) and took up the position of  dragoman[10] at the Russian embassy in Constantinople.

All of Nikolai Alexandrovich’s remaining foreign service took place in the East, in Turkey. After Constantinople he was vice-consul and consul (in Bitola, Adrianopolis, in Crete and elsewhere) and, finally, general consul in Erzerum. Clearly, he did not rise to a major position within the diplomatic profession. According to the accounts of those close to him, this came about because of his lack of compliance in relations with his ‘seniors’. However that may be, unfulfilled hopes rendered Nikolai Alexandrovich all the more reserved and severe. The latter quality was also fostered by the mores of the East, where everyone bowed to the Russian consul. Travelling from there to Moscow, he could not get used for a long time to the fact that passers-by bumped into him in the street as with anybody else. Earlier, before the Sublime Porte,[11] there was none of this.

About eight years after the death of Lyubov Petrovna (in about 1880) Nikolai Alexandrovich married for the second time: abroad, to a young Italian girl, Olga Ilinishna Fernandez. With her he had another four children: three sons (one died in the present war)[12] and a daughter. Amongst these children there were none with musical abilities. They were not even interested in music.

Every three years Nikolai Alexandrovich received four months’ leave and travelled with his family to Europe, spending his time in Russia, Switzerland and elsewhere. In this period he visited his son from the first marriage, and when the boy reached adolescence, sometimes took him along. On these occasions the lad had the chance to get to know his stepmother as well; she behaved very benevolently towards him. Toward the end of his life Nikolai Alexandrovich retired and settled in Switzerland, in Lausanne. It was here that he died on December 20 1914, just four months before his son’s death.

He evidently had little influence on the latter’s upbringing. They lived far from each other and rarely had the opportunity to spend time together.  In addition, Nikolai Alexandrovich was distant from art, in which his son had been from early years more and more consumingly interested. Their views on almost everything diverged, so that it was difficult for them to have discussions. Only at the end, when Alexander Nikolaevich became  a fully grown-up, mature person, more inclined to tolerance, his relations with his father took on a more intimate character. They began to see each other more often and by now could talk and argue in a friendly way; they rarely, though, completely agreed on anything. Not long before their deaths the two of them sought out the grave of Alexander Nikolaevich’s mother, Lyubov Petrovna Scriabina, in Arco.[13]

____________________

It was quite natural and inevitable  that Alexander Nikolaevich was not brought up by his father. In the house of his grandfather and grandmother the child was looked after from the very beginning in the comfort of a family, which he could not have had with his father, either when the latter was studying at the Institute or in distant Turkey. When his father married for the second time the lad was already ten years old. It would have been cruel to uproot him from his own  familiar surroundings, and besides, it was already time to send him to some educational establishment or other, for which purpose Turkey was once again not suitable. Thus the home of his grandfather and grandmother, where Alexander Nikolaevich was born and which he had then  not left for any length of time, completely replaced his parents’ home for him. At the beginning, while Alexander Nikolaevich’s grandfather was still alive, the lad did not require any material support from his father. When the grandfather died (1879) and his pension was reduced, Alexander’s father began to provide the means for his upkeep. But Alexander Nikolaevich was in reality brought up by his grandmother Elizaveta Ivanovna and especially by his aunt Lyubov Alexandrovna.

Elizaveta Ivanovna did not die until December 22 1915, just the other day,[14] in her ninety-third year.  She was a wise and outstanding woman; an upright, energetic, person of the old school, to whom, as they say, one bowed and went willingly. Her sister Mariya Ivanovna, Alexander Nikolaevich’s godmother, always lived with her. Thus it was that Alexander Nikolaevich had two grandmothers who loved him and cared for him equally.

Elizaveta Ivanovna’s only daughter Lyubov Alexandrovna always lived with her (and lives with her to this day).[15] When Alexander Nikolaevich was born she was twenty-one years old.

She was educated at the boarding-school of Larme and Maga, which occupied the very same building in which, after radical reconstruction, the Moscow Conservatoire is now situated. Lyubov Alexandrovna had a great love of music but never studied the basics. In boarding-school she usually had piano lessons from Moiss and Krall, but it was arranged that each boarder could only play the piano for half an hour per day. At the age of fourteen she started to go to the recently founded symphonic concerts of the Russian Musical Society, and this contributed greatly to her musical development. She greatly loved Beethoven and “maybe well, maybe badly, but I played many of his sonatas”. With her friend she played through all the Beethoven symphonies, and also other pieces which she obtained from a music library. Lyubov Alexandrovna never got used to studying anything “thoroughly”, but sometimes she played for whole days at a time and she read music well. Lyubov Alexandrovna’s music-making  was  “put into order” to some extent by Alexander Nikolaevich’s mother Lyubov Petrovna during those few months that they were allotted to live together. Lyubov Petrovna worked with Lyubov Alexandrovna at that time: “she got her to study a few Beethoven sonatas properly.” Without doubt, little Scriabin heard about all of this later.

Having graduated from the boarding school, Lyubov Alexandrovna prepared for the history course of the Ladies’ Gymnasium no. 3 with the help of Nikolai Alexandrovich (the brother who was older than her by two or three years was her closest friend).

From the moment that her beloved brother’s son appeared in the world, Lyubov Alexandrovna helped with his care. In the first three years of  Alexander Nikolaevich’s life he was cared for principally by his grandmother,  who had the essential experience for this which Lyubov Alexandrovna lacked. When the child reached the age of three Lyubov Alexandrovna completed his formative training “and begged the grandmother to give her over fully to Sasha’s care”, all the more so as this gave the grandmother more freedom for her complex obligations regarding the housekeeping. With her tender care and close concern Lyubov Alexandrovna took the place of a mother for Sasha,  and devoted her life to her foster-child and her mother. It was not by chance that to the end of his days Alexander Nikolaevich preserved his warmest and most grateful love for her and indeed for both his grandmothers.

Scriabin’s childhood was passed in these soft, feminine surroundings of the old patriarchal order. There is no doubt that this was connected to some extent with a degree of femininity in Scriabin’s character, even of a pampered nature, one might say, which was manifested even in his appearance and his manner. Later he himself regretted that the atmosphere in which he grew up lacked elements of masculinity.

The grandmother and the aunt adored their Sasha, and the source of their love was not just closeness of relation. This was a child who involuntarily attracted the sympathy of all who had to do with him: soft and at the same time persistent, fond and loving fondness, swift in comprehension and nervously sensitive to impressions. It was difficult to deny him anything. Neither grandmother nor aunt forbade him. They were delighted with all his fancies and tried to fulfil all his wishes. From childhood the lad was used to seeing that all he did found approval and that he was the centre of interest for those around him.

He had no child friends, indeed he did not like them, preferring to be with adults or to occupy himself with something or other. At the age of about five he learned his letters with his grandmother during the absence of his aunt, who was unconditionally obliged to “go away” or even to leave completely for a short time. Then Lyubov Alexandrovna began to work with him a little on reading, taught him writing and penmanship.[16] At about seven he could already read and write. One did not need to make him do anything – either during the lesson hour or anything else. He got on himself with whatever was appropriate and in general did not like to remain idle.

Despite this, however, he never liked to stay alone in a room.[17] Either someone sat with him, or his little table and chair were carried in to the older people’s room, and there, taking no notice of anyone, he got on with his own business: he looked at pictures, wrote, drew, pasted, did fretwork, – and all of these, usually, with great enthusiasm.

He brought elements of his own initiative into all these tasks; even then he worked from patterns and models of some kind. Once he conceived a wish to embroider on a tambour-frame, like his aunt. He was given canvases, threads, but he did not want to embroider on a ready-made pattern but to work out his own, which he then embroidered. Lyubov Alexandrovna preserved a cushion with this embroidery for a long time. He also made use of his fretsaw work for his own tasks (toy grand pianos).

But the lad showed individual and inexhaustible imagination in dramatic scenes, which he put on in his own room with the help of a toy theatre and, later, without it. The Scriabins had a subscription to the Bolshoi Theatre and early on, from the age of five, Lyubov Alexandrovna  also began taking her foster-child to the opera often. The lad fell passionately in love with the stage.  The family started buying  toy theatres with ready-made scenery, little figures and scenarios. But he was not particularly fond of ready-made scenarios; instead, he made up his own or tried to put on stage what he was reading. For example, once he dramatized Gogol’s ‘The Nose’. The spectators were his grandmother and aunt, who usually were delighted with the productions. Later he also began to construct something more like a real stage scene, even with wings at the sides.

Besides dramatisations of what he had read, he also put on his own original ‘tragedies’, partly in prose, partly in verse, which he began to compose at the age of about seven. While writing these ‘tragedies’ (always in the presence of other people, at his little table) he ‘became passionately enthusiastic, jumped up, began to declaim, gesticulating, sat down again and wrote further.’ With all this it often occurred that somewhere in Act Three (that is to say, long before the end, which, of course, was not supposed to occur till Act Five) none of the characters was left alive: they had either died of their own accord or had killed each other. ‘And then, grieved by this outcome which he himself had not expected, began to lament: “Aunt, there’s no-one left to act.”’

Scriabin’s childhood verses and plays were preserved for a long time by Lyubov Alexandrovna, but at the time of the great Moscow flood[18] they perished together with all his childhood letters (the whole correspondence with his father).

The lad’s musical abilities showed themselves very early – already at four, or, more accurately, in his fourth year. His aural ability and musical memory were already striking then. As a lad of five he could easily pick up everything he liked.

In 1877, at the time of the Russo-Turkish War, the boy, together with older boys, accompanied his uncle to the war; his uncle was serving in a regiment of the Izmailovsky guard. At the station an orchestra played a quadrille which was popular then, ‘Byushki’.

On returning home the lad picked it out on the piano; he was not yet six years old. Besides the piano, he also picked out what he heard on other instruments which came to hand: on the violin, on the guitar, on the ocarina.

In Sviblov, where the Scriabins were living at that time in a dacha, he put together something in the nature of an orchestra of little boys, giving each of them a mirliton,[19] a drum etc.

They all sang through these mirlitons, and the five-year-old organiser and inspirer conducted with impassioned enthusiasm (some sort of waltz).[20]

He loved the piano passionately from his earliest years, and not only the music which came from it but the instrument itself. One of his favourite activities was to study the mechanism of the grand piano, its construction from the inside and the outside. He would climb under the piano, considering, listening and observing for a long time.

His favourite outing was – to the music shop. He usually went on this outing with his uncle who was already retired and living quietly in his own house, in the Zlatouskovsky pereulok (side-street). He was a gentle, quiet person who loved children very much. He died when the composer-to-be was six. Uncle and nephew were great friends. Almost every day, when the weather allowed, they set off on foot from the Zlatouskovsky pereulok to the Kuznetsky Most, to the music shop of Meikov, where, amongst other things, Lyubov Petrovna was enrolled in the music hire library.[21] Here Sasha was already well-known and a source of great interest. He cultivated and studied almost every instrument, and in the shop were not only pianos. Sometimes he sat down immediately at a piano and started to play something, improvising, and while he did so he was extremely satisfied if people listened to him with attention.

He also made tiny pianos with great enthusiasm and skill, making not only the lid, the pedals etc., but even the cross-stringing and something which represented the action. In this he was greatly helped by his skill with a fretsaw, which he had been very enthusiastic about at one time. The piano at home was for the child not an object but like something with a soul. When the instrument was being moved the lad was so agitated and frightened by the alarming groaning sounds that he would run off into another room, hide his head under a cushion and stay like that until the piano had been carried out of the house. Sometimes before going to sleep he would kiss the beloved piano as if it were an icon.

The lad showed inclinations towards composition almost from the moment that he first sat down at the piano. He would improvise, not understanding musical notation. In his child’s theatre he would put on not only dramas but also plays with singing, something in the nature of ‘operas’. The history of these is as follows.

At the age of about seven or eight Sasha Scriabin was taken to a children’s party at the house of acquaintances. One of the little girls, Leizinka (Lisa) Ivanova, clearly made a strong impression upon him; right there at the party he gave her a handkerchief of batiste,[22] one of a set which had been sent by his father from Paris. The next day Leizinka’s mother returned the handkerchief to Lyubov Alexandrovna – why break up the set! Thus it was that Sasha and Leizinka’s acquaintance ceased. But it had clearly left a trace in the lad’s soul; he composed an ‘opera’ on this occasion (with a similar romantic theme) and even called it ‘Lisa’.

There were days when he spent whole hours at the piano, contriving to rub holes in the soles of his shoes by means of the pedals. ‘And that’s how those soles burned up, they burn up’,  Lyubov Alexandrovna would sometimes complain. The purchase of new footwear for Sasha (and in general of everything new) threatened especial bother: when it was necessary to go to a shop, he always turned out to be busy with something or other, and to drag him there for a boring fitting was extremely difficult; it was necessary to bring things to the house and there to choose what was suitable.

Nonetheless, when Lyubov Alexandrovna tried to teach the lad musical notation the matter did not go as smoothly as expected. To delve into notation seemed boring to him, he did not have the patience, and he did not so much look at the notes as remember how the piece sounded when it was played. But in the house it was not acceptable to make him work at anything against his wish. Thus it was that one half of his musical literacy was faulty, and he had no wish whatever to play from notation, preferring to play everything by ear or to improvise.

When he was about seven he was taken to see Anton Rubinstein. ‘Don’t trouble the child’, Rubinstein said, ‘let him develop freely, with time everything will come of itself.’ These words encouraged Lyubov Alexandra even more not to make Sasha learn his notes, but to leave this matter to the natural course of events.  


[1] 1811 – May 5, 1879. Y.E.

[2] English equivalent: grammar or secondary school.

[3] This uncertainty as to the marriage date is puzzling. Aunt Lyubov was very close to her brother (see below). It seems she would have known the date, unless the marriage was  in secret or, possibly, in haste.

[4] 1807–1873. Born in Germany as Princess Friederike Marie, she received the name Elena and adopted the patronymic Pavlovna on joining the Russian Orthodox church. Her father was Prince Paul of Württemburg. She married Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich of Russia. After his death in 1849 she became a noted patron of the arts, and in 1862 she founded the St. Petersburg Conservatoire with Anton Rubinstein.

[5] It is still there and can be studied by visitors to the Scriabin Museum, Moscow.

[6] Anna Pavlovna Polyakova-Khvostova (1846–1904), one of Tchaikovsky’s first interpreters in St Petersburg and the dedicatee of ‘None but the Lonely Heart’ (Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal). She had a considerable reputation as a performer of Russian music and became a respected teacher.

[7] Russia before 1929 was divided into gubernii (‘governances’; gubernator = ‘governor’) roughly equivalent to English counties. Saratov was a gubernskii gorod, a ‘provincial town’, meaning the principal town of the province.

[8] The small open platform at each end of the carriage.

[9] Prince Alexander Mikhailovich Gorchakov (1798–1883) was for more than thirty years the Russian Minister of foreign affairs and for twenty years Chancellor of the Russian Empire.

[10] Interpreter or guide.

[11] The Sublime or Ottoman Porte was the gate leading to the central government buildings of Istanbul. It became a metonym for the government of the Ottoman Empire.

[12] i.e. the First World War. The late Metropolitan Anthony of Surozh was descended from this branch of the family; he referred to A. N. Scriabin, writing to me, as his uncle.

[13] This expedition was described in a letter to Tatyana de Schloezer, his life-partner, by Alexander Nikolaevich. A. V. Kashperov, ed. A. N. Scriabin: Pis’ma [Letters]. Moscow: Muzyka, 1965/2003. p. 613–614. Before September 30 (old style) 1913. ‘I should like to share with you the complicated feeling which has possession of me. Complicated and new for me. But how? It is impossible to speak of it. I should like to communicate it in another way. I regret that you didn’t know the exact time of my visit to the cemetery, in that case I  am certain you would simply have seen all that I experienced at the dear grave. My little darling, I have been suffering much in these days [spent with his father] and the trip to Arco has brought me some relief. I shall tell you of this only when we meet again!’ 

[14] It will be remembered that the issue of Muzykal’nyi sovremennik in which Engel’s biography appeared went to press in January 1916 or possibly the end of 1915. The date on the title page is 1916, but it was common practice to sell journals at the end of the year with the next year’s date on them. This really was ‘just the other day’ for Engel.

[15] Further evidence that the note of Elizaveta Ivanovna’s death was added in haste at the last stage of preparation: this sentence was not brought into line with it.

[16]  Engel’s word is ‘kalligrafiya’, fine or beautiful writing. Scriabin’s handwriting as a young man was frequently hasty, but in maturity his formal, very individual  handwriting and his musical manuscripts were calligraphic masterpieces.

[17] Compare the notebook of 1904–5: ‘I alone exist, the apparent multiplicity is called up by my creative imagination. […] What horror to come to such a conclusion! I am alone!’ Nicholls and Pushkin, The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, p 94.

[18] 1908.

[19] I have given the French equivalent for the Russian ‘paper flute’. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines this instrument as ‘a device in which sound waves produced by the player’s voice or by an instrument vibrate a membrane, thereby imparting a buzzing quality to the vocal or instrumental sound.’ The Russians stretch paper over a short tube, down which one sings. The effect is very like a comb and paper or the modern kazoo. Tchaikovsky idealises it magically by means of three flutes in the ‘Danse des mirlitons’ from the  Nutcracker, locating the instrument in the world of childhood.

[20] In her own account of this incident (written later) Lyubov Petrovna recalled that the five-year-old Scriabin was appalled by the noise of his orchestra and vowed never again to subject himself to anything similar. Notebooks p. 8, quoting Lyubov Petrovna’s ‘Memoirs’ in S. Markus (ed.), A. N. Skryabin:1915–1940; Sbornik k 25-letiyu so dnya smerti. Moscow/Leningrad: State Music Publishers 1940 p.11.

[21] See above in the account of her time in the boarding-school.

[22] Fine linen or cotton.


[1] Materials for this outline were presented to me most willingly by the following, to whom I offer deep gratitude: A. N. Brianchaninov, E. A. Cooper, B. P. Jurgenson, G. E. Konyus, L. E. Konyus, S. A. Kussevitsky, M. S. Lunts, M. K. Morozova, A. A. Podgayetsky, S. V. Rachmaninov, E. K. Rozenov, L. L. Sabaneyev, V. I. Safonov, L. A. Scriabina, T. F. Scriabina, V. I. Scriabina, Princess  E. M. Shakhovskaya, B. F. Shlëtser [Boris de Schloezer],the late S. I. Taneyev. From printed sources I made use of biographical materials from the short work A. N. Scriabin and his creative work by E. O. Gunst and of the article by  L. Sabaneyev, ‘Scriabin and the idea of the Mystery’ (Voice of Moscow, April 1915). Y. E.

‘Scriabin! Remember this name!’

‘Scriabin! Remember this name!’ exclaimed a critic during the composer’s visit to Paris in 1896. For the Scriabin 150th anniversary year of 2022, the Scriabin Memorial Museum of Moscow has prepared an exhibition using materials from its archives, which can be viewed by clicking the following:

150th Anniversary Scriabin Exhibition

The below English translations have been prepared by Simon Nicholls to accompany the annotations in the exhibition document:

PgText
6Любовь Петровна Скрябина (урождённая Щетинина). Санкт-Петербург, около 1870 г. Мать композитора, Любовь Петровна Щетинина (1848–1873), происходила из семьи художников Императорского фарфорового завода. В 1861 году Любовь Петровна поступила в Санкт-Петербургскую консерваторию и в 1866 году закончила её как пианистка, получив диплом и звание свободного художника.
Lyubov Petrovna Sсriabina (née Shchetinina). St. Petersburg, 1870s. The composer’s mother, Lyubov Petrovna Shchetinina (1848–1873). She descended from a family of artists working at the Imperial Porcelain Factory. In 1861 Lyubov Shchetinina entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating in 1866 as a pianist with a diploma and the title of free artist.  

Герб рода Скрябиных Герб рода Скрябиных был совсем «молодым» – прадед композитора получил потомственное дворянство в 1819 году за воинскую доблесть.
Scriabin family coat of arms The Scriabin family coat of arms was very “young” – the composer’s great-grandfather received the title of hereditary nobility in 1819 for military valour.  

Николай Александрович Скрябин – отец композитора. Москва, фотоателье И.Г. Дьяговченко, вторая половина 1870-х – 1880-е гг. Отец Александра Николаевича – Николай Александрович (1849–1914) – окончил факультет Учебного отделения восточных языков при Азиатском департаменте и, став дипломатом, бόльшую часть жизни провёл за границей, приезжая в Россию только в отпуск.
Nikolai Alexandrovich Scriabin – composer’s father. Moscow, photo studio of I.G.Diagovchenko, second half of the 1870s – 1880s. Alexander’s father, Nikolai Alexandrovich (1849–1914), graduated from the faculty of Oriental Languages at the Asian Department and having become a diplomat, spent most of his life abroad, coming to Russia only on holidays.
7Саша Скрябин в возрасте трёх лет с родственниками. 1875 г. Александр Николаевич Скрябин происходил из небогатого дворянского рода. Дед композитора, Александр Иванович Скрябин (1811–1879), был военным. В 1846 году он женился на дочери капитан-лейтенанта флота Елизавете Ивановне Подчертковой. У отца композитора было шесть братьев и сестра. После ранней смерти матери Саши все заботы о нём взяли на себя его тётя – Любовь Александровна Скрябина – и бабушки – Елизавета Ивановна и Мария Ивановна. Alexander Scriabin at the age of three with his relatives. 1875. Alexander N. Scriabin descended from a poor noble family. The composer’s grandfather, Alexander Ivanovich Scriabin (1811–1879), was a military man. In 1846 he married Yelizaveta Ivanovna Podchertkova, the daughter of the navy captain. The composer’s father had six brothers and a sister. After the early death of Alexander’s mother, his aunt Lyubov Alexandrovna Scriabina and his grandmothers Yelizaveta Ivanovna and Maria Ivanovna took care of him.  

Любовь Александровна Скрябина – тётушка композитора. Любовь Александровна стала первым проводником мальчика в мире музыки. По её воспоминаниям, трехлетний Саша «один мог сидеть за роялем часами <…> Всё что-то наигрывал одним пальчиком».
Lyubov Alexandrovna Scriabina – the composer’s aunt. Lyubov Scriabina became the boy’s first guide to the world of music. According to her recollections, three-year-old Alexander “could sit alone at the piano for hours <…> playing something with one finger”.
8Николай Сергеевич Зверев с учениками: Самуэльсон, Скрябин, Максимов, Рахманинов, Черняев, Пресман. Москва, 1880-е гг. Обучаясь в кадетском корпусе, Александр Николаевич брал уроки музыки у знаменитого педагога Н.С. Зверева. Именно на воскресных вечерах у Зверева впервые стали играть свои сочинения юные Скрябин и Рахманинов.
Nikolai Sergeyevich Zverev with his pupils: Samuelson, Scriabin, Maksimov, Rachmaninoff, Chernyaev, Presman. Moscow, 1880s. While studying at the Cadet Corps, Alexander Scriabin took music lessons with the famous teacher N.S. Zverev. It was on Zverev’s Sunday evenings that the young Scriabin and Rachmaninoff first began playing their own compositions.  

Сергей Иванович Танеев – композитор, пианист, музыковед, педагог, профессор и директор Московской консерватории. В 1885 году Саша Скрябин начал заниматься у С.И. Танеева и запомнился ему как «маленький кадет с поразительным слухом».
Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev – composer, pianist, musicologist, teacher, professor and director of the Moscow Conservatory. In 1885 Alexander Scriabin began studying under Sergei I. Taneyev and is remembered by him as “a little cadet with an amazing ear”.  

Василий Ильич Сафонов – русский дирижёр, пианист, профессор и директор Московской консерватории, общественный деятель. В 1887 году Скрябин поступил в московскую консерваторию в класс В.И. Сафонова. Тот выбрал его сам – Сафонова привлекал талант молодого пианиста и мягкий, утончённый тип скрябинской игры.
Vasily Ilyich Safonov – a Russian conductor, pianist, professor and director of the Moscow Conservatory, a public figure. In 1887 Scriabin entered the Moscow Conservatory in V.I. Safonov’s class. The latter chose him himself – Safonov was attracted by the talent of the young pianist and the soft, refined type of Scriabin’s playing.
9А.Н. Скрябин. Соната-фантазия. Неоконченный нотный автограф. 4 августа 1886 г.
A.N. Scriabin. Sonata-Fantasy. Unfinished music-score autograph. 4 August 1886.  

А.Н. Скрябин. Ноктюрн [fis-moll]. Варианты ноктюрна ор. 5 № 1. Москва, 1888 г. В своём раннем творчестве А.Н. Скрябин испытывал сильное влияние Ф. Шопена. Оно проявлялось, в том числе, и в выборе жанров: ноктюрны, вальсы, полонезы, мазурки, прелюдии, этюды и др.
A.N. Scriabin. Nocturne [fis-moll]. Variants of Nocturne Op. 5 No.1. Moscow, 1888. In his early works Scriabin experienced a strong influence of Chopin. This influence was also apparent in the choice of genres: nocturnes, waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas, preludes, etudes, etc.  

Программа экстренного собрания в пользу недостаточных учащихся консерватории 21 ноября 1888 г. с участием А.Н. Скрябина. В ноябре 1888 года Александр Николаевич в первый раз участвовал в концерте студентов консерватории. О его выступлении писали так: «Игра этого молодого виртуоза, судя по костюму – ещё ученика гимназии, отличалась большим разнообразием и характерностью, ясно обрисовывавшими исполняемые номера».
The program of the emergency meeting for the benefit of the poor students of the Conservatory on 21 November 1888 with the participation of A.N. Scriabin. In November 1888 Alexander Scriabin for the first time took part in a concert of conservatory students. They wrote on his performance: “The playing of this young virtuoso, judging by his costume – still a pupil of a grammar school, was notable for its great variety and character, clearly outlining the performed pieces”.
10Аттестат об окончании Второго Московского кадетского корпуса, выданный А.Н. Скрябину 18 августа 1889 г. В 1888–1889 годах Скрябин обучался одновременно в кадетском корпусе и в консерватории. Несмотря на это, ему удалось окончить корпус с достаточно высоким средним баллом – 9,17 из десяти.
The certificate of graduation from the Second Moscow Cadet Corps issued to Alexander Scriabin on August 18, 1889. In 1888–1889 Scriabin studied simultaneously at the Cadet Corps and at the Conservatory. Despite the fact, he managed to graduate from the corps with a fairly high average score of 9.17 out of ten.  

Диплом А.Н. Скрябина об окончании Московской Консерватории. В мае 1892 года Скрябин окончил Московскую консерваторию с малой золотой медалью.
Scriabin’s diploma of graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. In May 1892 Scriabin graduated from Moscow Conservatory with a small gold medal.
11Митрофан Петрович Беляев (1836–1904) – лесопромышленник, меценат, ценитель музыки, владелец музыкального издательства, основатель Беляевского кружка, объединившего многих выдающихся музыкантов. 11 февраля (ст. стиль) 1894 года в Малом зале Санкт-Петербургской консерватории состоялся первый авторский концерт А.Н. Скрябина. В зале присутствовал М.П. Беляев, заинтересовавшийся произведениями молодого музыканта. Вплоть до своей кончины Митрофан Петрович будет помогать Александру Николаевичу материально, а также издавать его сочинения.
Mitrofan Petrovich Belyaev (1836–1904) was a timber merchant, patron of the arts, music admirer, owner of a music publishing house and founder of the “Belyaev Circle” which brought together many outstanding musicians. On February 11, 1894 at the Small Hall of St. Petersburg Conservatory was held the first concert of A.N. Scriabin. M.P. Belyaev attended the concert and became interested in the works of the young musician. Until his death Mitrofan Belyaev would help Scriabin financially and publish his compositions.  

А.Н. Скрябин. Прелюдия и ноктюрн для левой руки. Ор. 9. Лейпциг: М.П. Беляев, 1895 г. Во время учёбы в консерватории Скрябин «переиграл» правую руку. Со временем Александру Николаевичу удалось восстановиться, но слабость правой руки подтолкнула его к созданию произведений для левой руки – Прелюдии и ноктюрна ор. 9. A.N. Scriabin. Prelude and Nocturne for left hand. Op. 9. Leipzig: M.P. Belyaev, 1895. During his studies at the Conservatory Scriabin “overplayed” his right hand. Over time, Alexander managed to recover but the weakness of his right hand pushed him to create works for the left hand – Prelude and Nocturne Op. 9.
12Вера Ивановна Скрябина с дочерью Риммой. Москва, 1898 г. Летом 1897 года Александр Николаевич Скрябин обвенчался с Верой Ивановной Исакович. Вера Ивановна была талантливой пианисткой и часто включала музыку мужа в свои концертные программы.
Vera Ivanovna Scriabina with her daughter Rimma. Moscow, 1898. In the summer of 1897 Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin married Vera Ivanovna Isakovich. Vera Isakovich was a talented pianist and often included her husband’s music in her concert programs.  

Дети Александра Николаевича и Веры Ивановны Скрябиных: Елена, Мария и Лев. Москва, около 1905 г. У Александра Николаевича и Веры Ивановны Скрябиных было четверо детей, двое из которых – Римма и Лев – умерли совсем юными.
Children of Alexander Scriabin and Vera Scriabina: Elena, Maria and Lev. Moscow, 1905. Alexander Scriabin and Vera Scriabina had four children two of whom – Rimma and Lev –  died very young.
13.Татьяна Фёдоровна Шлёцер-Скрябинa. Париж (?), середина – втор. половина 1900-х гг. Дар Музею Татьяны Лазарус (Корнманн) – внучки А.Н. Скрябина. В 1905 году первый брак Скрябина распался. Второй женой композитора стала Татьяна Фёдоровна Шлёцер, племянница профессора Московской консерватории, так же успешно занимавшаяся музыкой.
Tatiana Fedorovna Schlözer-Scriabina. Paris (?), 1900s. A gift to the Museum by Tatiana Lazarus (Kornmann), Scriabin’s granddaughter. In 1905 the first marriage of Scriabin was dissolved. The composer’s second wife was the niece of a professor at the Moscow Conservatory Tatiana Fedorovna Schlözer who was just as successful in music being.  

А.Н. Скрябин и Т.Ф. Шлёцер-Скрябина с сыном Юлианом. 1913 г. Маленький Юлиан (1908–1919 гг.) был любимцем родителей. Он унаследовал музыкальную одарённость отца и подавал большие надежды как композитор.
A.N. Scriabin and T.F. Schlözer-Scriabina with their son Julian. 1913. The little Julian (1908-1919) was a favorite of his parents. He inherited his father’s musical giftedness and showed great promise as a composer.  

Татьяна Фёдоровна Шлёцер-Скрябина и дети Ариадна, Юлиан, Марина Скрябины. Киев, 1918 г. После внезапной смерти мужа и трагической гибели сына Татьяна Фёдоровна Шлёцер-Скрябина стала хранительницей наследия Скрябина и основателем Мемориального музея композитора.
Tatiana Fedorovna Schlözer-Scriabina and children Ariadna, Julian, Marina Scriabins. Kiev, 1918. After the sudden death of her husband and the tragic death of her son, Tatiana Schlözer-Scriabina became the custodian of Scriabin’s legacy and founder of the composer’s Memorial Museum.
14А.Н. Скрябин. Симфония № 3. Партитура. Издательство М.П. Беляева. С пометками И.С. Миклашевского. Весной 1905 года в Париже под руководством знаменитого дирижёра Артура Никиша с большим успехом состоялось первое исполнение Третьей симфонии («Божественной поэмы»). Создание этого произведения заняло два года.
A.N. Scriabin. Symphony No. 3. Score. Publishing house of M.P. Belyaev. With the notes of I.S. Miklashevsky. In spring 1905 in Paris under the guidance of the famous conductor Arthur Nikisch the first performance of the Third Symphony (the “Divine Poem”) was a great success. This work took Scriabin two years to complete.  

А.Н. Скрябин. «Поэма экстаза». Ор. 54. Партитура. Издательство М.П. Беляева. С дирижёрскими пометками Ф.М. Блуменфельда.  «Поэма экстаза», написанная А.Н. Скрябиным в 1904–07 гг. для большого симфонического оркестра, стала одной из кульминационных точек его творчества.
A.N. Scriabin. “Poem of Ecstasy”. Op. 54. Score. Publishing house of M.P. Belyaev. With the conductor’s notes by F.M. Blumenfeld. The “Poem of Ecstasy”, written by A.N. Scriabin in 1904–07 for a large symphony orchestra, became one of the culminating points of his oeuvre.  

А.Н. Скрябин. «Поэма экстаза», рукопись поэтического текста. Кроме музыкального, в творчестве Скрябина есть и поэтическое произведение, названное «Поэма экстаза». В нём, как писала Т.Ф. Шлёцер-Скрябина, композитору «удалось выразить в сжатой и идеально-художественной форме почти всё своё миросозерцание».
A.N. Scriabin. “Poem of Ecstasy”, the manuscript of a poetic text. In addition to music, the Scriabin’s oeuvre includes also a poetic work called “Poem of Ecstasy”. As T.F. Schlötzer-Scriabina wrote, the composer “managed to express in a concise and ideal-artistic form almost all of his worldview in it.
15Групповое фото в Берлине В 1910 году Скрябин с семьёй возвращается на Родину. Этому немало способствовало его знакомство с музыкантом, дирижёром и меценатом С.А. Кусевицким, который был готов материально поддерживать композитора и издавать его произведения в собственном музыкальном издательстве.
Group photo in Berlin In 1910 Scriabin with his family returned to his homeland. This was greatly helped by his acquaintance with the musician, conductor and patron of the arts S.A. Koussevitsky who was ready to financially support the composer and publish his works in his own music publishing house.  

А.Н. Скрябин и Т.Ф. Шлёцер-Скрябина на пароходе в турне по Волге. Апрель – май 1910 г. Дар Музею Татьяны Лазарус (Корнманн). В 1910 году С.А. Кусевицкий пригласил Скрябина участвовать в «волжских гастролях». С конца апреля до конца мая 1910 года в Рыбинске, Ярославле, Костроме, Нижнем Новгороде, Казани, Симбирске, Самаре, Саратове, Царицыне и Астрахани были даны симфонические концерты, на которых звучал и фортепианный концерт Александра Николаевича. Партию фортепиано исполнял автор. A.N. Scriabin and T.F. Schlözer-Scriabina on a steamer touring along the Volga. April – May 1910. A gift to the Museum by Tatiana Lazarus (Kornmann). In 1910 S. Koussevitsky invited Scriabin to participate in the “Volga tour”. Symphonic concerts were given from late April to late May 1910 in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Simbirsk, Samara, Saratov, Tsaritsyn and Astrakhan where the piano concert of Scriabin was performed. The piano part was performed by the author.  

А.Н. Скрябин после завершения «Прометея». Фото А. Мозера. В 1910 году была завершена симфоническая поэма «Прометей» – первое в истории произведение, в котором соединились музыка, цвет и свет.
A.N. Scriabin after completing his “Prometheus”. Photo by A. Moser. In 1910 he completed his symphonic poem “Prometheus” – the first work in history to combine music, colour and light.
16А.Н. Скрябин. «Прометей. Поэма огня». Op. 60. Переложение для двух фортепиано. Российское музыкальное издательство. Обложку для партитуры «Прометея» по заказу Скрябина создал его друг – известный бельгийский художник-символист Жан Дельвиль.
A.N. Scriabin. “Prometheus. Poem of Fire”. Op. 60. Arranged for two pianos. Russian Music Publishing House. The cover for the score of “Prometheus” commissioned by Scriabin was created by his friend, the famous Belgian symbolist painter Jean Delville.  

Модель светового аппарата для сопровождения поэмы «Прометей». 1910-е гг. Этот аппарат был сконструирован по эскизу композитора его другом – инженером А. Мозером. С помощью светового круга Скрябин демонстрировал гостям, как должна «окрашивать» его музыку введённая им в партитуру «Прометея» «цветовая» строка.
Model of colour key-board to accompany the poem “Prometheus”. 1910s. The engineer Alexander Moser guided by Scriabin’s sketches constructed this device. Scriabin with the help of the light-colour key-board demonstrated to the guests how the “colour” line, introduced by him into the score of “Prometheus”, would “colour” his music.
17А.Н. Скрябин. «Предварительное действо» (черновые наброски, чертежи). [1913–1915 гг.] В последние годы жизни Скрябин активно работал над созданием «Предварительного действа» – произведения, оставшегося, к сожалению, незавершённым.
A.N. Scriabin. “The Prefatory Act” (rough sketches, drawings). [1913–1915]. In the last years of his life Scriabin actively worked on the creation of “The Prefatory Act”– a composition that unfortunately remained unfinished.  

А.Н. Скрябин. Черновая тетрадь «Предварительное действо», поэтический текст. Кроме музыкального, Скрябин усердно трудился и над поэтическим текстом к «Предварительному действу». В фондах музея сохранилось несколько тетрадей с черновыми записями.
A.N. Scriabin. Draft notebook of “The Prefatory Act”, poetic text. Apart from the music Scriabin worked hard on the creation of poetic text for “The Prefatory Act”. In the funds of Scriabin museum several notebooks with rough notes of the composer are stored.
18Кабинет Мемориальный музей Скрябина – уникальное пространство, не воссозданное десятилетия спустя по записям и воспоминаниям современников, а бережно сохраненное после смерти композитора.
Study The Scriabin Memorial Museum is a unique space, not recreated decades later with the help of notes and memories of his contemporaries, but carefully preserved after the composer’s death.  
Рояль Grand piano  
Конторка Standing desk  
Мемориальный музей А.Н.Скрябина Москва, Большой Николопесковский переулок, д. 11
A.N. Scriabin Memorial Museum Moscow, Bolshoy Nikolopeskovsky, 11   www.150scriabin.ru www.scriabinmuseum.ru

Russian Piano Masterpieces: Scriabin Professor Marina Frolova-Walker FBA, Peter Donohoe CBE

Gresham College  is running a free lecture-recital on Scriabin’s piano masterpieces next week with Peter Donohoe and Professor Marina Frolova-Walker. The event is free to watch on the day or later – it will stay up online. For full details of the event, and to register, please visit:

https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/scriabin-piano

Obituary – Irina Ivanovna Sofronitskya, 1920-2020

Irina Ivanovna Sofronitskya A living link with the history of the Scriabin museum and with the family histories of Scriabin and Sofronitsky has passed away.

Irina Ivanovna Sofronitskya died on Thursday August 20, 2020. She would have reached her 100th birthday on September 28.

She was born in 1920 in Leningrad. Her younger brother, Nikolai, died in the 1970s. Her father was arrested and executed in 1937. Her mother was a woman of great erudition who spoke several ancient languages, including Sanskrit.

Irina Ivanovna moved with her mother and brother to Moscow after the siege of Leningrad. Having inherited her mother’s love of old languages, she set about translating patristic texts.

Contact with the Catholic church in Moscow led to a dramatic and permanent conversion: at the moment of the Elevation of the Host during a communion service, she felt a hand upon her and a demand that she kneel.

Her frequent visits to the church of St. Louis led to her arrest by the KGB in 1947 and a sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment in a labour camp for ‘contacts with foreigners aiming to damage the interests of the Soviet Union.’ She managed to receive the eucharist in secret while in the camp through a Father Viktor who was in the neighbouring (men’s) camp.

Irina Ivanovna was released along with many others after the death of Stalin in 1953. After her return to Moscow she met and married Alexander Vladimirovich Sofronitsky, son of the great pianist and interpreter of Skryabin. She began to work at the Skryabin Memorial Museum in Moscow. Possessed of an all-embracing spirituality which affected every aspect of her life, she felt that the music of Skryabin brought her nearer to God, and was able to take up her religious practice again. She remained on the staff of the Museum for many years and can be seen on the film of Vladimir Horowitz’ visit to the Museum in 1986, notably with her close friend Elena Skryabina-Sofronitskaya.

She developed a passionate attachment to the Museum’s earlier director, Tatyana Shaborkina, and to her mother-in-law Elena Skryabina-Sofronitskaya, whose childhood home the Museum had been. Irina Ivanovna remained a deeply committed Catholic; but unlike certain eminent philosophers, she saw no difficulty in finding God in the music of Skryabin, especially in the performances of her father-in-law, and her love of Skryabin’s music, of Vladimir and Elena Sofronitsky and of the Catholic Church stayed with her until the end. Her opposition to Skryabin’s relationship with Tatyana Schloezer and to Sofronitsky’s second marriage was implacable.

Irina Ivanovna’s profound spirituality was not only for Catholics: it was open and alive to all whom she encountered. She had the rare gift of meeting the individual before her with complete honesty and respect without the slightest compromise of her own faith. Despite her illustrious connections and the fascination of her long experience, she remained an utterly simple and self-effacing character, who detested self-advertisement.

Thanks to the Catholic Church of St Louis of the French in Moscow for many details in the above biography.

Scriabin Museum Links

Scriabin Museum Links

The following link contains details of the 100 year history of the Scriabin Museum in Moscow, housed at the composer’s last apartment in the city. There are fascinating documents, photos and memorabilia displayed on the pages throughout. The site can be visited here.

There is also an article by the museum’s director, Alexander Lazarev, concerning activities of the museum and its latest innovations in researching and exploring Scriabin’s ideas. The page can be visited here.

SCRSS: Talk on the Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin by Simon Nicholls

scrssVenue: SCRSS, 320 Brixton Road, London SW9 6AB
Tel: 020 7274 2282 | Eml: ruslibrary@scrss.org.uk | Web: www.scrss.org.uk
We recommend booking in advance, by email, for all events at the SCRSS. Check the website for further information about events and the Society’s collections.

Friday 11 October, 7pm 

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin, 1872-1915 – Talk by Simon Nicholls  
Together with professional Russianist Michael Pushkin, Simon Nicholls has translated the writings of the Russian composer Alexander Skryabin (1872-1915). Skryabin’s private journals, presented with relevant letters and other material from the composer and his contemporaries, go far towards explaining the origins of his idiosyncratic world-view. Simon Nicholls has researched original material and comments by Skryabin’s associates and contemporaries, and provided commentaries and annotations that dispel popular misconceptions and reveal the constellation of philosophies that shaped the composer’s ideas. The book has been hailed by Marc-Andre Hamelin as “an immensely valuable addition to our understanding of every aspect of this most enigmatic of Russian composers”, and has a foreword by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Illustrated with photographs from the Skryabin Museum, The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin (2018) is published by Oxford University Press. In his talk to the SCRSS about The Notebooks, Simon Nicholls will include consideration of Skryabin’s attitude to socialism and a short account of how this mystical idealist was posthumously adopted into the Soviet canon. Simon Nicholls is a pianist, teacher and independent researcher. His career has included performing and broadcasting on four continents, and teaching at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Royal College of Music (London) and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, of which he is an Honorary Fellow. He has now retired from institutional teaching. From 2001 to 2017 he made many research trips to Moscow, collecting materials and discussing Skryabin with Russian musicians and academics.  The talk is open to both SCRSS members and non-members. Normal entrance fees apply: SCRSS members £3.00 / non-members £5.00. Pay cash on entry. 

Scriabin’s Eighth Sonata: the composer’s last word on sonata form. By Simon Nicholls

Abstract

The Eighth Sonata, the longest of Scriabin’s one-movement sonatas, was the last of the cycle of ten to be finished. It differs greatly from the other late sonatas in its extensive, apparently discursive form and generally more subdued expressive register, yet it has always fascinated players and listeners. The present study attempts to show that the linked qualities of symmetry and repetition which mark out the Eighth are a logical culmination of Scriabin’s developing and original treatment of sonata form from his earliest works; to suggest why he placed it in the position he did, instead of at the end of the cycle; and to investigate the deep logic of the form of the work. The sonata lacks the numerous subjective performance directions of the other late works, with a few important exceptions, but Scriabin made some significant comments about it. The content of the work is investigated with reference to those comments. Valentina Rubtsova has stated that the last sonatas were regarded by the composer as preliminary studies for the Mystery.[1] Concepts in Scriabin’s libretto for the Preliminary Action, the ‘preparation’ for the Mystery, and relevant earlier writings are also drawn into comparison. Commentaries from 1915 to 2016 are drawn into the discussion, as well as twentieth-century literary, scientific-philosophical and musical references.

A version of this article was published, in Russian translation, in A. N. Skryabin i sovremennost’: zhizn’ posle zhizni (Skryabin and the present day: life after life), edited by Alexander Serafimovich Skryabin, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the A. N. Skryabin Foundation, Moscow. The Centre for Humanitarian Initiatives, Moscow–St. Petersburg, 2016.

The development of form in Scriabin

Scriabin’s engagement with sonata form was life-long: one of his earliest existing manuscripts is the Sonate-Fantaisie in G sharp minor, finished in August 1886 at the age of fifteen. Its form anticipates to some extent the pattern of the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas: it begins with a slow introduction whose recapitulation (fragmentary in this case, a mere hint) frames a fast movement. Between this youthful work and the Eighth Sonata, the last of Scriabin’s ten sonatas to be finished despite its numbering, stand not only the other nine sonatas and the five symphonic works of the canon, but also an incomplete sonata movement in C sharp minor begun in September 1887 and a sonata in E flat minor dating from 1887–1889. The first movement of the latter work, expanded and corrected, became the Allegro appassionato op. 4 in 1882, and the Allegro appassionato is not the only extended movement by Skryabin in sonata form which lacks the title Sonata: further examples are the Fantaisie op 28 and the Poème-Nocturne op. 61.

Scriabin has been criticised for holding to the traditional form throughout the transformation of his musical language: Sabaneyev referred to the ‘schematicism’ of his later works, and the German critic Carl Dahlhaus accused him of taking over the traditional form ‘gehorsam und unkritisch’ [obediently and uncritically].[2] But from the beginning there were original elements in Scriabin’s handling of form. The fragmentary recall of the slow introduction in the G sharp minor Sonate-Fantaisie, forming the ‘frame’ or ‘bracket’ which becomes so important to Scriabin later, has been mentioned. In the First Sonata, op. 6, completed in 1892, the form is modified and interrupted to expressive purpose, to express Scriabin’s despair at the hand injury he thought was going to be permanent: in the finale, exactly where our expectation is that the second subject will return triumphantly in the home key, the movement we have taken to be the finale breaks off, a fragment of the second subject is heard in the minor and a remorseless funeral march ensues. This ‘meaningful contradiction […] of what we have been led to expect’ was defined by Hans Keller as constituting ‘the language of music’, the method by which ‘musical understanding’ is communicated, and Keller’s simplest example of it was the interrupted cadence.[3] Here Scriabin achieves a harrowing emotional effect by working on the level of formal expectations. From this point on Scriabin is able to use the modification of form as an expressive element in his music.

The treatment of form in Scriabin’s earlier symphonies is also highly original. Of the six movements in the First Symphony, the first and last frame a conventional four-movement structure: Allegro drammatico, Lento, Vivace, Allegro. The recapitulation in the finale of ideas from the first movement provides an element of symmetry to the framing, and the addition to the finale of words, which are heard over the first movement’s ideas and the second movement’s exalted theme, marked at its first appearance Più,[4] reveals that the first movement’s enchanted world and the exaltation of the ‘Più’ theme are to be attributed to the influence of Art, and of Music in particular, the  ‘wondrous image of the Divine’ (words from the choral movement).

In the Third Symphony (Divine Poem) the sonata form of the first movement is extended by a second development section following the recapitulation (b. 745, number 43 in the Belaieff score). This second development section also provides another example of an element of symmetry in the movement, in addition to the normal correspondence of exposition and recapitulation.

It is in the later music of Scriabin that we are most conscious of his careful calculations concerning form, though this was most probably his method throughout life. During the composition of the Poem of Ecstasy he wrote to his life-partner Tat’yana Schloezer:

For the thousandth time I am pondering the plan of my composition. […] Up till now everything is only schemes and more schemes! […] For the enormous structure that I wish to raise a perfect harmony of the sections and a firm basis are necessary.[5]

During the composition of the Seventh Sonata he said to Sabaneyev: ‘It is necessary that a form like a sphere, perfect as a crystal, be obtained.’[6]

In these quotations the importance of proportion and symmetry is very marked. Scriabin was to move closer and closer to this ideal.

In writing of Scriabin’s later music, both the Russian writer of the Soviet period Sergei Pavchinsky and, it seems independently, the German writer Gottfried Eberle have proposed a form on two layers, whereby the conventional sonata form is overlaid with another tendency.[7] In the Fifth Sonata, as in the Poem of Ecstasy to which it is closely related, the overlaid tendency is an upward spiral, processes of elation and languor alternating and rising in intensity (and in tonality) until the final ecstatic peroration. In this sonata, too, we have a ‘frame’, and a unique one: the opening ‘upflight’ which corresponds to Scriabin’s ‘motto’: ‘I call you to life, hidden strivings!’ and which recurs periodically at formal divisions and at the end. The repetitions at ever-higher pitches of the ‘slow introduction’ material and of the ‘upflight’ undergo at times ingenious transformation (b. 247–270).

An uninterrupted rise to an ecstatic conclusion, irrespective of the formal process, is achieved in the Seventh Sonata by means of another transformation: a heightened and re-scored recapitulation. The amplified sonority and re-arranged layers of the return to the beginning ensure that, far from showing a drop in tension, this moment is one of the most thrilling in the work. The recapitulation of the Ninth Sonata is equally startling, with the doubling of the speed of the opening figuration and the hugely amplified instrumental writing. In the American expression, ‘all Hell breaks loose’ at this point. Scriabin does not adopt the method of Chopin in the B minor piano sonata (op. 58) and the cello sonata (op. 65), of avoiding a drop in tension by eliding the beginning of the recapitulation, so that the music does not settle until the second subject: the clarity of his formal periods is too important to him.

The Eighth Sonata presents the player and the listener with a fascinating enigma: no such dramatic ascent as in the Seventh Sonata, no such cruel climax as in the Ninth (alla Marcia), and yet the work is immediately compelling, hypnotic even. This is the longest of all the one-movement sonatas, and the form of the Eighth is at first puzzling to the listener and perhaps to the player studying the work, owing to the many repetitions of the material and the lack of obvious climactic points. E. P. Meskhishvili wrote of an element of ‘mosaic construction’.[8] But the sonata represents the culmination of the process of an original, modificatory treatment of sonata form which Scriabin seems to have had in his mind from early on, as well as the transformation of harmonic language. To Elena Gnesina, at the age of eighteen, he said:

I imagine […] some sort of music, not at all like what is being created now. In it will be, as it were, the same elements as in the music of the present time – melody, harmony,  but all this will somehow be completely different![9]

This statement is complemented by a remark in a letter to Natalya Sekerina written from Samara in 1893:

I am making calculations in relation to musical forms, and here is the sort of thing: this morning I was reading a splendid work on the flora of our planet and of the relation of tropical forms to the forms of other latitudes. […] Taking the forms of our contemporary music as the forms of the middle latitudes in relation to the musical equator, I am making a comparison of these forms to the ideal ones (that is, to the most developed and the broadest) and am comparing it to the other, already discovered relation between tropical forms and those of the middle latitudes.[10]

In other words, however complex and luxuriant in proportion the form becomes, it will obey certain basic principles, just as the bewildering luxuriance of tropical plants may obscure their inner structural relationship with those of the zone covered by the middle latitudes. If the Eighth Sonata is the final one in Scriabin’s oeuvre, it is only reasonable that we should expect its form to be the most ‘ideal’ – the most developed and the broadest – but that we should seek its basic formal tendencies, with whatever they may be overlaid, in the sonata principle (the classical sonata form corresponding to the ‘middle latitudes’). First, though, a few speculations as to why the Eighth Sonata, composed last (and intended to be the last sonata Scriabin would write – he was intending to turn thereafter to the Preliminary Action and then to the Mystery) is known not as the Tenth but as the Eighth – why Scriabin placed it in this position.

Numbering of the late sonatas

It is clear that Scriabin made choices concerning the numbering of his last five sonatas. The Sixth was written after the Seventh (both 1911-12, Kashiry –Beatenberg and Moscow), and though numbers Eight, Nine and Ten were worked on more or less simultaneously and may be regarded as a trilogy, the Ninth was started first (Beatenberg, Autumn 1911), not being finished till summer 1913 in Moscow; the Tenth was worked on in Moscow in the winter of 1912–13 and finished before the Eighth, at the latest in early June, and the Eighth was begun in winter 1912/13 and finished in early summer 1913. The three sonatas were sent simultaneously to the publisher.[11]

If we follow the numbers 5–7 and 9–10 we find a simple alternation of light and dark. But the Eighth Sonata does not fit into this pattern, and is harder to categorise in this way: Pavchinsky found in it ‘something mysterious and nocturnal’;[12] for the early American biographer Alfred J. Swan it was ‘bright and exuberant, […] a divine azure vault, the happiest and most careless of inspirations.’[13] The numerical symbolism of H.P. Blavatsky, whose Secret Doctrine was Scriabin’s constant reading, may give us a clue to Scriabin’s choice of numbering, and to the symbolism of the sonatas – remembering especially the remark of V.V. Rubtsova that the late piano sonatas were conceived as ‘preliminary studies’ for the Мystery.[14]  Seven, for Blavatsky the ‘Septenary’, was fundamental to the cosmic cycle, ‘the seven earths and the seven races’.[15] It is natural for it to be associated with the sonata which, according to Scriabin, was ‘completely close to the Mystery’[16]­ – the Mystery which was to sum up the cosmic cycle which was, according to Scriabin’s thinking, coming to an end. The number eight is associated by Blavatsky with ‘the eternal and spiral motion of cycles’, and she associates the numeral 8 with the symbol ∞ of infinity. (We may note that the first of two sketches by Scriabin included in the 1919 publication of his writings, Russkie propilei, is based on such a figure).[17] Scriabin stated that the Eighth Sonata was ‘by mood […] close to the Seventh […] only it is more all in a dance’ (an important clue for the interpreter, not always realised in performance).[18] Once again, we may think of the concept of the revolving cosmic cycle, and the typical circular dances of Scriabin, both associated with the Mystery.[19]  Nine, Blavatsky states, symbolises ‘our earth animated by a bad or evil spirit’[20] (cf. Scriabin’s remark to Sabaneyev:  ‘It is entirely mischievous, this Ninth sonata, in it is some kind of evil spirit’ [Sabaneyev’s emphases].[21]) Ten, according to Blavatsky, ‘brings all […] to unity, and ends the Pythagorean table.’ For Scriabin the Tenth Sonata, the last in the canon, was ‘genuine dissolution in nature. This is also the Mystery’.[22] Tamara Levaya writes of the Tenth as the ‘companion and antipode’ of the Ninth and as representing a concept of the Mystery of a character ‘of full mutual inter-dissolution with Nature and the Cosmos.’[23] Thus the last four sonatas are arranged as two pairs: Seven and Eight are closely linked by their philosophical subject matter but differ greatly in approach, whereas Nine and Ten are antipodes. The negative pole, represented by the Ninth, is enclosed by the ‘mysterial’ sonatas.

Harmony, Thematic Material and Content of the Eighth Sonata

The Eighth Sonata may be said to contain the widest range of harmonic vocabulary of any of the late sonatas, from the distantly extra-tonal[24] opening to the radiant Promethean harmony of bars 46­–56, which culminate on a straightforward seventh chord on A. Scriabin spoke of the ‘thematic counterpoints in the introduction of the Eighth Sonata’ as showing ‘complete reconciliation’.[25] This opening certainly shows Scriabin’s extra-tonal style at its farthest reach, apart from some passages in the preludes op. 74 and the sketches for the Preliminary Action. In this style, where harmony and melody are one and the harmonic relations are complex and oblique, we do not feel, as in the music of Bach which Scriabin evoked as a comparison, a strong directionality, but rather a dynamic stasis. This music expresses Scriabin’s concept of all-unity; all the thematic elements of the sonata are completely reconciled in a near-frictionless combination.[26]

The article by Evgenyi Mikhailov already cited characterises this introduction with the expression: ‘a state of “non-separation before creation”’.[27] This expression recalls the ‘concreteness in unity’ which Scriabin illustrated musically for the philosopher Fokht in the third of their conversations in 1910, and which Fokht recounted much later in a typescript not published until 1994.[28] Earlier still, in the notebook of 1905–1906, Scriabin wrote:

The universe is a unity, the connection of the processes co-existing in it. In its unity it is free. It exists in itself and through itself. It is (has within it) the possibility of everything, and everything.[29]

This introduction, with all the thematic potentialities combined in balanced stillness, is a musical analogue of the concept Scriabin set down in his notebook – at a time when his own musical language was developing towards being able to express this state.

The character of the thematic material also needs examination: the nature of the themes, as well as the form, determines the character of the work, and both have to be in harmony with each other.[30]

Four themes are stated in the introduction. The first (mus.ex.1a) consists of two elements: one rising in a zigzag and the other falling chromatically.

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This theme has close connections with the theme of self-assertion in the Poem of Ecstasy and the fugue theme of the final chorus in the First Symphony Slava iskusstvu [‘Glory to Art’] (1b, 1c), both of which show similar features;[31] slow and abstracted here, it appears in the last part of the exposition and, following Scriabin’s description below, I give it the name ‘theme of dissolution’.

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The second (mus. ex. 2a), which appears while the first is being completed, is the only theme which shows a completed arching gesture expressing a romantic pathos. It reappears (mus. ex. 2b) marked ‘Tragique’, one of only three French performance directions in the work; we may label it the tragic theme.

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The third theme (mus.ex.3a), rising through a diminished tenth (Scriabin’s enharmonic spelling of a major ninth), Pavchinsky labelled ‘the motive of languor’. It is stated three times, acquiring a new extension at both repetitions. At the third appearance it grows a tail which repeats itself and becomes important in the development section.

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The outline of this repeated tail (3c) gives rise to the theme which appears in its fullest form at the end of the exposition (3d) and leads to the development – I give this theme the name ‘connecting theme’ because of this function.

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The fourth (mus. ex. 4a) is the simplest – a rising second. Like the rising semitone of Vers la flamme op. 72, it has the quality of a primal impulse. Stated three times in the introduction, it grows into the principal theme of the Allegro agitato (mus. ex. 4b), with which the cascading fourths which are a feature of the Eighth Sonata are associated.[32] They constitute, not a simple descent, but a double curve, representing a hint of a whirlwind or eddy. It is tempting, and may be helpful in interpretation, to attach to them a phrase from Scriabin’s notebook of 1904–1905, ‘the trembling of life’.[33]

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With the exception of the tragic theme (ex.2b) which appears in the position of the second subject, the themes in Sonata No. 8 are unusually abstract and shorn of personal expressive value. This is certainly as intentional as the contrast between lyrical theme and aphoristic motif in the Sixth Sonata. The repeated ‘tail’ of theme 3 (mus. ex. 3c) and the up-and-down of the connecting theme 3d, closely related to it, call to mind the movement of branches in the wind or plants in the water. The first phrase of the principal theme of the allegro agitato (ex. 4b), developed from the primal motif of a rising second stated in the introduction (4a), describes a perfect fifth – in outline it is essentially a Naturthema. The detail of this first phrase, set in triads, like the prestissimo volando theme of the Fourth Sonata, gives us the exhilaration of arising life:[34] two pulsing rising seconds, and a third rise which rests for a moment on a syncopated raised fourth before arriving at the fifth. The corresponding phrase at bar 32-34, significantly, ends with a semitone drop (marked ‘a’), again syncopated (4c): an anticipation of the downward curve of the ‘tragic theme’, as if the beginning of life contained the seeds of its ending.

The forceful, fully expressed form of the ‘tragic theme’ appears at bar 88, marked ‘Tragique’, in the position of second subject. Of this passage Scriabin remarked:

‘But here I have a change of mood in the course of one phrase […].Tragic… but out of it is born such dissolution…suddenly…’[35]

Scriabin’s second subjects were highly significant from the beginning: we may think of the uplift of the second subject in the First Sonata or the consolation of the second subject in the Fantaisie. Later, perhaps under the influence of the gendering of themes in the writing of A. B. Marx,[36] they came strongly to represent a feminine principle: the second subject in the Sixth Sonata is the only lyrical theme in a work whose ideas are markedly laconic. In the Ninth sonata the second theme represents a ‘slumbering sanctuary’, in Scriabin’s own words.[37] Both these themes undergo transformation, as does the second subject of the Tenth, which reappears as a blazing vision of the sun. In the Eighth the role of the second subject undergoes further modification: rather than being acted upon, as in the earlier sonatas, it has pivotal significance in the musical narrative.

Stefanie Huei-Ling Seah, following a hint from Faubion Bowers on the associations in the Russian language to the word ‘tragic’, suggests that in this moment ‘the major tenth ascent may be understood as being heroic prior to the despair of the semitone descent from the G apex to the G flat […]’[38] This suggestion we may associate with the remarks of Valentina Rubtsova on the Poème tragique, op. 34, which she associates with the ‘self-assertion’ of the Poème op. 32 no. 2. The descending phrases of the middle section of the Poème tragique she connects with the ‘theme of protest’ in the Poem of Ecstasy; this section, with its downward-leaping phrases from the trombones, is marked tragico.[39] In other words, this is a matter of a heroic protest: in a scenario familiar from the Poem of Ecstasy, the will has met with an obstacle to its progress. But here the following events are very different from the struggle which ensues in the Poem of Ecstasy: to repeat the quotation  from  Scriabin  himself,  ‘from  it  is  born  such  dissolution …immediately’.[40] Struggle is not Scriabin’s preoccupation in this piece, though we may find elements of opposition in the development section. The two sections of enchanted tranquillity (Meno vivo, b.173-185 and 242–263), surrounded by agitated moods, bring to mind a stanza from the Preliminary Action:

Only through the foam of sensuality is it possible to penetrate
Into that secret realm where the treasures of the soul are
Where, having grown sick of the predilections of the agitated soul
The holy one is blissful in radiant stillness. [41]

Viktor Del’son suggested that the Sixth and Eighth Sonatas shared features of

strongly abstracted expressions of the elemental forces of nature, a reflection of the world surrounding us as one of the manifestations of the cosmos, of the All. [42]

Pavchinsky associated the ‘tragic theme’ in its situation amongst the other more abstract themes with the idea of

[…] a hero amid the agitated night before a thunderstorm, with its gusts of wind and threatening indistinct sounds carried towards us.[43]

But, bearing in mind the early evidence of Gunst that

[…] the music of Scriabin, being the embodiment of a certain experience, […] never by any means contains within itself any kind of hint of programmicity in the generally accepted meaning of this word […][44]

it may be preferred to look at the content of the exposition in the Eighth Sonata in a more abstract way, as the emergence of life, beginning agitatedly (b.21­–25), gaining momentum and reaching its aim of joy at b. 46 (joyeux); the chain of intervals in the theme of dissolution is extended to a full octave at b. 52–55. (Mus. ex. 5; Pavchinsky gave this passage the name ‘theme of upflight’.)

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At bar 88 the stage of consciousness and protest is reached[45] and the final stage of dissolution or dematerialisation, like that which ends the Preliminary Action,[46] ensues with one of Scriabin’s finest passages of twittering and flight, the themes 1, 3 and 2 without its rising first member all being present (b. 96–117). All this may be regarded as forming a final group in the exposition, and it is theme 2 in its shortened aspect which has the last word, here as at the conclusion of the sonata. (Presenting only the downward element of theme 2, omitting what Seah calls its ‘heroic’ aspect, robs it of its pathos. Scriabin knew the value of adding or subtracting a few notes at the beginning of a theme: the Poème-Nocturne’s first theme lacked its anacrusis in manuscript, as well as in the list of ‘themes for sonatas’ compiled by Scriabin,[47] but now that anacrusis seems utterly indispensable to the enigmatic character of the music. The ‘theme of will’ in the Poem of Ecstasy is first stated early in the work without its first three rising notes.) The pattern of events in the exposition is repeated in the recapitulation, while the coda may be said to concentrate on the stage of dematerialisation, which happens twice in quick succession ­– corresponding, perhaps, to Blavatsky’s theory of repeated cycles of existence and to Scriabin’s theory that time would speed up as the Mystery approached.[48]

Scriabin, time and the formal plan of the Eighth Sonata

Scriabin expressed to Sabaneev his belief that music could ‘enchant time’.[49] He expressed himself similarly concerning the Prelude op. 74 no. 2, which shows a repeating, circular form, ‘as if it sounds for ever’. [50]  The Two Dances, op. 73, show the same tendency, which may have started with the Fifth Sonata ­– but perhaps even earlier, with the ‘framed’ structure of the youthful Sonata-Fantasy. The literary Poem of Ecstasy,[51] as well as Scriabin’s belief in repeated manvataras,[52] systematises this circular or spiralling principle, as does the symphonic poem. The sensation of listening to, for example, a Beethoven symphony, or to the first movement of Chopin’s B minor sonata (cited above), is a linear one of great purposefulness, and Chopin’s formal innovation (also described above) increases this linearity. Scriabin’s view of time and space, though, was a very different one; he regarded the present moment as a border between two non-existent worlds: the past, which has gone, and the present which has not yet come.[53]

A part of Scriabin’s ideas of time may have been influenced by the writing of Henri Bergson. Bergson’s Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience first appeared in 1889. We do not possess evidence that Scriabin read this book, though we do know that he studied a paper by Bergson given at the Geneva Congress of Philosophy in 1904. Boris Pasternak recounts in Safe Conduct the importance of Bergson amongst students at Moscow University in the early years of the century.[54]

Bergson’s Essai contains a famous account of the way that humans mentally ‘construct’ the passage of time:

nous projetons le temps dans l’espace, nous exprimons la durée en étendue, et la succession prend pour nous la forme d’une ligne continue ou d’une chaine […].[55] We project time into space, we express duration in length, and succession takes on for us the form of a continuous line or of a chain…

Bergson’s passage refers to the way we perceive a succession of notes as a coherent melody. The same process applies in apprehending the form of a piece of music. The English novelist E. M. Forster wrote about literary form in visual-geometrical terms, similar to those used by Scriabin; and he had this to say about musical form:

Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?  […] this new thing is the symphony as a whole […].[56]

It is through memory that we perceive form,[57] and memory is conditioned by time. The form itself, though, is perceivable as a static entity. It is this static aspect, ‘outside time and space’, to which Scriabin moves ever more closely, both in his musical language[58] and in the formal process.[59]

Although he worked at the piano while composing, Scriabin disapproved of improvisation: ‘This is not art, because it cannot be formed […]’[60] Here we may turn to another literary figure, T. S. Eliot, for illustration and clarification:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. […]Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach the stillness […].
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. […][61]

Scriabin’s ‘pattern’ has been accounted for in different ways, most notably by Pavchinsky [62] and the French writer Manfred Kelkel.[63] Both draw attention to the high degree of symmetry in Scriabin’s design; Kelkel writes:

Toute la 8ème sonate est structurée des débuts aux extrêmes (Introduction – Coda) comme un miroir à doubles facettes […][64] The whole eighth sonata is structured from the beginning to the extremities (Introduction–Coda) like a mirror with double facets…

Of the outermost element, the thematic correspondence of the slow introduction with the accelerating, dancing coda, Pavchinsky writes:

the most extended arc of the form on the second level [see above] is represented by the co-relation of introduction and coda, where the variation of the fundamental theme translates the images of the introduction from their ‘languorous’ reflection and enigmatic character into the sphere of flight and of pantheistic dissolution.[65]

The correspondence of exposition and reprise, normal in a sonata, needs no comment. It is in the development section that opinions vary. And it is important to stress that it may not be possible to arrive at a single conclusive answer. Musical functions remain fluid and multivalent, susceptible to varying interpretations – each of which may have something to contribute.

Pavchinsky, whose analysis both of harmony and form is based on traditional functions, finds within the development section two sections (b.174–213 and 242­–291[66]) which are in the relationship of exposition and reprise ­– a ‘sonata without a development’[67] within a sonata. Kelkel, basing his analysis on the metrotectonics of Georgii Konyus, proposes three sections: b.118–173, 174–263, 264–319.[68] My own analysis is based on the experience of learning to play this enormous continuous movement, looking within it for meaningful correspondences between sections which aid memory, comprehension and orientation. Taking the hint from Pavchinsky’s reference to an arch, I propose that what Pavchinsky calls the second level of the form ­–  the background level ­– is a principle of symmetry approaching that of a great  arch. We have established that the outmost layer is formed by the introduction (1–21) and the coda (429–499), which are themselves in the relation of exposition and transformed recapitulation. The coda is itself symmetrically built: b. 429-448 are concerned with the ‘theme of tragedy’ and 449–464 with the ‘theme of dissolution’. These two sections are repeated in b.465–482 (transposed up an augmented fourth) and 483–494 (at the original tonality, but with the two upper voices reversed in position.) The last five bars restate the ‘theme of tragedy’ without its upward-leaping member, as at the end of the exposition (114–118) and of the recapitulation (408–416). Once again the repetition is threefold. The second layer in the arch is formed by the exposition and recapitulation (22–121, 320–428) and the third by sections 2 and 4 of the development (158–213, 226–291). (Diagram 1).

ans_dia1_eng265

Diagram 2 shows the structure of the development. There are five sections. The first is symmetrical in itself: an eighteen-bar structure built on the first theme followed by the ‘theme of tragedy’ is repeated one tone lower. The second and fourth sections match and form a symmetrical pair around a twelve-bar connection.; section 4 is transposed up a minor third from section 2. 2i is built from the tragic theme in combination with theme 3 and the connecting-theme. In 4i these elements are joined by the ‘trembling of life’, making this one of the most complex contrapuntal textures in the work. 2ii and 4ii (Meno vivo) are based on theme 4 combined with a calmer version of the descending fourths, (in quintuplets and single notes). 4ii is extended via a three-fold repetition of the end of the theme. 2iii and 4iii (Tragique. Molto più vivo)  are built on the ‘theme of tragedy’ and the connecting-theme.

The connecting sections, 3 and 5 (in dance-flight mode) start very similarly. 5i and ii are again a minor third higher than 3i and ii.  In 3ii and iii the ‘twittering’ alternates with ‘calls’ (the three rising notes of the ‘theme of tragedy’) and with the falling fourths from the ‘trembling of life’. 5ii and iii reproduce the music of dissolution near the end of the exposition (from b.96), which will be heard again from b. 394 near the end of the recapitulation. 3ii and iii hint at this music. 5 iv and v give the ‘theme of upflight’ from b. 52–56 plus a triple call (the rising fourth is enharmonically the same as the opening interval of the piece, the first two notes of the ‘theme of dissolution’) and four bars of  invocational rhythm reminiscent of the connection-theme. This passage, perhaps the most dramatic, ushers in the recapitulation which, starting pianissimo, is very far from the climactic ones in the Sixth, Seventh and Ninth Sonatas – here is a real drop in tension.

ans_dia2_eng266 2 (3)

The ‘triple’ principle in the Sonata has been mentioned. To bring together examples of this element: theme 3 is stated twice three times  (plus twice more) in the introduction; the two entries of the rising second (ex. 4a) in bars 5 and 13­–14 are echoed at the beginning of the Allegro agitato, and the full theme 4, starting with another rising second, follows immediately. At the section marked Tragique there are three falling phrases in b. 92–95 before dissolution sets in. The repetitions of the falling tail of the ‘theme of tragedy’ in the sections marked Tragique. Molto più vivo are, like those of the ‘motive of languor’ in the introduction, twice three and then two more. These set off a section of ‘flight’ each time. Section 4ii is extended to give a triple repetition of the end of theme 4, which sets off the second of the Tragique. Molto più vivo sections.

These triple repetitions, and the high level of repetition of themes and sections in the sonata, help to establish the hypnotic atmosphere of the work which has been mentioned, as do the repetitions on a smaller scale in the Prelude op. 74 no. 2, and the triple repetitions are solemn and ‘magical’ no less than in Mozart’s Magic Flute. The design of the Eighth Sonata, while far from mechanical in its geometry, has reached the highest pitch of symmetry, and as we travel through the symmetries we  feel we have lost touch with chronological, linear time, and have entered a realm where, to paraphrase Scriabin, ‘time has been enchanted’. ‘All is always now.’

[1] V. V. Rubtsova, Preface to edition of sonata no. 8. Munich. 2007.  G. Henle. p. [III].

[2] Carl Dahlhaus, “Struktur und Expression bei Alexander Skrjabin” (1972). In Carl Dahlhaus: Schönberg und andere, gesammelte Aufsätze über Musik. Mainz, Schott, 1978, p. 231.

[3] Hans Keller, Music, Closed Societies and Football. London, Toccata Press, 1974/86, p. 136–138.

[4] Più, ‘more’, is Skryabin’s marking, glossed in the new Russian complete edition as Più mosso. It is arguable, though, that this marking means the performance should be more intense in all aspects – simply ‘more’.

[5] A. V. Kashperov (compiler, ed. and commentary), A. N. Skryabin. Pis’ma [letters]. Moscow, Muzyka, 1965/2003. Letter no 381, p. 343.

[6] L. L. Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya o Skryabine [Reminiscences of Skryabin] (1925). Moscow, Klassika XXI, 2003, p. 122.

[7] S. E. Pavchinsky, Sonatnaya forma proizvedenii Skryabina [The sonata form of works by Skryabin]. Moscow, Muzyka, 1979, p. 6–7. Gottfried Eberle, “Ich erschaffe dich als vielfältige Einheit”, Alexandr Skrjabin und die Skrjabinisten, Musik-Konzepte 32/33. Munich, 1983, edition text+kritik, p. 43.

[8] E. P. Meskhishvili, Fortepiannie sonaty Skryabina [the piano sonatas of Skryabin]. Moscow, Sovetskii kompozitor, 1981, p.172. Quoted by E. Mikhailov, “Vos’maya sonata A. N. Skryabin: popytka analiza” [Skryabin’s Sonata no. 8: attempt at an analysis], Uchenye zapiski, 8/1. Moscow, Skryabin Museum, 2016, p. 75 n. 14.

[9] Elena Gnesina, Ya privykla zhit’ dolgo… [I am used to living a long time…]. Moscow, Kompozitor, 2008, p. 55.

[10] Kashperov, Pis’ma, letter no. 22, p.68. The ‘middle’ latitudes are between 50 and 60 degrees north and south.

[11] V. Del’son, Fortep’yannye sonaty Skryabina [Skryabin’s piano sonatas]. Moscow, Muzgiz, 1961, p.40–44. Daniel Bosshard, Thematisch-chronologisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Alexander Skrjabin. Ardez, Ediziun Trais Giats, 2002, p. 154–159, 162. V. V. Rubtsova, prefaces to editions of sonatas nos. 8–10. Munich, G. Henle, 2007, 2010, 2011.

[12] S. Pavchinsky, “O krupnykh fortepiannykh proizvedeniyakh Skryabina pozdnego perioda” [On Skryabin’s large-scale piano works of the late period] in S. Pavchinsky, ed. and compiler, A. N. Skryabin. Sbornik statei [anthology of articles]. Moscow, Sovetskii kompozitor, 1973, p. 449.

[13] Alfred J. Swan, Scriabin. London. J. Lane The Bodley Head, 1923, p. 106.

[14] V.V. Rubtsova, preface to the Henle edition of Sonata no. 8.

[15] H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine. Vol. II, Cosmogenesis. London, The Theosophical Publishing Company, 1888, heading to p. 607.

[16] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 157.

[17] Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin, trans., annotated Simon Nicholls, The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin. New York, Oxford University Press 2018, p. 85.

[18] Op. cit. p. 295.

[19] Cf. “A Note by Boris de Schloezer on the Preliminary Action.” Nicholls and Pushkin, The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin, p. 47.

[20] H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, vol. II, p. 580­­–581.

[21] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 162.

[22] Op. cit., p. 263.

[23] Tamara Levaya, “Skryabinskaya ‘formula ekstaza’ vo vremeni i v prostranstve” [Skryabin’s ‘formula for ecstasy’ in time and in space], in A. N. Skryabin: chelovek. khudozhnik. myslitel’ [the person, the artist, the thinker]. Moscow, Skryabin Museum, 1994, p. 101.

[24] ‘Extra-tonal’ is a term used by Russian commentators of Skryabin’s era, Sabaneyev for example, to denote a harmonic style where the tonic is distantly felt as an attraction but resolution is avoided. Stretches of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchei the Deathless (1901-1902) are ‘extra-tonal’.

[25] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 295.

[26] Cf. E. Mikhailov,  op. cit., p.76. He quotes Skryabin: “Harmony and melody are two sides of a single essence”. Mikhailov comments: ‘[…]Has not the embodiment of a specifically Skryabin space-time been revealed here, more exactly, the translation of time into space?’ This brings to mind the words of Gurnemanz to Parsifal during Act One of Wagner’s opera: Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit. [Here time becomes space]. Skryabin’s critical attitude to Parsifal, expressed to Boris de Schloezer, shows that he knew the work. Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 38. Wolzogen’s Leitfaden [thematic guide] to Parsifal was in Skryabin’s personal library.

[27] Мikhailov op. cit., p. 74.

[28] B. Fokht. Filosofiya muzyki A. N. Skryabina [Skryabin’s philosophy of music]. In Skryabin: chelovek. khudozhnik. myslitel [the person. the artist. the thinker]  p. 186. Nicholls and Pushkin p.195.

[29] Nicholls and Pushkin, op. cit., p. 106. Notebook of 1905–6.

[30] Hegel: ‘[…] the level and excellency of art, in attaining a realization adequate to its idea, must depend on the grade of inwardness and unity with which Idea and Shape display themselves as fused into one’. Bernard Bosanquet, trans., The Introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art [Aesthetik]. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1886, p.138. Skryabin recommended Hegel in a letter to Margarita Morozova, 3/16 April 1904. Kashperov, op. cit., pp. 307–8, letter 322. Nicholls and Pushkin p. 237.

[31] Gottfried Eberle, “‘Ich erschaffe dich als vielfältige Einheit’”. In Aleksander Skrjabin und die Skrjabinisten. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn, eds. Musik-Konzepte 32/33. Munich: edition text+kritik, 1983, p. 48–49.

[32] My colleague, the distinguished pianist and professor Dina Parakhina, has remarked that these descending fourths need to be treated always as a release  from  the tension built in the ascending  theme they follow. They need to be played with great lightness and a certain irreality, and are always marked to be pedalled – a super-clear articulation is essential, of course, but this is not the main requirement.

[33] Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 66.

[34] At the basis, however, lies the desire for absolute bliss. Life is upsurge. Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 113, Skryabin’s own footnote in the notebook of 1905–6.

[35]  Sabaneyev 1925/2003, p. 295.

[36] “Scriabin’s Symbolist Plot Archetype in the Late Piano Sonatas”, Susanna Garcia,

19th-Century Music, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), p. 273-300.

[37] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p. 162.

[38] Stefanie Hue-Ling Seah, “Alexander Scriabin’s style and musical gestures in the late piano sonatas: Sonata no. 8 as a template towards a paradigm for interpretation and performance.” A dissertation submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Sussex, 2011. p.116. http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/6959/1/Seah%2C_Stefanie_Huei-Ling.pdf, accessed 5/10/2016.

[39] V. V. Rubtsova, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Skryabin. Moscow, Muzyka, 1989, p. 223.

[40] The word ‘immediately’ suggests to the present writer that the diminuendo made by many players in the repeated falling phrases, not marked by Skryabin, is not appropriate here: the transition to ‘dissolution’ should be startling and instantaneous ­– a breaking-through into a different mode of existence.

[41] Nicholls and Pushkin, p.145.

[42] V. Del’son, Skryabin. Ocherki zhizni i tvorchestva [outlines of life and creative work]. Moscow, 1971, Muzyka, p. 322.

[43] Pavchinsky, “On Skryabin’s large-scale piano works”, p. 449.

[44] E. Gunst. A. N. Skryabin i ego tvorchestvo [Skryabin and his creative work]. Moscow, 1915, Jurgenson, p. 32.

[45] Skryabin considered the emergence of consciousness to have a profound effect on the material of the Cosmos. Nicholls and Pushkin, p.107–108.

[46] Op. cit., p. 158.

[47] Both these manuscript sheets are in the Glinka Museum, Moscow.

[48] Sabaneyev, Reminiscences, p.  250.

[49] Op. cit. p. 57.

[50] Op. cit. p. 313.

[51] Nicholls and Pushkin, p. 115–125.

[52] Sabaneyev: Skryabin. Moscow, 1916, Skorpion, p. 48.

[53] Nicholls and Pushkin, p.76.

[54] ‘The majority were enthusiastic for Bergson’. Boris Pasternak, Safe Conduct, trans. Beatrice Scott. In: Boris Pasternak, Prose and Poems, ed. Stefan Schimanski, intro. J. M. Cohen. London, Ernest Benn, 1959, p. 32.

[55] Henri Bergson, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience, chapter II, “De la multiplicité des états de conscience: l’idée de durée”. Paris, Félix Alcan, 1889, p. 76.

[56] E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. London, 1927/1969, Edward Arnold, p. 154.

[57] Paul Badura-Skoda, essay on the Hammerklavier sonata. Paul Badura-Skoda, Jörg Demus, Die Klaviersonaten von Ludwig van Beethoven. Wiesbaden, 1974, F.A. Brockhaus, p.175.

[58] […] the effect of the harmonic progressions characteristic of the later music is always to weaken the relationship between chords which precede and follow, and this is also a temporal matter. Hugh MacDonald, “Skryabin’s Conquest of Time”, Otto Kolleritsch, ed., Alexander Skrjabin, Graz,1980, Universal Edition/Institut für Wertforschung, p. 62.

[59] […]the renunciation of unidirectional striving […] the locking of the “running spiral” into a spherical form […] Tamara Levaya, “Skryabin’s ‘formula for ecstasy’” (present version from the 2005 edition.) Quoted from E. Mikhailov, op. cit., p. 75.

[60] Sabaneyev, Vospominaniya, p. 254.

[61] T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”, Four Quartets, London, 1944, Faber & Faber, p. 12.

[62] Pavchinsky, The Sonata Form, p. 198–206.

[63] Manfred Kelkel, Alexandre Scriabine: sa vie, l’ésotérisme et le langage musical dans son œuvre. Paris, 1978/1984, Librairie Honoré Champion, livre III p. 146–150.

[64] Kelkel, op. cit., livre III p. 150.

[65] Pavchinsky, op. cit., p. 206.

[66] Pavchinsky does not give bar numbers; they are supplied by the present author.

[67] Pavchinsky, op. cit., p. 204.

[68] G. E. Conus (Konyus) (1862–1933) was a pupil of  Arensky and taught Skryabin at an early age. His analytical method, involving the graphic representation of sections of a composition according to bar numbers, was published in the journal Muzykal’naya kul’tura, 1924 no. 1 (“Metro–tektonicheskoe razreshenie problem muzykal’noi formy”) [A metro-tectonic resolution of the problems of musical form]  and appeared in book form in the year of his death. The attraction of this method for Kelkel is double: the early teacher/pupil relation between Konyus and Skryabin and the evidence in many manuscripts of Skryabin’s calculations involving bar numbers. The bar numbers of Kelkel’s analysis, in which he counts the number of bars in each section, are supplied by the present writer. Kelkel takes the development as starting with what I have called the ‘cadence- or connecting theme’ at b.118, apparently for reasons of mathematical proportion.

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin – translated by Simon Nicholls and Michael Puskin with annotations and commentary by Simon Nicholls and foreword by Vladmir Ashkenazy 

LCCN2017044481 (ebook)
ISBN 9780190863661 (hardcover)

“truly an essential addition to Scriabin literature” BBC Music Magazine

51IqKo5QVEL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)

Alexander Skryabin kept private notebooks in which he noted down thoughts occurring to him, building into a world-view which had a radical effect on his creative work. For the first time, these notebooks have been translated into English in full and with the introductory material of the original 1919 publication, giving an insight into Skryabin’s creative process and the conditions of his last two years of work. The combination of Simon Nicholls, a musician, and Michael Pushkin, a professional Russianist, ensures accuracy. The notebooks are complemented by letters and other relevant material and there is a biographical section and an analysis of the Poem of Ecstasy, showing how Skryabin’s poem corresponds with the orchestral score. A section on Prometheus deals with the principles of colour/sound relations in the work and their relation to its form. Research is based on original Russian material from sources close to the composer, and there are illustrations from the archives of the Skryabin Museum, Moscow.

“…his message has a meaning inherently connected with our spiritual existence.”

Vladimir Ashkenazy

“truly an essential addition to Scriabin literature”

BBC Music Magazine

“A splendidly researched volume, and an endlessly fascinating piece of scholarship. I learned a great deal from it, and it will prove essential to anyone wishing to probe deeper into Skryabin’s world. The book is an immensely valuable addition to our understanding of every aspect of this most enigmatic of Russian composers.”
Marc-André Hamelin

“Brings to life…the composer’s secret journals in fresh, modern translations”.
Lincoln Ballard

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin can be purchased here.

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): http://solistynn.ru/personalii/dirizhyory/igor-mihailovich-zhukov/