Alexander Scriabin

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Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (6 January 1872 [O.S. 25 December 1871]–27 April 1915) was a noted 20th century Russian composer who wrote mainly for the piano. While he wrote many small character pieces for piano as well as four symphonies and various other orchestral works, he is perhaps most remembered for his body of ten piano sonatas. With exception of perhaps the first two, each one is highly idiosyncratic and shows a clear evolution in Scriabin's musical language. The later ones (six through ten) are highly dissonant, chromatic, and can even be described as "atonal" (though his music predated the 12-tone technique and serialism).

Scriabin was a noted figure of the Russian symbolist movement and his music is seen as a precursor to serialism.

Scriabin's music was highly influential to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Oliver Messiaen (whose famous "Modes of limited transposition" Scriabin often used).

Notable compositions


As mentioned above, Scriabin is largely remembered for his 10 piano sonatas. Not only because many of them are quite revolutionary for the time but they also perfectly demonstrate the evolution in Scriabin's musical language. With each one, Scriabin seems to gravitate to an increasingly dissonant language that weakens the pull of the tonic until culminated in No. 6 which is written without a key signature altogether and can be described as "atonal".

Scriabin's sonatas (as well as the rest of his work) can be divided into three somewhat arbitrary periods which show a trend of distancing of increasing dissonance and furthering away from the Romantic idiom which Scriabin initially wrote in.

In his early period (Sonatas No. 1 and 2), Scriabin shows a large influence from his idol, Chopin. These are rather conventional Late-romantic sonatas for the most part though, even in his first sonata, a clear Scriabin-like voice can be heard.

In his Middle period (Sonatas No. 3, 4, and 5), Scriabin seems to make a concious effort to avoid the tonal center and use increasing dissonance. Tritones, frequent chromaticism, unprepared modulations and dominant 9th chords are frequently used in these sonatas to detract from the feeling of a tonal center. Sonata No. 5 is notable for being written in F# Major but avoids ever actually cadencing in the piece.

In his late period (Sonatas No. 6 - 10), Scriabin appears to abandon tonality altogether. While famous for his "Mystic Chord" at the time, most of his late sonatas are actually based off the octatonic scale (Messiaen's second mode of limited transposition). Due to his use of symetrical scales as well as very irregular and complx rhythms, a sense of a tonal center is avoided almost completely in his late sonatas. Also notable of his late period is that he abandoned the typical three movement sonata format in favor of a single, extended movemenet in sonata-allegro form. All of his late sonatas follow this format and much controversy has been made over Scriabin's continued adherence to classical forms even after his music long passed such a tradition. Aaron Copland famously criticized Scriabin for putting "this really new body of feeling into the strait-jacket of the old classical sonata-form, recapitulation and all" calling this "one of the most extraordinary mistakes in all music."

Another thing to note is Scriabin's increasingly bizzarre instructions in his scores. While his first few sonatas used fairly standard Italian tempo markings and instructions, with the start of his third sonata, his instructions became more and more odd and esoteric. Scriabin began writing such instructions as con voglio (with desire), quietissimo (calm), con stravaganza (with extravagance), and accarezzevole (calming). Furthermore, after his 5th sonata, all of his instructions were written entirely in French. This has an odd correlation with his increasingly esoteric musical language. After this change, the instructions became near unplayable and bordered on programmatic with such lines as "The dream takes shape", "flying, the melody well-marked", "As if recounting a legend", "with majesty", and "the surging terror mixes with the delirious dance".

Orchestral Work

In addition to his ten sonatas, Scriabin also wrote a piano concerto, four symphonies, and an orchestral tone poem known as "Prometheus: The Poem of Fire".

Prometheus is notable as Scriabin's last major orchestral work completed in his lifetime but also as his first major work to be written after his new tonal system was in place. The work lasts around a half hour and relies heavily on the Mystic chord (and its various transpositions; both vertical and horizontal) for much of the material that is heard throughout. The work also stands out for its use of the Clavier à lumières or "color organ" (a keyboard that emits light when the keys are depressed rather than sound).


Scriabin's Mysterium deserves special mention as the last piece Scriabin worked on during his lifetime. Although he started sketches on the composition in 1903, it remained incomplete by his death at 1915. To say that Scriabin had large expectations for the piece would be an understatement. Scriabin planned that the work would be synesthetic, exploiting the senses of smell and touch as well as hearing. He wrote that:

"There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours."

Scriabin intended that the performance of this work, to be given in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, would last seven days and would be followed by the end of the world, with the human race replaced by "nobler beings".

Upon his death, Scriabin left 72 pages of sketches for a prelude to the Mysterium entitled "Prefatory Action". These sketches were later finished by Alexander Nemtin to form a three-hour-long work, a task that took him 28 years.

See Also

Mystic Chord

External Links

Classical Midi Connection - Various MIDI interpretations of Scriabin's work

YouTube - A playlist of various Scriabin pieces

Piano Society - A biography and short analysis of all of Scriabin's 10 sonatas