Exploring Music's Complexities

The Genius or Madness of Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin

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Ever hear of Alexander Scriabin? Don’t have a clue? Despite the fact many critics consider Alexander Scriabin, a Russian composer and pianist, to be one of the most innovative and most controversial of early modern composers, it’s not surprising.
“It is doubtful whether more than a tiny percentage of his audience, then or now, has come to terms with the philosophies upon which Scriabin increasingly relied and which inspired his own muse.” (1).

Seeking to be more than a composer of orchestral music he worked to develop an original and increasingly atonal musical system that was highly lyrical and idiosyncratic. The system reflects Scriabin’s concept of music as a bridge to mystical ecstasy.

Scriabin’s system embraces both Nietzsche’s vision of Ubermensch, a man who overcomes the herd perspective and creates a new perspective without dogmatically forcing his perspective on others, and the works of Helena Blavatsky, spiritualist and founder of the Theosophical Society (2). Theosophy holds that “God, whose essence pervades the universe as an absolute reality, can be known only through mystical experience.” The rational for the philosophy he developed for himself was discovered in his journals, notes and diagrams on his metaphysics. He used poetry as a means in which to express his philosophical notions. This system can be noted in his the Poem of Ecstasy (3) and Prometheus (4). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWINpXNd5KE and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzA51E_RG9I

In addition to being an extremely innovative musician Scriabin’s intense character and narcissism caused many to dislike him. People found him very arrogant and bad mannered. An already eccentric person, heavy drinking was often found to increase his already serious mental instability. Many believed that mental deficiencies enabled him to assimilate the teachings of Blavatsky who was later alleged to be a fraud (5).

Scriabin was born on Christmas Day 1871 to a father with a long military career and a mother who was a concert pianist. His small stature and weakness limited his suitability for a career in the military. However, he displayed an early fascination with the piano, taking lessons and studying at the Moscow Conservatory. While at the Conservatory he suffered a hand injury that forced him to turn to composition. Two of the most famous left handed pieces in the piano repertoire, the Nocturne and Prelude Op. 9 were a direct result of this injury as was a later work entitled the 1st Piano Sonata (6). Between 1880 and 1903 he composed in the romantic tradition with a dominant function (7) and added tone chords (8). His fondness for the thirteenth dominant chord with 7th, 3rd, and 13th, spelled in fourths would later develop into his Mystic chord (2).

The Mystic chord is a complex, six-note quartal chord, scale, or pitch collection which Scriabin used as the harmonic and melodic basis of some of his later pieces The chord is made up of the pitches C, F♯, B♭, E, A, D and is generally interpreted as being made up of an augmented fourth, diminished fourth, augmented fourth, and two perfect fourths giving them an esoteric feeling. Scriabin himself called it the akkord plemory or “chord of the plemora”, which “was designed to afford instant apprehension of — that is, to reveal — what was in essence beyond the mind of man to conceptualize. Its preternatural stillness was a gnostic intimation of a hidden otherness.” (9).

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The acoustic and octatonic scales, and their combination.

The notation below is a rare example of a complete, quartal voicing the Mystic Chord in Scriabin’s work, Piano Sonata No.5, Op.53. Mm. 262-263 copied from Wikimedia Commons (10).

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Between 1903 and 1907, Scriabin’s compositions were transitional pieces such as his Fourth Piano Sonata Op. 30, his Fifth Sonata Op. 53, and the Poem of Ecstasy Op. 54. In addition to the use of traditional functional tonality he began experimenting with color-like effects in his chords.

Scriabin dedicated much of his time to fusing color and music in a complex scheme based on Newton’s theories. Debate exists concerning whether or not synesthesia, a condition in which one experiences sensation in one sense in response to stimulus in another, influenced Scriabin’s composing. What is known is that his color system, unlike most synesthetic experience, accords with the circle of fifths. The image below is from Wikimedia Commons (10).

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Scriabin’s dedication to developing a scheme to fuse color with music was shared by Debussy, Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov. It also can be heard in a selection by Duke Ellington entitled Reflections in D (1958) performed by Bill Evans (11). Here V/V. The E dominant 9th chord has #11th and 13th added, which resolve conventionally.

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Unfortunately many saw Scriabin’s color system as nothing more than mythic metaphysics, being neither science nor music, dismissed his music and theory. The article “Rachmaninoff and Scriabin: Creativity and Suffering in Talent and Genius,” by Emanuel E. Garcia, provides some insight into the relationship between the psychotherapeutic and the artistic processes. He states: “Thus Scriabin’s “madness” is not madness in any conventionally understood term, but a reflection of subservience to a vision imposed by his daemonic quest to break the bonds of conventional reality in favor of the intricately complex experience of ecstasy, itself modeled after the erotic communion of earthly love.” (12).

Scriabin’s Sonatas No. 6 and 7 are without harmonic contrast. Rather, the momentum is produced by textural contrast. Most of the music composed between 1907 and 1915 was built on the acoustic and octatonic scales, and the nine-note scale that resulted from combining of the two (9). Scriabin’s moves beyond traditional tonality are found in his ten sonatas for the piano. Sonatas 5 through 10 do not contain key signatures but they do contain extramusical parts Passages also contain atonal moments produced through his use of akkord plemory (Mystic chord) (9).

In closing, it should be noted that many of today’s rock legends and mega stars have incorporated Scriabin’s innovations such as overhead light projection or the pulsing strobes in a disco. Despite his philosophical leanings critics consider Scriabin as one of the greatest and original composers of his time – a composer who was way ahead of his time. To quote Emanuel E. Garcia, “Scriabin’s genius may be responsible for his neglect (13).

Alexander Scriabin died of septicemia from an insect bite in April 1915, at the age of 43.

References

1. Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). ClassicalNet. Retrieved from http://www.classical.net/~music/comp.lst/scriabin.php Jan 14, 2014.

2. Theosophy – Encyclopedia Article and More from Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/concise/theosophy. Jan 14, 2014.

3. A. Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy – Le Poème de l’Extase op. 54 (Boulez) Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWINpXNd5KE. Jan 14, 2014.

4. Alexander Scriabin – Prometheus, Mazel & Ashkenazy ½. Retrieved from
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzA51E_RG9I. Jan 14, 2014.

5. Walter A. Carrithers, Jr. Madame Blavatsky’s Magick-Real or Fake. Retrieved from http://blavatskyfoundation.org/BlavatMagi.pdf. Jan 14, 2014.

6. Prominent Russians: Aleksandr Scriabin. Retrieved from
rhttp://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/music/aleksandr-scriabin/. Jan 14, 2014.

7. Samson, Jim (1977). Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900–1920. W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 156–157.
ISBN 0-393-02193-9.

8. Sabbagh, Peter (2001). The Development of Harmony in Scriabin’s Works. Retrieved from (http://books.google.com/books?id=U2hXblbkyX0C& printsec=frontcover). ISBN 1-58112-595-X

9. Alexander Scriabin – Prometheus, Mazel & Ashkenazy 1/2 . Retrieved from
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzA51E_RG9I . Jan 14, 2014.

10. File:Scriabin–Sonata-Op53–Meas-263-264.jpg. Retrieved from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Scriabin–Sonata-Op53–Meas-263-264.jpg#filehistory. Jan 14, 2014.

11. Reflections in D • Bill Evans. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Z62Grvuefw. Jan 14, 2014.

12. Emanuel E. Garcia “Rachmaninoff and Scriabin: Creativity and Suffering in Talent and Genius June 2004 in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 91 No. 3.

13. Emanuel E. Garcia, Scriabin’s Mysterium and the Birth of Genius. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/jdwest/russ420/skriabin.pdf. Jan 14, 2014.

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