Nicolae Coman
National University of Music Bucharest


Alexander Scriabin from a Contemporary Perspective

 

Toute l’oeuvre de Scriabine, et on ne peut trop y insister, est une découverte, une incarnation dans les formes de ce monde, d’une vision, d’un acte spirituel qui n’est ni la pensée, ni la contemplation, ni la sensation, car il est au-dessus de tout cela et le contient en meme temps.1

Scriabin’s music, this special, inaccessible, and fascinating cosmogony, is a world in itself. I believe you can understand Scriabin only if you are lucky. I was. My encounter with Scriabin took place in 1952, when I received a volume of his piano sonatas from a friend, Lucian Dragomirescu, who later became an art critic and professor at the University of Arts Bucharest. Among the sonatas, I was particularly attracted to the fifth one, which I played upon graduating from the piano major program, under the guidance of Professor Ovidiu Drimba. I have heard it performed in Bucharest by Victor Merjanov, Evgheni Malinin, and Sviatoslav Richter. Romanian pianists such as Andrei Tănăsescu, Dan Grigore, and Lena Vieru performed it later on. I have heard various works performed by Russian pianists, as well as by pianists from other schools. Another important moment was when, perhaps also, in part, to answer my challenge, Lena and Andrei Vieru publicly performed Sonatas IV-X at the Romanian Atheneum.

In the meantime I became familiar with the whole of Scriabin’s piano works and was especially interested in the works derived from the Chopinesque atmosphere that dominated the first part of his creation. I am more specifically referring to the last preludes, the late Skriabin.2 Of all these and especially the LP recordings by Vladimir Sofronitsky, the composer’s son-in-law, I found out much later, in the ’70s. That was when, during a visit to Moscow organised in collaboration with the Union of Soviet Composers, I had the opportunity of staying in Scriabin’s house for a full day. I saw Scriabin’s piano, whose desk featured a very large notebook, with pages double the size of the ones we normally use for scores. On these pages, the composer had written down the last chord chain, which was completely unusual at the time, especially the decimatertia chord with all of its versions, the fourth, and mixes between the third and fourth. I saw his work chamber, with two cabinets, one showcasing a cast of his hand, which was rather small, in contrast with his writing, with the extensions that he entrusted in his piano works. Apart from the concert piano, there was also a horseshoe with twelve bulbs of different colours, for his projects for son et lumière shows, while the walls displayed a few strange paintings, most likely Russian avant-garde art of the time. The first room led through an open hallway and then on to an oblong room clearly designed for listening sessions. This is where Moscow’s musical personalities, Conservatory professors and composers gathered, completely filling the space. The light of day was still coming through the window during one of those intimate traditional gatherings where great figures of Russian music were celebrated. That afternoon the portrait of famous professor and pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina3 was laid on the floor towards one of the corners of the room and lit by a lamp. She had become famous as a musician, but also as a yurodivy (a fool for Christ), a member of a mystical sect, and she had dared, during the most terrible Stalinist and post-Stalinist repression, to distribute religious materials. One could hear stories that, in his house outside Moscow, Stalin himself had heard the Concerto no. 20 by Mozart, performed by Yudina, and ordered to have a record of that music brought to him immediately. The cultural officials were horrified to learn that there were no recordings of Yudina. Overnight, an entire team of experts was gathered, the Moscow Philharmonic, the pianist, the technical team. The material was recorded and the next day the record was manufactured and given to the dictator. It seems it was found in the room where he died, on March 5 1953. After he received the record, Stalin sent a sum of money to Yudina and she wrote him a letter which, instead of a thank you, contained the information that she had donated the money to the church.

In the second room of the Scriabin house, former students and admirers of the artist took turns to speak until the light of day completely vanished, and only her portrait remained visible, lit by a lamp. In the meantime, my Moscow guide was entertaining one of Scriabin’s daughters in the basement. Another daughter, Marina, would emigrate and publish a volume in collaboration with famous musicologist Boris Schloezer, the composer’s brother-in-law, Problèmes de la musique moderne, with an afterword by Iannis Xenakis (Ed. de Minuit, Paris, 1959), as well as the volume Alexandre Skriabine. Carnets inédits, traduction et présentation Marina Skriabine (Ed. Klincksieck, Paris, 1979). The latter is particularly important, since it constitutes a direct description of a constantly changing, polymorphous and obscure interior reality that the composer experiences between the age of 16 and the last days of his life. The piece ends with the first version of the poem that should have been the basis of an unfinished work, L’acte préalable. The musician worked intensely on this unfinished project, at the same time as the last sonatas, VIII, IX and X and works 69-74, such as Vers la flamme op. 72, three dances, and especially 5 Preludes op. 74. To understand Scriabin’s poetic style, we will quote the end of the poem L’acte préalable:

En ce dernier instant de convergence
Nous jetterons l’éternité de nos instants,
Dans le son dernier de la lyre,
Nous nous dissoudrons, tourbillon éthéré.

Naissons dans le souffle du vent,
Eveillons-nous au ciel
Mélons nos sentiments dans une vague unique!
Et dans l’étincellement somptueux
Du dernier épanouissement
Apparaissant l’un à l’autre
Dans la beauté dénudée
Des âmes ambrassées
Disparaissons…
Dissolvons-nous…4

In the Scriabin house, the custom was that these circles formed by the friends of deceased artists would stay over for tea the entire night, recounting tales of the departed and especially making plans to continue their work through additions, analyses, and exhibitions, publications, contests, etc.

The language of the piano and symphonic works of Scriabin fascinated me throughout the years, practically my entire youth. An entire series of elements of my harmonic thinking, with the complex third and fourth chords, are influenced by the last part of Scriabin’s creation. I discovered that, in 1905, when he joined the Moscow circle of Theosophy, after the personal tragedies he suffered—the accident that stopped him from playing as a concert pianist for a few years and then the death of two of his children—all these events contributed to his formation as the thinker and theosophist whose diary was translated and published in France by his daughter Marina. The visions and the philosophical perspective present in these notes and reflections cannot be separated from the last part of his musical creation. I believe that the first expression of these directions is found in the motto of the Fifth Sonata for piano:

Je vous appelle à la vie, ô forces mysterieuses!
Noyées dans les obscures profondeurs
De l’esprit créateur, craintives
Ebauches de vie, à vous j’apporte l’audace.5

From this point on, he develops the most original part of his piano creation, a truly fantastic music that has yet to be equalled. The Poem of Ecstasy is next, followed by the last symphonies, Prometheus for piano, orchestra and choir. This music fully conveyed the spirit of Expressionism, a complete focus of thematism towards brilliant, fresh, innovative and avant-garde harmonic developments, a continuous ascensio, as if the musical structures ascended towards the higher planes of the spirit; these qualities made Scriabin thoroughly modern, as well as hermetic, and thus performed by distinguished artists. For instance, during the ‘50s, my piano teacher Ovidiu Drimba recounted how in Paris he found a concert hall entirely dedicated to the performance of Scriabin’s works and some artists would practice for 10 years before performing one of his sonatas. In our country, Constantin Silvestri left an everlasting impression with a version of The Poem of Ecstasy, which was luckily recorded. But his symphonies were not performed and Prometheus is still waiting to be performed on the Romanian scene according to the original requirements of the score.

Apart from this, there is a Scriabin accessible for more modest means of analysis and interpretation, simpler, more direct and more sentimental. This would include the preludes, the studies of the first opuses, the famous mazurkas—jewels dedicated to the memory of his inspiration, Frédéric Chopin—as well as Concert in F Sharp Minor for Piano and Orchestra. I am saddened by the thought that this music is so rarely heard in concerts.

Scriabin, especially the later one, was one of my masters in terms of harmonic language, inspiring me with his initially tonal harmonies, then neotonal and later defined by an atonalism that never abandoned the chords based on thirds and fourths that he heard differently from French Impressionist music. I was particularly drawn to the opportunity of moving forward on this path, helped by the language of composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and especially Messiaen. Therefore, all these composers alongside Scriabin, suggested solutions that contributed to the construction of something different from their systems, i.e. the entirely chromatic harmony proposed by myself, the system that I have been using for over half a century.

Looking back, as time goes by, I become more aware of Scriabin’s greatness as he brilliantly and surprisingly managed to create new paths, innovate both form and content, in a modern language which would later become musical Expressionism, at a time when Russian music was mostly focusing on romances. Scriabin brought to the fore a particular vision of theosophy which he crystallised in his personal diary and which helped him create a philosophical distillation of early twentieth century aesthetics. Through these contributions, Alexander Scriabin is a revolutionary composer of the twentieth century who fundamentally altered the configuration of modern and contemporary music.

At the end of this biographical and autobiographical writing, I would like to record, as an expression of the affection I have for the great visionary creator, the poetic image that he inspired in me—part of a cycle dedicated to 20th century composers:

I

Lit in the darkness, the flame calls out for you,
a calling beyond good and evil.
The only road, straight, on the stairway of night,
Treading, step by step, all over you.

II

The flame flails like a heart
from which song is born.

The heart flails like a song
from which the flame is born.

The music flails like a flame
from which love is born. 6

English Version: Simina Neagu

 

1 The entirety of Scriabin’s work, and we cannot underline this enough, is a discovery, a coming into flesh, into the forms of this world, of a vision and a spiritual act which is neither thought, contemplation, nor sensation, as it is beyond them and contains them at the same time. Boris de Schloezer, Alexandre Scriabine (Paris, 1975): 75.

2 See Jay Reise, “Late Skriabin: Some Principles Behind the Style,” 19th Century Music (Spring, 1983): 220-31.

3 We find an unforgettable portrait of  Yudina in Dmitri Schostakovitch’s evocations in Semion Volkov, Les memoires de Dmitri Schostakovitch (Paris: Ed. Albin Michel, 1980).

4 Alexandre Scriabine. Notes et réflexions, Carnets inédits, traduction et présentation, Marina Scriabine (Paris: Ed. Klincksieck, 1979): 120.

5 I call you to life, oh mysterious forces! / Drowned in the obscure depths / Of the creative spirit, timid / Shadows of life, to you I bring audacity! A. Skriabin, Sonata no. 5 dlia fortepiano, redacţiia K. Igumnova i I. Milsteina (Moskva: Izdatelistvo „Muzîka”, 1972): c.3.

6 Nicolae Coman, Poezii ( Bucureşti: Ed. Meronia, 2004): 179.