For this OTF post for September, I thought I would add to the "S" for September theme by exploring some music by the late 19th century Russian pianist, composer, maverick and mysitic, Alexander Scriabin (1872 - 1913). Scriabin dedicated his life to creating musical works which would, as he believed, open the portals of the spiritual world.

In many ways, Scriabin is to Russian music what Schönberg is to German music - a modern voice whose intent is to challenge convention. What I find personally just as compelling, is that Scriabin's journey transcends the "turf war" we associate with Russian music in the late Romantic period.

Indeed, at the time that Scriabin was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, there were two competing Russian schools: one in Saint Petersburg which was dominated by the Moguchaya kuchka – or the Mighty Handful of composers: Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakiov, Borodin and Cui - and that of Moscow, its biggest star being Tchaikovsky.

This rivalry hits its climax, I believe, with the premiere of Rachmaninov 's first Symphony. Rachmaninov, expelled from St-Petersburg's Conservatory will graduate with flying cpolours from Moscow's, and will segue that success into a promising career. However, his First gets its premiere in rival St-Petersburg and is conducted by (a drunken) Glazunov (a protege of the Handful) and the review of the premiere is penned by César Cui whose scathing account will haunt Rachmaninov for years, requiring the intervention of a psychologist (and hypnotist) for him to overcome the trauma.

In his lifetime, Scriabin had achieved a certain level of notoriety - according to musicologist Faubion Bowers « No one was more famous during their lifetime, and few were more quickly ignored after death.»


In the 1880's Scriabin begins taking piano lessons with Nikolai Zverev, whose students include at the time another precocious talent, Serge Rachmaninov. Scriabin is seen in the above picture in his cadet uniform, Rachmaninov stands behind the master's left shoulder. Rachmaninov and Scriabin are both from aristocratic stock, and their paths will cross at the Moscow conservatory, where they will graduate a dozen or so years later.


Like most of the so-called modern composers, Scriabin's works start off very much within the mould of the romantics - his solo piano works remind many of Chopin - and undergoies a transformation with the maturing of the composer's musical language. The Sctriabin approach develops quite independently from the other great circles of influence of the early 20th century (such as the Second Viennese School). Scriabin announces a departure from the "nationalist" stance of the Handful, and from the oozy Romanticism of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and explores and extends the envelope of Russian folklore through the prism of mysticism.

It is that very prism that makes him both innovative and controversial. His works are champions by the great pianists of his day and of the following generation (Rachmaninov, Horowitz and Gilels among others), and his compositional style also shape the works of composers such as Roy Agnew, Prokofiev and Stravinskiy.

The below playluist propose a healthy sampling of some of Scriabin's better know works. The first video is a cover-to-cover pcopy of a studio recording from 1955 by Vladimnir Horowitz. Scriabin didn't have the same Goid given attributes Rachmaninov was endowed with, but he did manage to have a successful concert pianist career, and those works highlight what he could do pianistically, as well as how much he could stretch the envelope musically.

His only piano concerto is a fine compromise between the gushy romantic concerto and a thinking man's piece.l Finally, his masterful Poem of Extasy is given a string reading by another defender of modern music, Pierre Boulez.

Happy listening!


Alexandre SCRIABINE (1872 - 1913)
Piano Sonata no. 3 in F-Sharp Minor, op. 23 ('Etats d'âme')

Preludes (various)
  • op. 11 n°1 (C Major)
  • op. 11 n°10 (C-harp Minor)
  • op. 11 n°9 (E Major)
  • op. 11 n°3 (G Major)
  • op. 11 n°16 (B-Flat Minor)
  • op. 11 n°13 (G-Flat Major)
  • op. 11 n°14 (E-Flat Minor)
  • op. 15 n°2 (F-Sharp Minor)
  • op. 16 n°1 (B Major)
  • op. 13 n°6 (B Minor)
  • op. 16 n°4 (E-Flat Minor)
  • op. 27 n°1 (G Minor)
  • op. 31 n°2 (F-Sharp Minor)
  • op. 48 n°3 (D-Flat Major)
  • op. 67 n°1 (Andante)
  • op. 39 n°2 (D Major)


Vladimir Horowitz, piano

Piano concerto in F-Sharp Minor, op. 20
Margarita Fyodorova, piano
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra
Fuat Mansurov, conducting

Symphony no. 4 in C Major, op. 54 ('Le Poème de l'extase')
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, conducting

Playlist @ http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...LVpyh5XP6Tj7oS