Alexander Scriabin: Toward the Light

Alexander Scriabin 2Even in a field as noted for its eccentrics as Classical Music is --Beethoven, Alkan, Satie, et al -- Alexander Scriabin stands out by virtue of his personal strangeness, his unusual life-style, his advanced compositions, and especially for the world ranging utopian vision he formulated for his last works. 

Born into the upper class of late Tsarist Russia, Scriabin was an exact contemporary of Sergei Rachmaninoff, but two composers could not be more different. While Rachmaninoff’s compositional style is closely attached to the 19th century just past, and he adapts it to his own time, Scriabin rapidly progressed from the influence of Chopin almost directly into the 20th Century, with his own version of Twelve Tone Music-- and beyond.

Faubion Bowers wrote the standard biography, still available, but Oliver Decker’s marvelous, informative, and visually brilliant hour long film, Toward the Light, serves informatively and entertainingly as a perfect introduction.

Born in 1872, Scriabin lived to know of World War One, but he died in 1915, before the Russian Revolution: died of an infected pimple on his upper lip which led to blood poisoning. Both facts seem strangely relevant to the man and musician.

 Extremely handsome and a dandy from his teen years on, young Scriabin married young and had three children. His youngest daughter is interviewed for the film, talking from her home in Paris, about her and her father’s “inner joy” which he tried to manifest in his music.

Feeling personally and musically stifled in Russia, Scriabin soon moved to Switzerland where in addition to his legal family he took up with a devotee, Tatyana de Schloezar, who he felt best could nurture his talent. This two-home ménage a trois continued later in Genoa where he worked out his mature style, in New York where he toured, and even back in Russia where he returned to die.

Also onboard, both speaking and playing in the film, is the legendary pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, who briefly studied with Scriabin as a precocious youth, and who for decades thereafter championed his work. Here, Horowitz (a homosexual who his wife claimed was a manic-depressive) describes Scriabin as, “crazy, you know!” acting out someone spastic. Horowitz then plays Scriabin’s Opus 8 Etude to perfection. Sure: Scriabin was crazy -- like a fox.
Also playing and speaking are pianists and conductors Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mikhail Pletnev, and Hakon Austbo, who’ve made Scriabin’s hundreds of piano works, including the amazing nine sonatas, part of their life’s work.

For the general listener, Scriabin’s symphonies may be more accessible, the first, the second, and especially the third, sub-titled Poem of Ecstasy (1905) which were all but ignored during his life are all well recorded.

In recent years, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy often appears on concert programs, replacing various 19th Century warhorses. It’s a wondrous piece, and his most colorful; it is forward moving, with familiar yet unique snippets of melody and post-Lisztian harmonies, dotted with plangent coronet and expressive brass and wind motifs that seem to herald Stravinsky, Berg -- and oddly, also American Jazz.

But it is Scriabin’s growing spirituality and the philosophical underpinnings of his life and work that dominate Toward the Light. A Theosophist, Scriabin developed a series of theories, deemed crackpot in his lifetime, where colors and musical tones fused.

His fourth, the Prometheus Symphony, “Le Poem du Feu” or Poem of Fire, of 1909, explored this with its use of a color-organ, a mechanism that projected lights upon a ceiling dome along with music, something Scriabin himself developed. His Ninth Piano Sonata, subtitled “Black Mass” of 1912 and his late Vers La Flamme were Scriabin’s attempts to make keyboards turn music into light!

Eventually, Scriabin foresaw an ultimate piece of music, titled “Prefatory Action” that would last seven days and seven nights, encompassing light shows, masses dancing and chanting within a Neo-Classical temple that he himself designed to be built, where else but in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. He staunchly believed that playing this piece would bring about “inner and outer light, end war, and regenerate mankind.”
Instead there was world war, death, and revolution.

There have been attempts at putting on “Prefatory Action” in the past few decades: but none on the scale that the Russian visionary had in mind. We are still waiting for Scriabin’s vision to be realized.

In a fascinating footnote, the film shows how Scriabin’s Moscow home, turned into a museum after his death, intriguingly became the center of avant-garde music in Soviet Russia. Unknown to authorities or their hack-composer guard dogs, composers like Alexander Nemtov and Alfred Schnittke attempted to realize some of Scriabin’s ideals to propel music into the future.

By all means find and watch this film and then go to Pandora or I Tunes and supplement it with sound recordings by Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Sviatislov Richter, and if you can find any, by Anton Kuerti.

Felice Picano © 2009, 2014
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