The young Alexander Nikolaïevitch Scriabin was born on the 6th of January 1872. His mother died three months after his birth and his father’s career as a diplomat required frequent stays abroad. Despite the absence of a parental figure he had a spoilt childhood and was cared for by his grandmother and aunt, who taught him the basics of piano. With his family circle having seen his talent for music, Scriabin took lessons in counterpoint and harmony from 1883. His training developed when he joined Nikolaï Zverev’s piano class, who was considered as the best teacher in Moscow. His colleagues included many of the future greats of the Russian music scene, notably a certain Sergey Rachmaninoff, one year his junior. From his adolescence, Scriabin showed signs of a strong spirituality spaned by metaphysical issues, which became apparent in his future work. He was a victim of frequent sleep-walking attacks and used his diary to record the thoughts that came to him in his dream. It was during one of these trance-like states that he realised that music was the only future of which he could dream. In 1887, with his father’s consent, he left the Military Cadet School, where his uncle had enrolled him, to join the Moscow Conservatory in January 1888. He was a pupil of Vassili Safonov and very quickly became his favourite student. He forged a friendship with him that would last throughout his life.
The first few years after graduating from the Conservatory were difficult for Scriabin. Although the young composer was able to get a licensing agreement from the publisher P. Jurgenson, this only guaranteed him meagre financial conditions. It was also during this period that Scriabin had a thwarted love affair with the young Natalya Sekerina, for whom he composed a Romance for Voice and Piano, Op Posth, his only known melody to date. Sekerina finally rejected him after four years of heated letter exchanges. During this time, Scriabin took refuge in alcohol and suffered from a paralysis of the right hand which made him doubt his future as a concert artist and forced him to go back and forth to the spas of Crimea. Forced to adapt to his disability, he wrote two incredibly beautiful and short pieces, Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op.9, which were respanably successful in recital, a perfect example of the composer's writing ingenuity and his skilful playing.
Scriabin's meeting with the wealthy music publisher Mitrofan Belayev in September 1894 gave him a glimpse of the way out of the tunnel thanks to a new exclusive contract: the musician enjoyed unprecedented financial benefits for a Russian composer. On this basis of this legitimisation and on his success as a concert artist, Scriabin, who had regained all his physical capabilities, took the radical decision to never play anything but his own compositions. This was the chance for a major European tour, where his Impromptus Op. 7, 10, 12, 14 as well as his Etudes Op. 8, in the wake of Chopin's great works, were very well received. This included the twelfth etude of Opus 8, which has inspired a large number of performers, past and present; the performances of Viktor Merjanov, Setrak and Vladimir Horowitz in particular are ones to be remembered.
1897-1900 spaned a turning point in the composer’s work. His Sonata No. 2 Op.19, influenced by Chopin, nevertheless presents certain elements of breaking-up with the romantic tradition. He also tried his hand at orchestral composition, but his Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op.20, was a resounding flop at its premiere in Odessa, due to Scriabin's inexperience and Safonov's mediocre conducting. Scriabin who was now married to the pianist Vera Ivanovna Issakovitch and had a household to feed, accepted a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory to balance his expenditure. Although he was a passionate teacher according to his students, he did not succeed in fitting into the institutional mould and walked out after four years.
It was around 1898-1900 that Scriabin discovered other influences that would have a lasting impact on his future work. As a member of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy he immersed himself into reading Hegel, Kant, Goethe and Plato, which stirred up intense reflections for him on the relationship between Man and Nature, which he carefully recorded in his notebook. His Symphony No.1 Op.26, whose finale is a hymn to Art carried by the chorus, already illustrates this change of direction. The Sonata No.4, Op. 30, composed in 1903, extends this radicalism with even greater brilliance. This illustration of 'Man's thrilling race towards his star, the symbol of happiness', in Scriabin's own words, underlines the composer's new tendency towards syncretism and the divine. His new compositions started to break down traditional tonal structures, notably in the Poems of Op. 32. The splendid performances by Heinrich Neuhaus, or, more recently, by Vladimir Ashkenazy are ones to be remembered.
Scriabin's new mystical interests bewildered those around him, who admired his musical talent but found it difficult to follow him in his pseudo-philosophical delirium. Because of her love for him, his wife Vera followed him to Switzerland in 1904 and put aside her promising career as a pianist to look after their children. Scriabin left the family home for some time and found a new muse in Tatiana de Schlœzer, a former student of the Moscow Conservatory. She was much more receptive than Vera to Scriabin's convoluted reflections on Man, science, rapture, the cosmos... She followed him to Geneva, where they both attended the World Congress of Philosophy in 1904, in Vera's absence. It was during this time that Scriabin completed his Symphony No. 3 or Le Divin Poème Op. 43, one of his most flamboyant scores with its amazing chromatism. The work, which was very poorly received at its world premiere in Paris in May 1905, is today considered to be one of the most important of the composer's works, who regarded it as the "manifesto of his philosophical and religious doctrine”. It has been the subject of some major recordings (Muti, Gergiev, Petrenko).
In 1906 his new masterpiece, the Poem of Ecstasy was completed. It was a symphonic work inspired by the works of the theosophist Helena Blavatsky. Initially entitled Orgiastic Poem, the work is accompanied by a text that defends all theses supported by Scriabin on his solipsistic concept of the universe: Man, like God, is the creator of everything. Although Scriabin seemed to be enlivened by a frenetic inspiration that would not leave him until his death, his works received mixed reviews during this period. The Piano Concerto and Le Divin Poème were very poorly received by the New York public in 1907 during his first American tour. As for the Poem of Ecstasy, which was premiered the following year in the same city, it was simply ignored by the press.
The change came when Scriabin met the illustrious Serge Koussevitzky. The extremely wealthy conductor was a patron of the arts and made him leave the Belayev publishing house to join his own team. From then on, Scriabin was financially stable and took advantage of Koussevitzky's influence to play his works all over Europe, where they were now immensely successful. Having split up with his wife Vera for good, he moved to Brussels with Tatiana in 1909. It was there that Scriabin found the inspiration for one of his finest masterpieces, the symphonic poem Prometheus or Poem of Fire. Inspired by the circle of fifths, and its likely synaesthesia, the composer made a connection between notes and colours: C/red, D/yellow, E/azure, F/purple, G/orange, A/green, B/bluish white. The work also spans the formation of a chord of six overlapping fourths, the famous "mystical chord" or "Prometheus chord". Back in Moscow, under pressure from Koussevitzky, who reminded him of his commitment to provide more compositions, Scriabin submitted several of his best compositions: Sonata No. 6 and No.7, as well as the Deux Poèmes Op.63. This was not enough to ease the tensions between the two men: Scriabin's future works were all published by P. Jurgenson. Among them is his Sonata No. 9 "Black Mass" Op.68, a macabre, atonal flight performed in a single breath.
The last few years were spaned by two of the most moving works in the entire Scriabinian catalogue. In the winter of 1914, exhausted by a series of concerts and numerous trips, he was plagued by visual hallucinations that he recreated on the piano: this was to be the poem Toward the Flame Op.72, a six-minute piece built in progressive tension towards a powerful harmonic explosion: "The fire and cosmic flames are vibrations, similar to those of sounds and colours, destined to meet, to melt into the final blaze of the universe", he wrote. The greatest pianists of the 20th century have recorded the impressively difficult piece: from Sofronitsky to Horowitz, including Ogdon and Ashkenazy. The Five Preludes Op.74 follow, a mathematical marvel whose composition rules follow the proportions of the Fibonacci sequence.
In the spring of 1915, Scriabin had just completed the first part of a monumental work: Mysterium. Designed to combine music, dance and theatre, this ambitious creation required the active participation of the audience and was also intended to appeal to the various senses through the use of a light keyboard and a perfume organ. The performance, which was supposed to last several days without interruption, was to take place in a temple built especially for the occasion. Scriabin hoped to lead his listeners to a mystical ecstasy, allowing the advent of a new man in harmony with the cosmos. This was sadly not to be, as his health suddenly deteriorated following a stable fly bite. Seized by intense fevers, he died at the height of his glory on the morning of 16 April 1915, leaving his Mysterium unfinished. This “Preliminary Act”, consisting of 53 pages of music and scattered pieces of text, contains a few tragically prophetic verses: “And in the shimmering of this last sunrise / Presenting us simultaneously in the naked beauty of our shining souls / We shall suppress each other / We shall cancel each other out.”