Yulii Engel Biography of Scriabin Chapter III

III. Moscow Conservatoire

(1888–1892)

Vassily Safonov – Scriabin’s attitude to his work with Safonov – Individual features of Scriabin’s piano performances – His improvisations – Damage to right hand ­– Pieces for the left hand – Sergei Taneyev and his counterpoint class – Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov in this class – Arensky and the fugue class – Scriabin and Arensky –   Scriabin and the class for free composition – His exit from this class.

Scriabin entered the Conservatoire in January 1888, i.e. in the middle of an academic year, as may be seen from his permit of studentship. The reason for this rather unusual time of entry is explained by the fact of Scriabin’s having to join Vassily Safonov’s piano class; Safonov, though, was absent from Moscow for almost all of the first half of the academic year, 1887–88. He was on a concert tour with Karl Davydov[1] through Russia, for which he obtained two to three months’ leave. During his absence Safonov placed Scriabin with David Shor, who was then his pupil.[2] It was not until Safonov returned that Scriabin officially became his pupil in the Conservatoire.

But it may be imagined that Scriabin could only dedicate himself to the Conservatoire when he had left the cadet corps. Judging by the ‘certification’ from class IV given above, this did not take place until 1889. If the latter date is correct, Scriabin studied simultaneously in the corps and at the conservatoire for half a year.

It was difficult to reconcile working constantly at the Conservatoire and living in Lefortovo, which was far from the centre of the capital, and when their grandson and nephew left the corps, the Scriabins moved nearer, to Ostozhenka.[3] Alexander Scriabin also lived here, once again in the cosy circle of the family, throughout his time at the Conservatoire and right up to the time of his marriage, i.e. his twenty-sixth year.

He enrolled at the Conservatoire in two specialist subjects simultaneously: piano and composition. Vassily Safonov, who did not become Director of the Conservatoire until 1889, became his piano professor.

The son of a Cossack general, Safonov was not predestined for a musical career, being educated at the school in Alexandrov.  He studied piano with Leschetitzky and later with Louis Brassin, a pupil of Moscheles, at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. In 1885 he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, after having held a similar post in St. Petersburg for five years. An energetic personality, he was Director of the Moscow Conservatoire only four years later. He was also responsible for the organisation of the symphonic concerts of the Russian Musical Association (RMO). A fine pianist and professor, Safonov also gradually became a conductor who was well able to put on symphony concerts.

He also showed great energy as an administrator, but here his abrupt manner and his neglect of necessary consideration of staff colleagues in the running of the Conservatoire led to a whole series of confrontations, in consequence of which Safonov was finally obliged to leave the Conservatoire after an incident with Sergei Taneyev in 1905. From that time on and until the most recent times[4] he has appeared in Russia and especially abroad, rarely as a pianist but for the most part as a conductor.

Safonov picked out Scriabin for his class while the latter was still studying with Zverev. He was greatly attracted by the young pianist’s talent; moreover, the soft, refined playing of Scriabin was more fitted to Safonov’s school, influenced by Louis Brassin, than to the brilliant Lisztian school of Paul Pabst,[5] and, in part, of Pavel de Schloezer.[6] These were two other senior professors of the Moscow Conservatoire at that time.

Scriabin worked under Safonov with the greatest assiduity and attention to detail, following exactly all his professor’s directions. This exemplary assiduity was sometimes the cause of results which are worthy of narration.

‘One time in spring,’ Vasily Safonov tells in this connection, ‘parting with Scriabin before the summer, I said in the last lesson, among other things, that it might be necessary to enrich his touch with a deep stroke, in which the fingers would, so to speak, be buried in the keyboard. But what ? He played all summer long with exactly that kind of touch, and so zealously that I was horrified in the autumn when I heard him: his hands had become utterly heavy. “You’ve gone completely crazy,” I said, and immediately set him a Mozart concerto ­– the best medicine in such cases.’

But along with all Scriabin’s strivings to follow his professor’s advice, situations of the following kind would often occur: he would practise in one way and sit down to play (even on the platform, in the pupils’ evenings) in a quite different way: his own way. Nevertheless, according to accounts from various people, Safonov never made cutting remarks to Scriabin in the sense of artistic performance. Even if the professor was not in agreement with his unusual pupil’s interpretation, he would find the performance to be fine in any case. In general, Safonov behaved to Scriabin with especial tenderness, indulged him, was particularly eager to work with him at home.

‘It often happened’, Safonov recounts, ‘that he would play at my place just at the time I was relaxing in the next room. One time I just dropped off. I woke up to some charming sounds. I didn’t even want to move, so as not to break the magic spell. Then I asked: “What is that?” It turned out to be his D flat major prelude.[7] That is one of the best memories of my life. Another time we were working at my place at home. In the middle of the lesson I felt so tired that I said to him: “Play for a bit without me, and I will rest and have a lie-down.” When I woke up, I heard something, not exactly in C sharp minor, not exactly in A major – he was improvising. That too was one of my most delicate musical delights, after Anton Rubinstein.  Skryabin took in to a high degree what is so important for a pianist and which I always used to impress on my pupils: “The less the piano sounds like itself under the fingers of a performer, the better it is.” Much in his way of playing was my own.  But he had especially varied tone-colours and a special, ideally subtle use of the pedal; he possessed a rare and exclusive gift: with him the instrument breathed.’

Safonov directed the attention of his class to Scriabin’s remarkable use of the pedal more than once. ‘Why are you looking at his hands’, he would say to the class during some successful performance of Scriabin, ‘look at his feet.’ On the lips of Safonov, ‘Sasha-style pedalling’ was the best of compliments.

Scriabin’s appearances at Conservatoire evening concerts always attracted attention. At one evening (still in cadet’s uniform) he played  Schumann’s Papillons. At another, he played the Bach B minor fugue (the one in five voices)[8] and a mazurka of Chopin (op.50 no. 3) – both enchantingly. In one of the examinations (apparently in the seventh or eighth year) Scriabin played Mendelssohn’s Serenade,[9] Chopin’s G minor Ballade and Schumann’s Papillons. K. Yu. Davydov,[10] who was present at the examination, wrote down there and then on the sheet listing the examinations, against the name ‘Scriabin’, ‘Gifts at the level of genius’. This little sheet has been preserved to this day.[11]

Scriabin loved to be ahead of others in all things, and wanted to be first amongst his classmates not only as regards subtlety of performance but also in brilliance of technique. But in this matter he was destined to get into a troublesome contention with Josef Levin,[12] who possessed phenomenal virtuosic and technical gifts. In this contention, Scriabin almost damaged his hand permanently.  He applied himself with such  assiduousness and ardour to Balakirev’s Islamey and Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy, two works of diabolical difficulty in general and for his hands in particular,  that a year and a half before graduating from the Conservatoire he wore out his right hand, which suddenly refused completely to work. At this he went to the famous [Dr.] Zakharin.[13] Zakharin angrily threw back his head: ‘Impossible to put right at this stage.’ But Scriabin declared: ‘No; it is possible.’ And he went on a course of

kumis in order to strengthen his altogether weak health.[14] Then he began to practise his right hand separately and assiduously; at first, only little by little, then more and more, and finally, by degrees, he brought it back almost to a complete playing ability, although never to its previous condition.

At one time (in 1891) Scriabin, who was enthusiastic then about the sonatas of Beethoven, conceived the idea of preparing them all  for his examination, as his classmate Samuelson had prepared all the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. But this was only a pious wish.

Scriabin could play only with difficulty at his final exam because of his damaged right hand,  and this was brought to the examiners’ attention. All the same, he was awarded the gold medal. At the conservatoire concert he played Liszt’s Don Juan and his own  mazurka in E major [Op. 3 no. 4].  Anton Rubinstein, who was present at the concert, improvised variations on the mazurka there and then.

Over a long period, when the right hand utterly refused to work or was working poorly, Scriabin had to be content with using his left hand. It was at that time  that Scriabin composed his works for left hand alone, later published as op. 9 (Prelude and Nocturne).

He also composed a third piece at the same time, an unpublished paraphrase on a waltz by Johann Strauss. It is not even known whether this paraphrase was written down,  but E. K. Rozenov heard it more than once played in its entirety by Scriabin, and says: ‘God knows what kind of virtuoso pieces there were then!’

Scriabin was concerned for his future as a pianist, and at that time he began to practise often with the fingers of his right hand (on a table, on his knee, on anything convenient), testing exactly how freely they could move. After that, it became a lifelong habit with him.

In general, Scriabin composed a great deal while at the Conservatoire, where his works were highly estimated by many people.  We have seen Safonov’s attitude to them.   ‘You don’t know whose work gets passed from hand to hand here,’ another Conservatoire professor, Pavel  Schloezer, exclaimed in delight  at hearing Scriabin’s works.  Being close to his house  subsequently became very  important for Scriabin.

It was not yet suitable, however, for Scriabin to finish his course at the conservatoire.

Scriabin entered the Conservatoire  directly to study counterpoint. The class was led at that time by Taneyev, to whom Scriabin was indebted for preparation in theoretical subjects for Conservatoire entry.    

I was fortunate enough to be in Sergei Ivanovich’s class myself, and ­moreover only three or four years after Scriabin, so that if I describe Taneyev’s characteristics as a professor my description will be equally applicable to Scriabin’s time.

Above all, Taneyev opened the pupil’s eyes to the law of historical continuity in the evolution of music, to the indispensability in this respect of practical mastery of the fundamental forms of this evolution; to the inexhaustible treasures of the past and especially of the half-forgotten [29] era of contrapuntal polyphony, which still awaits a new, fruitful renaissance.  

His class of counterpoint, fugue and form made the pupil experience and share in the whole historical process of the evolution of music personally, so to speak, taught him to separate the essential from the secondary elements in music, to value what was powerful, beautiful and eternal even in the music of the past.

But at the same time this class was a magnificent school in compositional technique, the elements of which Sergei Ivanovich  also instilled and developed  thoroughly  and

progressively (progressively also in the historical sense) through appropriate exercises in ‘strict’ and ‘free’ style, as elements of virtuoso performance are  developed through all kinds of scales, exercises or studies.

The counterpoint class (he considered one year appropriate for this)  began with every possible kind of exercise in counterpoint on a cantus firmus and with imitations (including inversion, augmentation and diminution of themes etc.) These were followed by chorales with imitations; canons with imitations, progressing finally to seven or eight voices (a three-voice canon plus imitating voices and even a cantus firmus); invertible (complex) counterpoint at every transposition of which there are examples and with those examples included; perpetual canons  from various examples;  exercises in horizontally moveable counterpoint; fugues in up to five voices, including simple, double, triple, in inversion throughout, with every kind of stretto and other contrivances, on Latin and Russian texts.

All this was done in strict style (in ecclesiastical modes, suitable for vocal performance, according to examples from the period of strict style etc.), richly illustrated by the best historical examples from the polyphonic repertoire. The second year of counterpoint (‘fugue’) was devoted to the free style. All corrections to the pupil’s work were made by Taneyev in the class itself, under the pupil’s scrutiny, with a speed which was limited only by the essential physical effort of writing.   

One may approximately judge the process of Taneyev’s class in counterpoint by the parts of it which are collected together in his book Invertible Counterpoint.[15] In Scriabin’s era this book did not yet exist, but it had already been thought about and, in part, prepared by that time, which means that Scriabin also worked at a great deal of this material, if not all of it.

Taneyev, like Safonov, describes Scriabin as a very assiduous student.  He wrote everything he was supposed to: note-against-note counterpoint, two notes and three notes against one,[16]

imitation, etc.; in a word, he did all the work which was set. But there was no evidence of an especial love for the work, or of individual initiative; there were even attempts to do less or to do easier things within the limits of what was set. Sometimes this attempt to complete exactly the task demanded [30] and simultaneously to diminish the amount of work he had to do expressed itself in curious forms. For example, Scriabin tried to shorten the themes for imitation. This meant that the number of bars in the exercise was reduced, at all accounts, and the work was less demanding.

Scriabin’s classmates in the counterpoint course at that time were: Rachmaninov, the pianist E. Kashperova,[17] the bassoonist Zeidenberg (now [1916] playing in the orchestra of the Bolshoi theatre) and the horn-player Lidak. Rachmaninov was no more assiduous in work than Scriabin. Now, many years later, he is enthusiastic about Taneyev’s teaching, but it is clear that then both he and Scriabin were too young, too much filled with straightforward creative ferment,  to be more deeply interested in the broad, abstract contrapuntal perspectives which opened up during work in Taneyev’s class.

But all the same, in Taneyev’s class it was not possible to do nothing at all; he was the utter  embodiment of a good conscience. Even if it happened occasionally that a pupil brought no work to the class, Taneyev would be so sincerely saddened and offended that it was simply shameful to do the same thing again.

The following year both Scriabin and Rachmaninov transferred from Taneyev to A. S. Arensky’s fugue class. Arensky was a different type of professor from Taneyev. It is true that he shared with Taneyev the qualities of an excellent ear, compositional mastery and a swift mind in correcting exercises, but he did not possess Taneyev’s broad contrapuntal and historical erudition, his strict system or his self-possessed character. Those who were to Arensky’s taste he declared to be fine, those who were not, he regarded as bad. And in accordance with this characteristic he tried to adjust the pupil’s work, and to correct it, sometimes not taking into account the pupil’s individuality. It must be added that Arensky was waspish and very harsh with those who were unfortunate enough to attract his dislike.

This misfortune fell to Scriabin’s lot (as happened a few years later to Grechaninov). Arensky considered Scriabin too sure of himself, arrogant (though others thought so too at a different period); and he was not able, however hard he tried, to divine a talent for composition in Scriabin. Taneyev always commented on the work sincerely, expressing his regret, his insulted feelings, but with  a generally warm attitude to a pupil’s work; there was none of this in Arensky. In his turn Scriabin felt no sympathy with Arensky and his attitude to him was scornful. 

Work could not progress successfully under these conditions. Scriabin began to lose even his usual minimum standard of diligence, not even completing the official requirements. He worked little and with scorn. Rachmaninov too was lazy, though by all accounts he did what was actually essential. Before the lesson, as happens in the composition class, [31] they often played their own compositions to each other, utterly ‘free’ – not those which were brought to the class.

In the final reckoning Scriabin had offered so little work during the year that Arensky set him ten fugues to write during the summer.  ‘If you want to move to the next year, then write them.’ But Scriabin only wrote two fugues: one was a ‘fugue-nocturne’, the other is now in the possession of E. K. Rozenov. It is a fugue in five voices, interesting, good for a pupil, but with nothing interesting about it either as regards the theme or its development. Only at the end, in the stretto (see mus. ex. no. 1) is there anything  in the harmony or the turns of the melody which corresponds to the concept of the later Scriabin and, so to speak, foretells it.

One way or another, after a year Scriabin was transferred from the class for fugue to the class for free composition.  Here relations between professor and student became even more strained. F. F. Koenemann,[18] who was also in Arensky’s class for free composition, said that Arensky complained to him about Scriabin: ‘You set him one thing, and he brings back something completely different…Some kind of a crackpot!’

Arensky set Scriabin to write a scherzo for orchestra, among other things. Instead of the scherzo, Scriabin  brought an Introduction to an opera, Keistut and Peiruta, already orchestrated.[19] Arensky remained extremely dissatisfied and, in Rozenov’s words, ‘put Scriabin out of the room.’[20] And at this point yet another situation arose. In 1891 Alexander Siloti left the professorial staff of the conservatoire because of misunderstandings with Safonov. Rachmaninov, who had close ties with Siloti, also decided to graduate from the Conservatoire as soon as possible. Instead of the usual two years (which could also extend to three or four) he conceived the wish to complete the course for free composition in a single year. Arensky was dissatisfied with such a hasty completion but agreed all the same. But when [31] Scriabin made the same request, clearly enticed by Rachmaninov’s example, Arensky refused. Scriabin was offended and angry, and left the free composition class altogether.

Thus it came about that a composer who brought glory to his alma mater was not granted a diploma in composition, though tens of other composers earned one who are little known or completely unknown.


[1] 1838–1889. Outstanding cellist, composer, professor in Leipzig and later director of St. Petersburg Conservatoire.

[2] 1867–1942. Pianist and teacher. He graduated from Moscow Conservatoire  in 1889 and was a member of the Moscow Piano Trio from 1892–1924. He was a professor in Moscow Conservatoire from 1919 to 1925, when he first travelled to Palestine, as it was then known, settling in Tel Aviv in 1927.

[3] A very central and now exclusive and expensive area of Moscow.

[4] Safonov died in 1918.

[5] 1854–1897, one of Liszt’s Weimar pupils and teacher of Lyapunov, Medtner and Goldenweiser.

[6] 1841/2–1898, of Polish and German origin. A professor at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1892. Links to Scriabin: amongst Schloezer’s pupils was Leonid Sabaneyev, Scriabin’s friend and Boswell, and Schloezer’s niece and nephew Tatyana and Boris became, respectively, Scriabin’s partner and his close friend and early biographer.

[7] Op. 11 no. 15.

[8] WTC vol. 1.

[9] The Serenade and Allegro giojoso op. 43 of Mendelssohn has an orchestral part, very much an ‘accompaniment’. It is likely that Scriabin performed without the orchestra, as is the usual practice in Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante.

[10] See n.1. Given his date of death (February 1889 in Moscow), this must have been very early on in Scriabin’s conservatoire career.

[11] 1916. It is possible that Moscow Conservatoire still has it.

[12] We know him by his agent’s choice of spelling: Joseph Lhévinne.

[13] Grigorii Antonovich Zakharin, 1879–1897/8,  doctor and therapist, distinguished professor of Moscow University.

[14] Kumis is the fermented milk of mares and donkeys. Its use originated in Central Asia. It is still prepared in Kyrghyzstan and is used in the treatment of many ailments. Scriabin went to Samara for his treatment. There can be no doubt that the environment there and, later, in Gurzuf in the Crimea, was also beneficial to Scriabin’s general health.

[15] Translated version: Serge Ivanovitch Taneiev, Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style, trans. G. Ackley Brower, intro. Serge Koussevitzky. Boston: Branden Publishing Company, Inc. (orig. Bruce Humphries Publishers), 1962/2007. [In the U.K. the usual term is ‘invertible’, though what is ‘inverted’ is the order of the voices: i.e. what was the tenor may become the treble, etc. The Russian term is ‘moveable counterpoint’.

[16] In English this is known as ‘species counterpoint’, but Engel’’s self-explanatory description has been allowed to stand.

[17] Elizaveta Kashperova, 1871-1936. Studied piano with Safonov. Taught at Moscow Conservatoire 1921–1936: piano, solo singing and composition. Daughter of Vladimir Nikitich Kashperov, 1826–1894, pianist and singer.

[18] Fyodor Fyodorovich Koenemann (1873–1937), composer, pianist, later a professor at Moscow Conservatoire,  friend and accompanist of Chaliapin. The Germanic name has two ‘n’s in Roman spelling,

one in Cyrillic.

[19] Rachmaninov also remembers this opera on a Lithuanian subject. One time he was ill and could not leave the house for a long time. Scriabin came to see him and played some of his compositions to him, including an aria from ‘Keistut and Peiruta’. Rachmaninov tells as follows: ‘I liked that aria a tremendous amount then, and I think I would still like it. It was completely, completely finished. Could it really have remained unwritten in that condition?’ It turns out that a fragment of a single aria from ‘Keistut and Peiruta’ has been kept by E. K. Rozenov. It is clear that the text of the aria was written by Scriabin’s aunt, Lyubov Scriabina [Engel’ writes ‘M.A. Scriabina’], who was to write the libretto for the opera. With beautiful harmony (and there is no doubt that Scriabin’s harmony was beautiful) this lovely melody (see music example no. II) would still be a winner. But from the point of view of declamation there are things which are crude and awkward (for example the lack of musical punctuation marks after the question in the very first bar, and their presence in the middle of a sentence in bar 3, etc.) Y. E.

[20] There is another version in existence (Vera Scriabina). Alexander Nikolaevich wrote an orchestral scherzo for the class. Arensky wanted to perform it with the student orchestra, after a few corrections. Scriabin did not agree, and it was because of this that they quarrelled. Y. E.