The great Russian composer, pianist, philosopher, and a prophet Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin came as a continuer of the traditions of the natural philosophy of Modern Times. It is not uncommon for a great artist to combine creative activity with a conscious quest for Truth. Here, Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt can be cited as an example. However, they failed to develop their own cleared-up philosophical doctrines. Or rather they did not need to, for the Artist Who transforms Nature should be generally ranked higher than the philosopher, Who just cognizes It. Unlike the earlier natural philosophers, who had estranged from Subject His Mind, Soul, or Body, Scriabin restored the unity of Subject, but, instead, estranged from Him His creative capacity and laid It as the foundation of Nature. Moreover, he not only deified Creative Force, but himself appeared as Its incarnation.
Scriabin was born on January 6th, 1872 (new style), in Moscow. His father was a high-ranking official, while his mother, a gifted pianist. When Sasha (that was his diminutive name) was an infant, his mother died of tuberculosis, whereas his father was appointed envoy to Persia. So, the boy was largely brought up by his relatives, who were also decent and educated people.
And yet, despite her untimely death, Alexander Nikolayevich’s mother should be recognized as his first music teacher. She had graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire as a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky. The great pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, whose pupil she had once been, would address her as “daughter”. Chopin and Liszt had been her favourite composers. As a piano accompanist, she had given a start in life to some well-known romances by P. I. Tchaikovsky, in particular, “No, only one who knew”. She gave his last recital as shortly as 5 days before her son’s birth. So, Sasha’s music education had begun long before he drew the first breath.
At the age of 5, Sasha already played the piano with facility. Soon he also displayed a gift for composition. When he turned 10, he, according to a family tradition, was sent to a military school. But his ardour for music showed no sign of abating. The adolescent Scriabin’s idol was Chopin, to whose live music he would cry and whose sheet music he would put under his pillow before going to bed. Simultaneously, he took piano lessons from N. S. Zverev (known primarily as Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s teacher), and music theory, from S. I. Taneyev.
After finishing the military school in 1888, Skriabin entered the Moscow Conservatoire. His piano teacher there was V. I. Safonov, while A. S. Arensky taught him composition. Safonov immediately discerned the young Scriabin’s extraordinary gift and became for him a tactful tutor and true fiend. However, Scriabin did not get along well with composition (with Arensky, to be more precise). In 1892, he graduated from the Conservatoire with distinction, being awarded a gold medal, but only as a pianist. Still, he was not lucky enough with piano, either. Having applied excessive zeal to piano technique, he “overplayed” his hand, and the career of a concertizing virtuoso pianist was now closed for him.
As had been the case with R. Schumann, the hand failure urged Scriabin to concentrate on composition afresh. His earlier written piano miniatures were now replenished with pieces for the left hand and then with 12 etudes. At about that time, he also wrote his highly dramatic first piano sonata, in which he, using sounds, was trying to come to terms with the stroke of misfortune that had befallen him.
Chopin’s impact on Scriabin in those years was unconditional. His favourite genres included mazurkas, nocturnes, preludes, and impromptus, and nothing yet augured his music’s flight up to expressing planetary and cosmic sentiments. And even his first large forms, such as sonatas and the piano concerto, did not disturb the overall intimate and poetic framework of his compositions.
Happily, Scriabin managed to somehow restore his hand’s mobility after a while. From 1894 on, he would often go on tours, first, across Russia, then abroad. However, he performed there only his own works. Those travels became possible largely thanks to the support from Russia’s most influential patron of the Muses, M. P. Belyaev, to whom Scriabin was introduced by Safonov. Over a number of years, Belyaev rendered Scriabin generous moral and financial assistance and also was a publisher of many of his works.
Scriabin was received warmly whenever he performed. Critics noted the “Slavic” charm of his compositions. His manner of piano playing was very much close to that of Chopin, including the same “weakness” of the tone, naturalness of breath, and rhythmic freedom. All this was added by an even more lavish rubato and also refined pedal technique, which made it possible to produce subtle half-tints, creating the effect of “vanishing in the air”, or, as Scriabin would put it, “dematerialization”.
At the same time, Scriabin did not limit himself to music. In 1898, he made friends with an expert in antique philosophy and musician, Prince Sergei N. Trubetskoy. At Trubetskoy’s flat, a philosophy study group would be held, taking part in which, among others, was philosopher Vladimir S. Solovyov. Influenced by his friend, Scriabin studied Latin and ancient Greek, and focused on philosophy.
As a result of the above companionship, Scriabin came up with his own philosophical teaching. He was most influenced by ideas of German philosophers, especially, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. As for Russian thinkers, ideas of Vladimir Solovyov and Helena Blavatskaya proved closest to him. But, first of all, he was certainly inspired by the Biblical concept of creation interpreted with regard to his own creative experience.
Like the majority of philosophers, Scriabin posits Nature as What Truly Exists. As for Its Origin, he posits as Such not Its Body, not Its Soul, and not Its Mind, but “Creative Force”, or “Creative Activity”. Thus, Scriabin’s teaching is not materialism, not the philosophy of life, neither is it idealism, but it is rather “creativism”, which represents a major advancement compared to previously existing philosophical trends based on the deification of Nature. With Scriabin, the Latter is not inferred from one of Its above-mentioned three parts, but spring up immediately as an integral unity of these from a single Creative Arche.
Creative Force manifests Itself most pronouncedly in the emergence and development of art, in which Scriabin had the highest regard for music. With the emergence of art, transformation, or humanization, of Nature accelerates. Each particular form of art is meant to change and transform a certain realm of Nature. Thence, the true Artist’s mission should be to employ in His art as many realms of Nature as possible. These include sounds, colours, odours, words, actions, motions, gestures, etc. In the process, the transfiguration of the entire World shall become possible into something more beautiful and sublime, the way a true work of art is supposed to be.
Scriabin’s teaching echoes with the Old Testament view of the origin of Nature. But, whereas the Old Testament idea represented a bid from a nascent Human still burdened with primitive views, Scriabin’s teaching signifies the world outlook of a Human Who has already fulfilled Himself and to Whom Nature no longer appears as the means of His self-cognition and recognition. Now It becomes more and more a certain Material subject to transfiguration.
When trying to describe his Arche, Scriabin would in every possible way stress Its “elusiveness” and avoid picturing It as a “Substance” or “Person”. It was neither Body, nor Soul, nor Mind, neither was it the Creator. Nevertheless, his “Creative Activity” would come out now as “I,” now as the “One”, now as “Spirit”, now as ”Fire”, now as “Prometheus”, and even as the “Eternal Father”. In the process, Scriabin would in part identify himself with his Arche and regret he could not manage it in full. His advances in art were combined with his helplessness in everyday life, and would more often than not fail to result in the ”victory of Spirit over Matter”. “Why then, if the World is a play of my creative imagination, I cannot change at my will the situation I find myself in, and why do I feel the compulsoriness of time and space?” – he lamented.
But Scriabin would not give way to despair and tend to explain his troubles by the “fact” that Spirit, when satiated with the victory over the inert Matter, would Himself create obstacles for Himself. Scriabin did not give up attempts to transfigure this world in order to make not only him, but all people, freer and happier. He would invent more and more tools to strengthen and diversify the effect produced by art, eventually coming to the idea of the synthesis of arts. He tried in every possible way to make people catch up with the comprehension of the truths reveled to him, to help them get in touch with the Arche, and become one with It. This “communion”, according to Scriabin, might occur by way of staging some grandiose Happening, an apotheosis of creativity, directed by an “Artist-Messiah”.
To some extent, Scriabin can be regarded as an adherent of the teaching of the Cosmic Soul. If so, he demanded too much from It and patently overestimated Its potential. For, in this case, the Cosmic Soul appears not just as “life-giving”, but “world-creating”. And “creating” is, after all, the prerogative of Artist, of Subject, that is, ultimately, of God, not Nature. On the other hand, such poetization of the Cosmic Soul enables Scriabin not to fall into animality, as was the case with Nietzsche, but exalt precisely the creative virtues of Man. In other words, Scriabin’s teaching proved to be not a “philosophy of life”, but rather a “philosophy of creativity”. This is where, in particular, the difference between Scriabin’s and Wagner’s music can be traced.
Like ancient Greek sages, Scriabin would often present his ideas in poetic form:
- I will evoke caressing dreams in people
- By force of the charms of celestial harmony
And by force of my boundless and miraculous love
I will make their life a semblance of spring,
And grant them long-desired rest
By force of my wisdom…
For all that, like Beethoven, who had earlier come to the conclusion that “music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”, Scriabin, when choosing means of expressing Truth, would unreservedly give priority to music. And yet, it remained to him only a means, a “link in an integral world outlook”.
It was not without the influence of philosophy proper that Scriabin’s music started to display the immensity of thought and a bent for large forms. In early 20th century, he turned to the genre of symphony. Now, he fell under the influence of F. Liszt and R. Wagner. However, unlike the latter, Scriabin showed no interest in national mythology. Rather, he felt closer to Beethoven. He was impatient to share his experience of transfiguration through art with the entire mankind. His first two symphonies’ main idea was man’s struggle to attain happiness and the acquisition of such in art.
The composer’s 4th piano sonata and 3d symphony mark the beginning of another stage in his creative work. Here, like with Beethoven, divarication in the path of the artist’s life and career begins to show. Scriabin gropes for a new Reality, evoking new sensations, which, in turn, require new means of expression. He amazes the listener with a succession and superposition of unusual harmonies and rhythms.
As for the “divarication”, it, again, is largely determined by a choice between the “symphonic” or “piano” means of expressing the truths opened to the Artist. Symphonic sound, as a rule, was meant for Scriabin to express nation-wide or even world-wide events. First of all, it was used to convey the overcoming by Man of the burden of the accumulated misconceptions and false prophecies. Finally, it is meant to make Man aware of His freedom and of the overall unity. Whereas Beethoven’s symphonic line is crowned with popular rejoicing and dancing in the streets, Scriabin’s aspires to result in a verily transfigured mankind and transfigured world.
Something different happens in the sphere of the purely piano sound. There is no massiveness here any longer, and the Artist finds Himself in solitude, which creates conditions for expressing more intimate experience. Here, we can feel how the human soul is pining, attracted by the shimmering light of a far-away star. But now the soul breaks free of the body and the next moment it thoroughly enjoys the flight and contemplation of the cosmic expanses that have opened up around. “To come nigh unto you, oh, Faraway Star, and drown in your trembling rays”, – this is how this “programme” was literary expressed by the author.
Living and creating in the time of unprecedented social upheavals, Skriabin could not pass by the Marxist doctrine, which he familiarized himself with thanks to G. V. Plekhanov, whom he met in 1906 in Italy. Influenced by Plekhanov, Scriabin fully mastered “historical materialism”, although without becoming its follower. On the other hand, a social-democratically leaning Plekhanov was not yet burdened with Bolshevistic intolerance. He displayed enough liberality towards Scriabin and would treat him by no means as a class enemy, but, rather, as an ally. “His music, – wrote Plekhanov, – is of a grandiose scale… It represents a reflection of our revolutionary epoch in the temperament and Weltanshauung of a mystic idealist”.
In 1907–1908, another “pair” emerged, the fourth symphony, or “The Poem of Ecstasy” and the fifth piano sonata. Scriabin was writing his “Poem” at the time of the First Russian Revolution. Giving Marxism its due and, possibly, trying to favour his new Marxist friend, he even wanted to preface it with the epigraph “Arise ye workers from your slumbers!” On a second thought, however, he changed his mind, which was pretty safe as yet, with October 1917 being still quite a while away and the author residing abroad. At all accounts, Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy” had little to do with the “workers” and all that.
The primeval Creative Activity appears to be the above Poem’s true hero. Here, It takes the shape of a “Spirit, urged by the lust for life”. This Spirit embarks on an unrestricted flight aiming to create Himself a “magical dream World”, overcoming doubts and staving off the evil phantoms of the past. The Spirit gains unchallenged supremacy. But, satiated with the victory, He returns to the fight. This time, however, what earlier was perceived as suffering now turns out to be bliss.
In 1910, Scriabin’s fifth symphony appeared, also known as “The Poem of Fire”, or “Prometheus”. Here, the primordial Creative Force came out less like Spirit, but more like an Element. It takes the shape of Fire, thereby recreating the Ancient Greek, palpable notions of the Arche, most distinctly expressed in Heraclitus’ teaching. To intensify the impact on the listener, the composer enlarged the orchestra, added the piano and mixed choir wearing white, and also introduced a part for a “clavier à lumières”, thanks to which the concert hall would light up in various colours and shades during the performance.
Scriabin spent the last years of his life mostly in Moscow, living with his second wife. Their flat was often visited by many eminent cultural figures, including the pianist A. B. Goldenweiser, philosopher N. A. Berdyaev, theologian S. N. Bulgakov, poet Vyachslav I. Ivanov, philologist M. O. Gershenzon, and other representatives of Russia’s “Silver Age”. Admirers of Scriabin’s works formed a special group, which would subsequently be transformed into the Scriabin Society.
In the meantime, Scriabin concentrated more and more on what he considered to be his life’s work. That is, he made up his mind to have the people catch up to the comprehension of the truths revealed to him. With this end in view, he planned to buy a large plot of land somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, to build there a dome-shaped temple reflected in the waters of a lake, and stage there a grandiose performance, or the Mysterium, with both “initiates” and common people, and also animals, plants, and even stones taking part. Certainly, music was supposed to underlie the Mysterium, joined by other forms of art, and also by incenses. As a result, people would be sure to approximate to the creative Arche and realize that they were all sons of the One, that they were all brothers. There was the “minimum programme”, though: the Mysterium was expected to cause, at the least, an “unlimited surge of creative activity”.
Scriabin developed his own, inimitable musical language. He still stayed on the grounds of classical harmony, although he expanded its boundaries to the limit. As a result, what we used to consider a “dissonance” now sounds, even if fanciful, but pretty harmonious. This is how unearthly, “cosmic” harmonies are formed. Here, Scriabin follows the path outlined by F. Liszt. Whereas Liszt’s music was turned heavenward and only slightly rose above the earth, Scriabin’s music becomes almost completely incorporeal: it resolutely takes off and embarks on an unrestrained flight across the vast expanses of the Universe. Whereas the traditional harmony is consonant to the human soul, Scriabin’s musical language was meant to convey the motions of the Cosmic Soul. But, most likely, he just managed to express the same human soul, but broken free of the human body.
At the same time, the “fleshlessness” of Scriabin’s music does not mean it is “lifeless”. True, it is often contemplative. But as often is it nervous, rushous, extatic, and sometimes even mocking. For all that, this music is no longer “of this world”, and it is a different life by now.
Some tend to view Scriabin as a “Russian impressionist”. Outwardly, there are certain similarities (compare, for example, the beginning of Debussy’s prelude “What the West Wind has seen” and the beginning of Scriabin’s fifth sonata). However, West European impressionists would record impressions suggested by earthly landscapes, whereas Scriabin’s music deals mostly with the outer space. Besides, Scriabin set his music more ambitious objectives, and it would be incorrect to perform and perceive it in isolation from his philosophical and religious endeavours. Finally, Scriabin’s music is inconceivable without his attempts to express some important philosophical concepts, such as, Change, Abstraction, Concrete Unity, Continuity, Origin, etc., which can hardly be regarded as “impressions”.
Scriabin hesitated to immediately set about the Mysterium. Initially, he began writing a preparatory piece, which he called “The Prefatory Action”. This included both music proper and lyrics. The work was progressing well, and soon Scriabin would play rather lengthy excerpts from the “Action” to his friends. His late-period piano sonatas and a number of miniatures may also be considered outlines for the Mysterium.
The Mysterium itself should have lasted for 7 day and represented a recreation of the origin and evolution of the Universe, from sinking of the Creative Spirit into Matter till His return to Himself. Each participant in the Mysterium was supposed to recall and live through his own history once again from the very moment of the creation of the world. Interestingly, Scriabin would interpret the history of mankind as a series of consecutively appearing “fundamental races”, up till the emergence of the “last race” in the bosom of which “an earthly human becomes the immortal God”.
Here again, Scriabin’s teaching of the “Creative Arche” echoes with the teaching of the World Soul. In both cases, the emphasis is placed on the division of mankind into races. Still, whereas in Nazism the “master race” is considered primordial, Scriabin’s “last race” appears as a result of long-term historical development.
And yet, the duality of Scriabin’s course of life and work, the fate of the World and that of a person would make itself felt. In 1913, when his work on “The Prefatory Action” was in full swing, he wrote his 9th piano sonata, nicknamed “The Black Mass”. Admirers of Scriabin’s work could not but take notice of a descending ominous motive recurring in it. “That’s the theme of the death creeping up”, – explained the author. Such an explanation sounded quite unexpectedly, the more so that Scriabin would emphasize that music and death were incompatible.
Scriabin’s death came as unexpectedly. It happened on April 27th, 1915. Doctors identified “blood poisoning”. Another incarnation attempt was stopped before it came to fruition. Still, Scriabin’s “revolution” brought the mankind far fewer disasters than the Bolshevik Revolution, German Nazism, and even the cult of Reason, inculcated by the French Revolution. He left behind the outlines for his Mysterium; he himself, however, flew to the Faraway Star.
PS. In 1921, one of Scriabin’s daughters, Ariadna, had a plan to stage his Mysterium as rethought in the light of the tragic events that happened to the Scriabin family and in the entire world. The scene of action, according to her, should be not India, but Russia. Moreover, it should be its heart, Moscow’s Red Square. And it should be devoted not to the creative revival of mankind, but it should be a protest against immense human suffering. Such a Mysterium, in Ariadna’s view, should end in the self-immolation of all the actors taking part in it. Later, Ariadna found herself in France, where she converted to Judaism. She was killed in 1944, when fighting in the ranks of the Jewish underground resistance. Scriabin’s son, the highly gifted Julian, drowned in the Dnieper in 1919, when he was 11 (he decided to take a swim aloof from other children and the governess, because of being ashamed of his naked body). Scriabin’s daughter Elena got married to the outstanding Russian pianist V. V. Sofronitsky. Among Scriabin’s remarkable descendants are his nephew, the Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, and also his living great-great-grandson, the Israeli pianist Elisha Abas.
PPS. In 2012, the 5th International Scriabin Piano Competition was held here in Moscow, timed to the 140th birth anniversary of the Russian man of genius. One should pay obeisance to the organizers and sponsors of the event. Thanks to these devotees, the Russian culture continues. And culture is God’s primary dwelling place. The only pity is that one of the best performers, Roman Martynov, failed to find himself among the prize winners and even was not admitted to the competition’s last round. Alas, justice is not always triumphant in this world. Incidentally, attending the competition was Scriabin’s granddaughter (Sofronitsky’s daughter) Roxana, now residing in the USA.