Alexander Scriabin
Russian Composer (1871*-1915)


Web Pages by Ray Ashley

New - Ray's book of Scriabin for Warr Guitar is now in print!

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was a Russian composer who started his career composing in the manner of Chopin but who ended up as the great Russain Mystic.  It is interesting to note how his harmonic language seamlessly evolved throughout his life from conventional 19th century
harmony, through the impressionistic language of Debussy and Ravel, and finally to complete atonality.

I enjoyed reading the biography of him that was written by Faubion Bowers.  I would reccommend this to anyone who is looking for more insight into Scriabin's work.  The book includes translations of many of his letters and writings, which gives an inner look into his (twisted or genius??) mind.  One thing that struck me were the letters that he wrote to his publishers and patrons begging for advance money.  This is reminiscent of modern times where it is tough to make ends meet unless you are a bigtime top 40 rock or pop star.  Many modern music types that I know are dependent on grants to keep things going, and Scriabin was no different.  he probably could have made more money if he had been more conservative in his compositional style in his later years, or if he had just given recitals of other peoples' music.  He would have been more popular in the short term, but he would have never written the transcendental masterworks that he did.  Inany case, Scriabin never let a negative cash flow cramp his style, and he always lived beyond his means.

Among his other writings are his notebook entries and the text of his complete "Poem of Ecstacy" as well as other metaphysical and theosophical texts, like the libretto to an abandonned opera.  These are all translated and presented in the Bowers book.

I will present here four piano pieces in MIDI form that you can click to play, or download to study.  I have simplified them somewhat in a few cases, to make it easier to hear the melodic lines.  There is no substitute for hearing a live or well recorded performance of Scriabin's piano music.  I find Ruth Laredo's interpretations, and those of Marie-Catherine Girod, to be especially deep.

The op. 11 #1 Prelude in C (1895) is the opening to his set of 24 preludes in all of the keys.  This is from his early days when he sounded sort of like Chopin, but even here his own sound started to come through.  This is a blazing, white hot continuous melody.  I play it on touch guitar, playing just this melodic line.  I think it would also sound good on unaccompanied violin or viola, with a few adjustments for range.  The actual piano piece has a left hand accompaniment, but listen to this MIDI file to appreciate the way that he makes this melodic line sway and caress.  Sometimes he is outlining arpeggiated chords, but other times it is much more than that.

The Album Leaf in E flat, Op 45, #1 (1907) is an interesting piece of music from his middle period.  This is a transitional work, it is still in a key (E flat) but tonality has been stretched almost to the breaking point.  Though Scriabin is using stacked 4ths and 5ths for much of his harmonization at this time, note how this music sounds distincthly different from the French impressionists ike Debussy and Ravel.  The rhythmic complexity, with 2nds against 3ds is also growing more and more complex at this stage of Scriabin's development.  The melody of this piece has a real parlor music feel to it, while still having modern inflections.  Horowitz played this piece very well, varying the tempo in such a way as to make it seem much longer than it really is.

The Prelude Op 67 #1 (1912) is the first of his totally atonal preludes.  This remarkable piece is a good intro to listeners who want to explore his atonal works.  It was written around the time of the 8th Sonata, which is my personal favorite of the late sonatas.  Here it is clear that he has structured his harmony over a series of augmented fourths, at C, D flat and E.  The melody, though it has abandonned tonality, has a regular structure to it and a certain measure of repetition that lets the listener get a hold of it.  It modulates through regular intervals while keeping its general structure.

This Prelude, Op. 74, No. 2 (1914) is from his final set of five preludes, and represents the end point of his musical evolution.  This piece could be approached as an atonal work, or as a polytonal work with shifting tonal centers at F# and C.  Note how the right hand part often synchronizes with the left hand part to form consonant triads, while still perpetually shifting.  While the tonal center may be uncertain, there is no lack of logic in the way that the melody develops.  The melody played first at measure 1 is woven again into the counterpoint at measure 5, and then repeated, harmonized a minor third higher at measure 9.  In the last few measures, this motif slowly unravels itself to bring us back to where we began.  Scriabin described Op. 74 No. 2 as "An astral desert... See how this short prelude sounds as if it lasts an entire century?  Actually it is all eternity, millions of years..."

This prelude was one of his favorites and he performed it frequently during the final year of his life.

Coming soon will be my analysis of the 8th Sonata.  Check back here often!

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©2001 Ray Ashley


*Scriabin was born December 25 1871 by the Russian Calendar, January 6 1872, by the Gregorian Calendar.