I was first introduced to the music of Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872-1915) by one of my best friends in college. One of the greatest things about being around musicians is the characters you get to meet and befriend. My musical brother is one of the most naturally talented piano players you might ever meet, and a fellow composer. Amazingly, he can play a song on the piano after only hearing it once. He has perfect pitch and has a great gift for improvisation. Ironically, he nearly failed his piano lessons in college once, for not memorizing his final exam music. He fronted his own heavy metal band on guitar and belted out songs like a young Robert Plant. On Sunday mornings he played organ hymns for mass, often still under the influence of Saturday night. Most recently, he could be seen searching for a “Royale with Cheese” at a McDonald’s in Amsterdam. Scriabin is one of his favorite composers.
In our younger years, my college buddy and I often gravitated to the most earth shattering music we could find. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, and the famous Ride of the Valkyrie‘s from Wagner were all window-rattling examples of our favorites. Apocalypse on the Hi-Fi was the order of the day. Scriabin added to this raucous playlist with such works as Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.
Alexander Scriabin was also quite a character. From his photos, we know he rocked a handlebar mustache. (More info on his personal grooming will come later on.) He was a classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Moscow Conservatory. Scriabin was a brilliant pianist and gave entire concerts playing only his own compositions. His piano compositions include numerous etudes, preludes, nocturnes, mazurkas and 10 virtuoso piano sonatas. Some of my favorite piano pieces by Scriabin are the highly chromatic Five Preludes, Opus 74. This is music in Scriabin’s idiosyncratic late style, wherein the concept of tonality is a faint memory.
I think Scriabin’s music should be more well-known than it is, so here are a few more links to some of his piano works.
Scriabin was a mystic, and over time developed his own philosophic/religious worldview that was very personal, but not terribly coherent. His grandiose unfinished project, Mysterium, was a of synthesis of all the arts. It was intended to be performed in the Himalayan Mountains. The performance would bring about an armageddon ending this world and ushering in the next. (Our Alexander did not have small goals.) Scriabin was also thought to experience synesthesia, whereby stimulus of one sense would cause the afflicted to experience sensations in another. In his case, Scriabin “saw” colors associated with musical tones. He even built a “color organ” in which colored lamps lit in conjunction with musical notes. Alexander was clearly one of the worlds earliest multi-media artists.
Alas, Scriabin never lived to complete his Mysterium, as he died at the young age of 43. He was at the barber, and received a small cut on his lip while being shaved. This developed into some sort of boil/carbuncle that was infected and festered for months. He eventually died of septicemia from the infection. Penicillin wouldn’t be discovered for another 14 years, and wouldn’t be mass-produced for another 30. To think, if I could go back in time with a handful of Amoxicillin capsules, Scriabin may have survived this bout of infection and finished his Mysterium.
Until I invent that time machine, we will have to make do with the Poem of Ecstasy.
I hope my neighbors like it, because as by college buddy can attest, the Poem of Ecstasy should be played very LOUD. Enjoy!