A look into Alexander Scriabin - by Euntaek Kim

On July 15th, pianist Euntaek Kim will be performing Scriabin's 8th piano sonata, directly before works by Messiaen and another Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich.

The eighth sonata by the Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) is a product of his late period. The last three sonatas for piano - No. 8, No. 9 "Black Mass," and No. 10 (sometimes referred to as the "Insect Sonata," due to Scriabin's quote about the work: "Insects are born of the Sun... they are kisses of the Sun") - were composed simultaneously, as experimental studies to his grand project for orchestra, "Mysterium," a compulsory topic in discussing Scriabin's late period. 

Before dwelling further on "Mysterium," it is essential to mention that Scriabin was a firm believer of Theosophy. Theosophy, an occultism founded by H. P. Blavatsky and H. S. Olcott in New York in 1875, strongly influenced many great artists, writers, thinkers, and politicians alike. To talk about the world between 1870s and 1950s without the presence of Theosophy is as unjustifiable as leaving Christianity out of the medieval period. 

Theosophy examines the nature of the spiritual Truth of the Universe, through extensive studies of all religious texts and theurgic traditions of the ancient, and promotes the "Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, and color." Its teachings are influenced by Neo-Platonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Nietzsche, and Kabbalah. H. P. Blavatsky, a controversial Russian psychic and one of the founders of Theosophy, wrote several books, such as "Isis Unveiled" and "The Secret Doctrine," which explain the Theosophist teachings.

Scriabin saw himself as a Theosophist messiah. He saw that his ability to create music was, by nature, theurgic. Scriabin believed that it was his duty to produce music spiritually powerful enough to bring forth "Akasa," a single vibration, believed by the Vedics, that possesses properties of breath, sound, light, and touch. This powerful vibration would trigger a massive disintegration of all materials, cause ecstatic extinction of all living beings and allow them to be re-born communally on a higher plane.

To bring forth this apocalypse, Scriabin set out to write a ritual of music, poetry, and dance that would last for seven days and nights. It was to be performed by thousands of people at the foothills of the Himalayas, in a temple created not by walls but by the whirling of the clouds of incense. This ritual was to be called "Mysterium." Sadly (and quite obviously), it was never finished. While working on it, Scriabin died suddenly, of a gangrenous infection on a nip from shaving.

Scriabin purportedly had a synaesthetic ability to see colors through sound. He assigned a color to each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale and claimed that these colors allowed him to write music. In his last finished symphony "Prometheus: Poem of Fire," he implements a newly invented instrument called the "color organ," whose keyboard reflects colors onto a screen, instead of pitch. It is now highly debated whether all of Scriabin's claims of synaesthesia are credible. 

Scriabin's music caused serious controversy during and after his lifetime; some considered it "evil,"erotic,"and "pathological," while others revered it as innovative work of a genius. After Scriabin's death, his music remained rather untouched by performers. It was the counterculture movement of the 1960s (with all its LSD-induced trips) that brought Scriabin back to the mainstream.

The correlation between Messiaen and Scriabin is rather clear. They both claimed they had synaesthesia. They were both spiritual mystics, although Messiaen, a devout Catholic, was much more conventional in going about it. More importantly, both of them share the prophetic and otherworldly rhetoric in their music. The listener is left feeling both frightened and mesmerized.

Scriabin called the eighth piano sonata to be the most "tragic" of the three. The piece begins in an uncomfortably slow and dissonant introduction of the main motive, prophetic and profound in character. The said motive is then developed in Allegro agitato within the confines of a traditional sonata form, stretched out. There is a coda, which accelerates to Presto, then Prestissimo. The main motive is still prevailing, although it is now accompanied by flickerings of chords. Instead of the expected strong ending, the piece comes to a close as the main motive is stated one last time in a sad, languid, and dreamy question mark - as if all that was experienced throughout the piece was nothing but a terrible trip, vanished into thin air.