Seriabin stands out today as a perfect example of why listeners should not confuse a composer’s work with his biography. Once revered, then reviled in his own country and abroad, his last piano sonatas – concise, intense and strangely atmospheric – are now recognized as extraordinary masterpieces ahead of their time.
Do Scriabin really believe that he was the Messiah?
Scriabin is regularly considered today, even by several aficionados of the composer, as an annoyance. It is, above all, for his apparent delusion that he was the Messiah – a concept apparently all the more ridiculous given his bourgeois, self-effacing appearance and the fact that he was just over five feet tall.
It doesn’t help that according to Russia’s pre-revolutionary Julian calendar (which in the 20th century was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the rest of Europe), Scriabin was born on Christmas Day. His former close friend and biographer Leonid Sabaneyev added to the mythology by carelessly (or mischievously) claiming that he died on Easter Day – Scriabin actually died more than three weeks later.
In 1904, while in Switzerland during his self-imposed exile from Russia, Scriabin admitted to preaching to Swiss peasants on the shores of Lake Geneva while standing on a boat (having, some wags added , failed to walk on water). The same year, he confided to his friend Yulii Engel his dream of creating a Mystery ‘which could replace the old, outdated Gospel’. Scriabin, Engel recalls, elaborated: “‘A special temple must be built for that, perhaps here’ – and without looking, he took in the mountain panorama with an indefinite gesture – ‘but perhaps far from here. , in India “. ‘ It was, it seems, his first confession of his ambition to write his notorious and never-made last magnum opus.
Less than a year later, Scriabin was reading HP Blavatsky The Key to Theosophy in French translation, a book that seemed to further fuel his ambition for his Mystery project. Early in 1906, while in Bogliasco on the Italian coast, he met the Marxist philosopher Georgii Plekhanov, who had moved to Italy for health reasons. Plekahnov’s wife Rozaliya witnessed a heated conversation between her husband and Scriabin during one of their walks; as they approached a bridge, which spanned a river much reduced in the hot weather, the composer claimed that he could jump off the bridge and, through the “power of will”, not be rushed over the rocks below, but would float unscathed in mid-air. To which Plekhanov snapped, “Try it!”
Scriabin didn’t oblige, but maybe not just because of the pragmatism that quashed a delusion. Scriabin and Plekhanov had, in Rozaliya’s words, held their discussions in a “teasing” and “joking” manner and Scriabin’s proposal on the bridge was a symbolist concept – an example of the artistic/philosophical movement by which emotions are expressed by metaphors. image and language. Much later, Plekhanov confessed: “Our daily disputes at each meeting not only did not distance us from each other, but also contributed a lot to our mutual closeness.
Clearly, there was a strong respect for each other, even though their respective philosophies were totally different – even though, at the same time, in their different ways, they wished to find redemption for their fellow man. Plekhanov recalls: “It was very pleasant to argue with Alexander Nikolaevich [Scriabin] because he had the ability to assimilate his opponent’s thought with surprising speed and completeness. When I met him in Bogliasco, he was completely unaware of the materialist view of history of Marx and Engels. I drew his attention to the important philosophical significance of this point of view. When I met him in Switzerland a few months later, I saw that while he had by no means become a proponent of historical materialism, he had come to understand its essence so well that he could work with this doctrine considerably better than many “hard-boiled Marxists, both in Russia and abroad.
It is rather sad, though telling, that such testimony comes from what one might consider a disinterested source, while the most damning depiction comes from someone who had, for some time, shared without reserves the dreams and vision of life of Scriabin. Leonid Sabaneyev was a close friend and associate of Scriabin during the last five years of the composer’s life, visiting him almost daily. Indeed, the pianist Alexander Goldenweiser, another friend of Scriabin, described Sabaneev as “not only a passionate disciple but, so to speak, a Scriabinite prophet”.
A man of considerable intelligence who had received some training in composition, Sabaneyev was better placed than most to understand Scriabin both as a thinker and as a composer. His biography, Memories of Scriabin, offers tantalizing glimpses of the final work Scriabin had in mind but failed to put to paper before his untimely death. It wasn’t planned for a long time Mysterywhich threatened to overwhelm Scriabin’s creative and intellectual resources, but the Preliminary measurea “provisional work” that his close friend, the Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, had suggested he write as a preparation for those who would participate in (and not just listen to) the Mystery.
Sabaneyev wrote: “Alexander Nikolayevich began to play something new, ‘different’, which was unknown to me… It was, I remember, a rather long episode of ineffable beauty, in the music of which I immediately took on something in common with that same famous prelude. , Op. 74 n° 2, which had marked me so much the previous season… There were mysterious, persistent harmonies, full of supernatural sweetness and acuity, changing against a background of static bass in fifths… The impression of this, perhaps the strongest of any I had heard from Scriabin, was even stronger than previous impressions of the Third Symphony, the Sixth Sonata, the Prometheus…’
After Scriabin’s death in 1915 from blood poisoning, due to septic carbuncle that had formed on his upper lip, Sabaneyev suddenly and viciously turned on his former idol, perhaps out of grief at being fell so completely under the composer’s sway. In 1927, after emigrating from the Soviet Union, Sabaneyev published a book Modern Russian composers. By then he had immersed himself fully in the then fashionable theories of the Italian criminologist and phrenologist Cesare Lombroso which – in Sabaneyev’s own words – had led him to “study, in the manner of Lombroso, the mysterious relationship between genius and mental illness”. Sabaneyev admitted this not in his chapter on Scriabin, but in a chapter relating to another composer, Samuil Feinberg; unsurprisingly, this admission escaped Scriabin scholars until researcher Simon Nicholls, in his Notebooks of Alexandre Skryabineunderlined Sabaneyev’s comment and its significance.
As Nicholls noted, Lombroso promoted a now discredited theory of “genius as degeneracy”, claiming that “signs of degeneracy are found more frequently in men of genius than even in madmen.” These signs included “smallness of body”, “precocity” (which Lombroso characterized as “morbid and atavistic”) and “grandiose monomania”. For Sabaneyev, of course, Lombroso’s prognosis seemed perfectly suited to Scriabin; as such, he described his former idol in Modern Russian composers as “the first ‘constant paranoid’ to reduce musical madness to some sort of particular pattern and even a theory”. In his last article on Scriabin, published in 1966, Sabaneyev described the composer as a “mad dreamer, psychologically ill even in his appearance”.
With even a once-devoted acolyte writing of Scriabin in these terms, it’s no surprise that later scholars followed suit. But Sabaneyev did not stop at defamation. In 1927 he wrote of Scriabin’s work: “In his music we discern a dream of Titanism, the dream of greatness and tragedy, but not greatness itself, not Titanism itself, of which examples have been given to us by geniuses like Beethoven or Wagner. ‘ This judgment has been widely taken up, in particular by Constant Lambert in his bestseller Music Oh! (published in 1934): “The heydays of Scriabin ecstasy poem are furious waves that beat in vain against the breakwater of our intelligence.
The tide has since turned in favor of Scriabin, at least as a composer. Yet Sabaneyev’s venomous invective against his character still holds – given Sabaneyev’s special relationship with the composer, coupled with the daunting task facing anyone contemplating acquaintance with Scriabin’s real-world view and the literature he read, this is hardly surprising. Only now – since Nicholls first published a reliable English translation of Scriabin’s own writings – do we perhaps come to grips with this extraordinary, eccentric but certainly far from mad genius.