[Born Moscow, Jan. 6, 1872; died there, April 27, 1915]
Despite his creative and personal eccentricities, I have always found Alexander Scriabin to be one of the most fascinating composers of the 20th century, mainly because of his passion for the unusual and sometimes bizarre.
As the late musicologist, David Ewen, wrote in his Encyclopedia of Concert Music, the young Russian’s “early musical education was so haphazard that for a long time he was unable to read music. Nevertheless, so pronounced was his talent that when, in his seventh year, he played the piano for Anton Rubinstein, the latter said: ‘Let the child develop in freedom. Everything will come out in time.'”
In 1888 Scriabin entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he proved to be a brilliant student under, among others, Arensky. Despite an affliction that affected his right hand, he won the gold medal in piano playing and went on to become a piano virtuoso and accomplished composer. From 1898 to 1903 he taught piano at his alma mater, and in the last year there completed The Divine Poem, a symphonic work, followed in 1908 by another symphony, The Poem of Ecstasy, which won the Glinka Prize for composition.
Besides his symphonic output and a piano concerto, Scriabin’s principal works were for piano solo: 10 sonatas, 89 preludes, 26 etudes, and impromptus, waltzes and other pieces. However, while those compositions demonstrated that he was one of Russia’s most important figures in the world of piano music, his writing began to become episodic, atonal, and indeed mystical. One of his chord inventions was constructed in fourths, namely, C, F-sharp, B-flat, E, A, D, and became known as the “Mystery Chord.”
Later on, he aspired to have his own expanded version of “Mystery” – a summation of man’s history from the dawn of civilization to its final destruction – performed in a temple especially built for it in India. He never realized that dream, and now only a few random sketches of that music remain.
That was not all! When visiting the United States in 1906, where he made his debut in New York on December 21 with the Russian Symphony in his piano concerto, his subsequent tour of the country was cut short to avoid the U.S. government’s charge of moral turpitude: the composer was then traveling with his common-law wife.
In 1914 Scriabin played in England. His last performance took place in St. Petersburg on April 15, 1915. He succumbed to an infection which brought on a fatal gangrene twelve days later.
On a personal note, after my early immersion in New Delhi, India, in Chopin’s 24 Etudes as a budding concert pianist, I came across Scriabin’s Etudes Opus 8, 42, 65 as a revelation for me into a new tonality: of course, my favorite Etude Op. 8 No. 8 (the tattered copy of which I still treasure in my possession) along with some of his earlier pieces owe a great deal to Chopin – they are poetic, sensitive, and beautifully crafted. But he struck out thereafter, charting hitherto unknown pianistic realms outside the classical norm and accepted romantic formulae.
One aspect of the composer’s life that resonated with me was his enduring belief and innate conviction that sound had color as manifested in ones indescribable perception while performing a piano work in a particular key. As a child, I was gifted with ‘perfect pitch’ but, over and above that, I personally ‘knew’ instinctively that because D flat major ‘meant’ or ‘conveyed’ to me a shade of red that I adored, any composition in that key I would play or compose myself had a hidden, esoteric meaning that I couldn’t quite explain. All I knew was that such a work absorbed my complete attention and helped no end in my interpreting it to my fullest satisfaction.
How did that come about? I didn’t have a clue in India, but I have learned only in recent years about synesthesia, or the strange phenomenon of the nexus between those two primary senses of the human brain – using the ear for sound and the eye for color – that in a few rare cases among human beings transcends the obvious and reaches into another ethereal universe of living in a world that their musical peers cannot comprehend.
For instance, why does a C-major key induce a striking blue in some creative types that transfers into a martial piece of music in a composer’s mind? Why does an E-major key evoke in others a calm and melodic expression? And what about an A-minor key, which often brings about a feeling of sadness that few other minor keys do? And so on and on.
In my eighth decade on this planet I am still not quite sure I have the answer as an avowed synesthete……….]
Copyright © 2015 Azim Lewis Mayadas