The Man With the Astral Body

MUSIC

by Robert Evett

Alexander Nikolaievich Scriabin was born on either December 25, 1871, or January 6, 1872, depending on which Russian calendar you prefer, the old or the new. Faubion Bowers, his American champion, prefers the old style because by it Scriabin was born on Christmas and died on Easter, points not impertinent to his metaphysics. In any case, the coming season marks the centennial of his birth—an event which would surely have passed unnoticed had it fallen a decade earlier. I was a child during the last years that people took Scriabin seriously, and it was with the greatest astonishment that, on hearing a group of twenty-four of his preludes at a piano recital in 1970, I recognized them as pieces that my mother had occasionally played at home forty years ago, and furthermore as perfectly lovely little works which, having once failed the test of time, had later passed it with distinction.

One of my first experiences on graduating from high school was attending a class in which Roy Harris delivered an analysis of Le Poeme de l’Extase so annihilating as to banish Scriabin’s name from my consciousness for a couple of decades. But as the British critic T. W. Gervais points out, “Neither the indulgent mysticism of his ideas nor the harmonic richness of his style could have endeared him to the generation of the 1930s.”

What had happened was that Scriabin, having stubbed his toe, fell into a crevasse of history from which he has not yet been rescued. Technique, style, and content, all of which stunned and fascinated his contemporaries, were the elements of his work that alienated later generations.

What really brought him down was his technique. Scriabin’s generation was the first one to which it was a matter of consuming importance to decide whether to break with the past or to develop styles that were consonant with several hundred years of diverse but recognizable common practice. By using the term “generation” so loosely as to include men who would now be just pushing ninety or as old as one hundred and ten, we would find Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, Nielsen, Richard Strauss, and Vaughan Williams among the ones who preferred to stay behind; Debussy, Ives, Bartok, Schoenberg, Satie—and Scriabin—among those who wished to open new doors and cross new thresholds. It was Scriabin’s misfortune, as it was Ravel’s, that his novelties and innovations were only too easy to assimilate. His highly original concepts of form, as shown in his larger works, did not seem to strike him as all that significant in terms of compositional technique. He was interested in harmony, in ripping up conventional chords and replacing them with chords of his own invention.

As it turned out, and as sixty years of common experience have shown, people get used to new sounds in a hurry. The lay listener, complaining about a modern piece, is likely to grab some word such as “dissonance,” which is virtually meaningless except in its strictest technical sense, and complain that it is what he doesn’t like, when in truth what is bugging him is that there is something about the music that he can’t follow: the rhythm, the line, the unfolding of the form. Scriabin’s most complex music is not always easy to analyze, but it is nonetheless easy to follow, subtleties aside. His harmonic oddities were commonplace within ten years of the time he contrived them, and it takes a musicologist with a microscope and an overdeveloped historical sense to recognize that Scriabin, quite as much as Debussy or Schoenberg, was trying to create a music in which allegiance to tonality was not the controlling factor.

A trait common to many composers at the turn of the century was that they developed styles so sweet that they strike the modern ear as sticky. Recently, Paul Hume, reviewing a Scriabin recital in the Washington Post, remarked that

. . .listening to an entire program of his piano music is likely to leave you with the feeling that you have been sitting for an hour and a half in a tub of mucilage. Beautiful, multicolored, rich, gooey glue from which you may never emerge.

The same sense of being mired in some sweet, sticky substance could come from an overdose of the Debussy of Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune, or the Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht. But these two composers went on to something else; Scriabin went on to an intensified, concentrated version of the same thing.

Some listeners get this feeling from a protracted dose of Chopin, the composer with whom Scriabin most logically invites comparison and who enjoyed the advantage of a sixty-year head start. In his earliest, least mucilaginous works, Scriabin seems to have been a direct heir of Chopin, taking over the style at almost precisely the place in its development where Chopin had put it down.

There is an uncanny similarity between the two men on virtually all important points: they were both early starters, they both came on strong, they were both virtuoso pianists, they both devoted most of their compositional energies to the creation of a piano literature, their only unequivocal successes were in short pieces (of, say, ten minutes or less), they both formed scandalous and highly publicized liaisons, they both died young.

Scriabin wrote roughly two hundred short pieces—preludes, mazurkas, impromptus, etudes, and pieces called “poems”—which compare favorably with Chopin’s similar productions in that they are coherent, epigrammatic, ingenious, and highly idiomatic workings-out of arresting ideas.

Here the resemblances cease. Chopin seems to have arrived at a plateau when he was about nineteen years old and to have sat there until his life ended, and the excellence of his work is marred only by an occasional lapse of taste or a sally into a form (the sonata) or a medium (the orchestra) which threw him.

At thirty, when Scriabin wrote his Fourth Piano Sonata, he was a firmly established international figure, known throughout Europe for the concert tours arranged by his Russian publisher, in which he performed only his own music and evidently did so with dazzling effect. It was then that he became his own man, and began breaking the sound barriers of his own experience. At that time susceptible young composers, who a generation earlier would have fallen under the spell of Wagner, were beginning to feel the scorching hot breath of Debussy on their necks. Scriabin himself was far too much the egomaniac, and far too deeply committed to his own inner vision and his own technical preoccupations, to have been fully aware of the French influence on his writing. However, all of his later music is a facet of Impressionism, important beyond its own merits for what it shows about the extent of diversity possible within a style family.

Scriabin was a pioneer in the development of the one-movement form, the sustained piece in which the elements of a symphony or sonata, perhaps in a compressed or truncated sequence, replace the older formula of stating and developing materials at length in the form of movements and then abandoning them. Other composers—Chopin in the ballades, Mendelssohn in the piano concertos, Strauss in the tone poems, and Liszt in innumerable works—had conceived and executed, sometimes with remarkable success, pieces which anticipated Scriabin’s experiments.

In the late sonatas and the “poems” for orchestra that were his later symphonies, Scriabin tried to build forms based not on themes and their developments but on seminal ideas so brief, in many cases, as to be undetectable to the listener, following each other in a sequence ordered by what he felt to be the emotional needs of the piece, entirely empirical in their repetitions and variations, and free of rhythmic and other conventional devices for creating and sustaining formal unity. Furthermore, he wrote into the scores the attitudes the performer was to assume while playing the music. These are the instructions that appear above the notes in the first few pages of the Tenth Piano Sonata:

très doux et pur
avec une ardeur profonde et voilée
cristallin
lumineux, vibrant
avec émotion
inquiet
avec élan
avec une joyeuse exaltation
avec ravissement et tendresse
avec une volupté douloureuse
avec une joie subite

It is perfectly clear that Mozart would never have dreamed of asking a fiddler to play a slow movement “avec émotion” or to attack a minuet “avec une joyeuse exaltation.” For Scriabin these conditions were not obvious elements of the music itself but rather aspects of the form that had to be explained. As a consequence, in his later works it is the content that quite literally dictates the form. This explains the quixotic and rhapsodic character of his mature music and accounts, however indirectly, for the capriciousness one so often finds in one-movement works by living composers, even by musicians indifferent to Scriabin’s work or perhaps unaware of it.

Like any master stylist—Bach or Haydn, for instance—Scriabin was forever at the point of repeating himself, and like both of them he very frequently did just that. In Scriabin, however, the perfected style is so inflexible that the most ambitious of the later pieces all appear to be different verses of the same song. Perhaps if we knew his music better it would be easier to sense the inflections that were so meaningful to him. As it is, his music attains a drab sameness at precisely the point in his career when his mastery of the materials was most complete.

And it is here that he differs most from Chopin, for Scriabin’s interest in the orchestra was absorbing, however briefly. It was for his mastery of the orchestra that Koussevitzky became his patron and, for many years, principal interpreter. Scriabin wrote superbly idiomatic music for his only two media, the piano and the orchestra, and was a master of technical minutiae rather as Swinburne was a master in poetry of absolutely everything touching technique. I mention the two men together because posterity has been unkind to them both and is obviously finished with neither of them. The least generous epitaph for Scriabin would have to concede that he pushed his imagination as hard and as far as it would go and, on musical terms, achieved levels of technical perfection entirely consonant with his aims.

As it happens, one cannot think of Scriabin in purely musical terms. Most writers refer to him knowingly as a “mystic,” but do not explain whether his mysticism was that of Gautama Buddha or St. John of the Cross or Mary Baker Eddy or your friendly neighborhood mitt-reader.

Scriabin combined in his person the egocentricities of both the creative and the performing artist, and was just sufficiently immoderate in his sensuality that he had to cut short his American tour of 1906-1907 in order to avoid prosecution for moral turpitude once it became public knowledge that Tatiana Schloezer, his traveling companion, was the mother of some of his children and that his lawful wife was cooling her heels elsewhere. So his mysticism was not that of a Christian ascetic.

During the first decade of the century, Scriabin became active in Theosophical circles. Since Theosophy is not a religion in itself but an approach to religion which, after a hundred years of existence, continues to draw people to it, it is worth considerably more than the few words that must be used to explain the metaphysical content of the music of Alexander Scriabin. In one sense, it is Christianity with the first two persons of the Holy Trinity missing. Gerard Manley Hopkins described the Trinity as “the Utterer, Uttered, Uttering,” and in Theosophy the force from which matter emanates and which gives it the illusion of reality is comparable to the Holy Ghost of Christian orthodoxy. In Hinduism and Buddhism the parallel is the Sleeper in whose dream our reality exists and on whose waking the material universe will disappear.

Aspects of Theosophy that touch on reincarnation, a heaven in layers, and the indestructibility of the soul are central to an understanding of what Scriabin was up to, because he believed in at least two stages of existence through which his higher Self had already passed and, in a sense, remained. First there was the Astral plane, at which the passions, frenzies, emotions, and sensualities of his incarnations continued to exist in an Astral body parallel to and in close communion with his terrestrial body. Then there was the Mental plane, at which his intellect was shaped, precisely the intellect that controlled his incarnation as Alexander Nicolaievich Scriabin. Theosophy predicates four further states of spiritual advancement. I know nothing about them and cannot determine how far Scriabin’s messianic notions about himself conform to or deviate from a religious view which tolerates heresy as generously as Theosophy does.

In any case, at the time of his death Scriabin was composing a “Mystery,” a work of art involving a cast of thousands and no spectators at all, which was to be performed in either England or Tibet and which, if it had been executed as planned, would have solved all of our problems. The British critic Gerald Abraham, who once described Scriabin as a “spiritual-artistic Guy Fawkes,” holds that

. . . the “malignant rumors” that Scriabin considered himself the new Messiah and that he was “planning a work which was to bring about the end of the world” were, after all, nothing but the simple truth. . . . For the “Mystery,” to the composition of which he considered himself “consecrated,” was to be an apocalyptic affair, the occasion of a “world cataclysm.”Our race, he believed, is doomed to perish, to be replaced by another, higher and nobler. And the performance of his “Mystery” was to be the final manifestation of the human soul as it exists at present, the point of transition from the old to the new plane of existence.

As it turned out, the Dreamer did not choose to be wakened at this point. Scriabin developed a carbuncle on the upper lip which became gangrenous, and his spirit went on to some fifth or sixth or seventh metaphysical state where, presumably, it is reposing in an insubstantial body— unless its Karma has called it back to this world and it has taken up residence in the baby sitting on your lap. Meanwhile, we have had two world wars and troubles without number that we could have done without.

The recital that Paul Hume heard at which he found himself sitting in a tub of glue was extremely well attended. The crowd was young, the hair was long, the bell-bottom trousers were the badge of unisex. Could it be that Scriabin is composer-inresidence to the Age of Aquarius? And if so, how did the Aquarians find out about him?

There is a lovely old carol about God that ends

Alpha He andΩ
Alpha He andΩ.

Evidently, Alexander Nikolaievich speaks directly to young people more concerned with the Omega than the Alpha, and if the centenary of his birth is celebrated with more than usual festivities, this will probably be the reason. The wrong reason, but reason enough.