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Category: Musician or composer

Extracted from RACHMANINOFF AND SCRIABIN Creativity and Suffering in Talent and Genius by Emanuel E. Garcia [from The Psychoanalytic Review Vol. 91, No. 3, June 2004 E-mail:]

Scriabin was born in Moscow in 1871, both Rachmaninoff and Scriabin studied with the same piano teacher, the flamboyant Zverev, and at the same conservatory: the Moscow Conservatoire. Both excelled, Rachmaninoff taking his much-prized Great Gold Medal, only the third in the Conservatoire’s history to do so, and Scriabin taking the Little Gold Medal. Tchaikovsky was for Rachmaninoff an idol and mentor; for Scriabin he meant a kind of music to avoid.

Scriabin ….....composed and composed, and in so doing evolved a new musical language. I personally hold him to be one of the greatest of composers, a musical genius of the highest order whom Fate has paradoxically treated unkindly in the relative neglect of his works. He is, too, a peculiarly modern genius, as defined by an unparalleled economy of expression, a tremendous concentration of a vast emotional range into notes that are relatively few but ferociously charged. I know of no composer whose ratio of masterpiece to number of compositions is so high: Nearly everything he wrote not only shows evidence of evolution and growth, but is simply magnificent.

The vast project he devised before he died testifies to his ever-reaching daring and transcendental ambitions. Some consider the Prefatory Action and Mysterium a sign of megalomania; I consider them the grand attempt of a genius to reach beyond his grasp.

Scriabin’s life was nearly always in turmoil, and he was a man with wide-ranging interests, perhaps overly full of words. When the boy Horowitz was brought to play for him, his advice to the boy’s parents was to instill broad cultural learning. He seduced a student (statutory rape in our time), abandoned a wife, and incurred the wrath of prudish America on tour with his new “companion” Tatyana Schloezer.

Scriabin, who played only his own music, apparently took liberties with his scores, colouring and even changing notes improvisatorily as the mood moved him. Where Rachmaninoff took pains to adhere to convention, Scriabin was unconventional—not out of affectation, but independence, as in his predilection for going bareheaded at a time when hats were de rigueur for any gentleman, or in refusing to dedicate his compositions, contrary to custom.

At the Conservatoire the importance which Rachmaninoff attached to his grades is almost distasteful: ….After he had been granted dispensation to conclude the composition course in less time than usual, Scriabin applied for the same privilege but was rebuffed: his reaction—to leave without a composer’s diploma, something which would have been unthinkable to his contemporary!

Today Rachmaninoff’s music has become a concert staple, while outside Russia, where he is studied and revered, Scriabin’s is more an occasionally performed oddity, a brief encore piece, despite the best efforts of organizations like the Scriabin Society of America. Unlike the serialists, his music is never a mathematical exercise; even at its most daring and disembodied it calls to the listener’s earthly soul in a way that the atonal school has never succeeded in doing. Where Prokofiev drowns us in a barrage of arid notes, Scriabin’s deft concentrated touch mystifies and inspires with its unique beauty. I am fond of proclaiming that not only is Scriabin the greatest composer of the twentieth century, but also of the twenty-first century! In essence he brought musical expression to the very brink at which it finds itself today, the cleft between the tonal and atonal—but more. It seems to me that in his later works, masterpieces all, the tonal–atonal distinction ceases to exist altogether, that in fact his music holds the key to the resolution of this conundrum by transcending such a paltry notion of artificial distinction.

The sweep of creative innovation from his Fifth Sonata to Opus 74 is simply astonishing.

The Russian musicologist Varvara Pavlovna Dernova is credited with having decoded Scriabin’s chordal and melodic construction. She writes:

Scriabin’s harmonic system is a unique phenomenon in the history of Russian music at the beginning of the 20th century . . . .In his last opuses almost none of his harmonies is ever repeated. Nor does he “use up” or wear out those harmonies already found in the Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus which so perplexed his contemporaries. He continued to disclose even more and newer possibilities contained within the system.

This lack of repetition is cause for amazement. In Scriabin we also find a “freedom from the superfluous.” Nearly any one of the “little” preludes or album leaves seems to me to be worth whole movements of the symphonies of his garrulous and wasteful European peers. Furthermore, very significantly, there is never a trace of sentimentality in what he wrote—in stark contradistinction to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, and many others. This repudiation of the sentimental is a paramount element, an attribute only of the greatest of art.

Unlike Rachmaninoff, Scriabin chased one hare, and one hare alone! His dedicated mission of constructing new cultural expressive values is a testament to the unfolding of genius, as opposed to great talent.

Scriabin’s mother, a pianist of considerable talent, Lyubov Petrovna Shchetinina, died just over a year after giving birth to her son. His father absented himself from Scriabin’s immediate environment to pursue a diplomatic career and left him in the hands of his loving aunt and grandmothers. Very soon Aunt Lyubov Alexandrovna, his father’s sister, would decide to dedicate her life to the young boy. She became his first piano teacher, and after taking him to the great Anton Rubinstein, was advised to let Scriabin develop freely. The constellation of a “removed” father and doting maternal figure may be especially propitious in inculcating a sense of immeasurable importance in the male child, a feeling of something approaching omnipotence.

Although Scriabin, like Rachmaninoff, studied with Zverev, it was not as a pensionnaire, but as a visiting student. ...Zverev developed pianists, not composers. Here too it seems Scriabin had the advantage: The “visitor” was praised lavishly for his pianism by Zverev, ...and fortunately resided outside the sadistic domestic orb.

At the Moscow Conservatoire, Scriabin, while attempting to out-Lhevinne Lhevinne in pianistic speed and mastery, injured his right hand, seriously: Though he eventually recovered, the hand would be a source of worry to the end. It was a crisis of great proportions, and it is particularly instructive to peruse his notebooks from the time:
At twenty: Gravest event of my life . . . trouble with my hand. Obstacle to my supreme goals—GLORY, FAME. Insurmountable, according to doctors. This was my first real defeat in life . . . my darkest hour . . . Cried out against fate, against God. Composed First Sonata with its “Funeral March.

Scriabin’s hand injury occurred during the time he was in love with Natalya Sekerina, and one must wonder whether the initial injury to the hand; its painful persistence; the composition of the First Sonata; the physical separation from his beloved, whose mother was bent on preventing their union; the fragile state of Scriabin’s nerves; and the very origins of his mystical affiliation with Nature were not all somehow related to the travails of this great crisis of impossible first love. Most interestingly, it appears that from his letters to Natalya grew Scriabin’s central idea that creativity was the source of all human power.

Scriabin was fortunate in having Safonov’s relentless and unstinting praise, and also in possessing the dogged, driving support of the publisher Belayev: For both men he was peerless, and they thus helped to buttress the composer as he struggled with the invariable demons of “creating from nothing.” In fact, much to Scriabin’s benefit, Safonov appeared to greet every new composition as if it were literally the greatest piece of music yet composed by anyone!

Safonov called Scriabin’s improvising “one of the highest pleasures of my musical life” ; he remarked that Scriabin was “very, very great . . . a great pianist and a great composer . . . cleverer than Chopin ever was”. After reading the score of Scriabin’s First Symphony he wrote: “I cannot begin to convey to you my rapture over your new symphony. . . . it is divine creation”. He waved the score of the Second Symphony to the orchestral musicians he was rehearsing, saying “Here is the new Bible!” . Such praise was of inestimable value.

Scriabin had a preoccupation with mysticism. Sometime around 1902 Scriabin conceived the grandest and most ambitious project in the annals of art, his Mysterium. The Mysterium would be a synthesis of all the arts and would engage all human sensory perceptions to effect a literal cosmic cataclysm that would result in a newly transformed world. It is suffused with abstruse mystical conceptions, and so grandiose and transcendental was it that mankind needed to be prepared by what he termed a Prefatory Action, a festival itself of immense proportions, set in India with the Himalayas as background, incorporating, choruses, dance, aroma, lights, music, and for which Scriabin was readying himself by preparing to travel to the Orient. In its synthesis of the arts it would out-Wagner Wagner, one of the two composers Scriabin truly admired (the other, the daringly innovative Chopin). In its professed salvation of mankind it rivaled Western religious doctrine. If there is a single central element in the Mysterium it is the boundless creative power of art.

Madness? On one level, of course. As Koussevitsky wrily remarked, after the performance of the Prefatory Action a good dinner was the most to be expected. Yet considered from another perspective, the Mysterium was a construction of Scriabin’s daemonic genius that served several indispensable functions:

1. It imbued Scriabin with a sense of omnipotence that allowed him the strength to create music establishing original, innovative, breathtaking novel boundaries.

2. It provided the framework of a “competing” reality for the composer, a world that supplanted all else, the description of which could be musically rendered.

3. It voiced in a projected and literal way the innermost unconscious beliefs of any creative artist, namely, that by his handiwork the world would be transformed, that the power of his artistic tools was indeed omnipotent, and that the artist in creating would become immortal, cheating death, a savior of mankind.

As Schloezer (1987) notes, “this dream was surely a delusion , but it gave meaning to his entire creative activity, it was his sun” . For the aspiring creator the discovery and establishment of one’s unique “voice” out of the relentless clamor of competing, shaping voices from the past, is a nearly insurmountable challenge. What better guide toward this independence and novel language than the world of the Mysterium?

It indicates too Scriabin’s temperament, and the temperament par excellence of the genius, in never being content, never being satisfied with the work or means at hand. As we know, Scriabin possessed immense musical gifts, but he became disappointed in his ability to express the inexpressible by music alone.

Hence the experiments with the keyboard of light for his orchestral poem of fire, Prometheus, hence the vast reaching beyond his own art into the fantastic project of the Mysterium. Scriabin’s vision would take more than “mere” music to realize.

And this brings me to a subjective observation. Generally speaking, for every other composer with whose music I have been taken, I have had the sense of a personal kinship in that the composer was expressing something from me, that a melody or movement represented an aspect of my own emotional constellation so precisely that the composer had done me the favour of describing my own feelings with exquisite accuracy in an idiom far beyond my own abilities.

With Scriabin, on the other hand, the sensation is as a “watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken,” that is, of being privileged to be introduced into a hitherto unimagined universe, a universe of new sensation and apprehension.

In all my experience of musical listening, this is unique, and I believe it is related to the inspirational intensity with which Scriabin’s Mysterium fueled his creative faculty.

In the aspiration to reach beyond his medium, to incorporate and transform all life itself, Scriabin displays for us, in all its nakedness, the uncompromising (and generally unspoken) mission of genius.

Thus Scriabin’s “madness” is not madness in any conventionally understood term, but a reflection of subservience to a vision imposed by his daemonic quest to break the bonds of conventional reality in favour of the intricately complex experience of ecstasy, itself modelled after the erotic communion of earthly love.

The “primitive” methods employed by …. Wilhelm Erb, the neuropathologist at Heidelberg University, in his treatment of Scriabin’s migraines, are instructive to our approaches now, which I summarize as “go gently and beware of tampering with the creative daemon.”

Is it all that implausible to wonder whether Scriabin’s resistance to bacterial infection wasn’t compromised by complex emotional factors connected with his having reached the limits of his creative potential? After all, the Mysterium was an impossible project, and with the composition of Opus 74, where could he have gone in strictly musical terms? The Russian theoretician Boleslav Yavorsky comes close to this viewpoint when he asserts that genius must of necessity eventually burn out, exhausting its own fuel, when he described Opus 74, No. 2 as “The soul of Scriabin’s swan song . . . the last, damp trace on sand from an exhausted, vanishing, dying wave” . Death came to Scriabin in the form of generalized septicemia at a time when he had been writing about death as apotheosis for his Prefatory Action: “a sacred instant of creation, fiery instant . . . the reflection— pale, white and fatal—of Death

“Politicians and bureaucrats are not to be praised. Writers, composers, authors and sculptors are the first-ranking men in the universe, first to expound principles and doctrines, and solve world problems. Real progress rests on artists alone. They must not give place to others of lower aims . . .” (Scriabin quoted in Bowers, 1996).


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