Sunday, April 26, 2009
Scriabin the miniaturist
My recently confessed immersion in Alexander Scriabin's music is because he, like Federico Mompou, is one of the great composers of miniatures for piano. The Russian composer-pianist wrote a large number of miniatures, atmospheric little pieces that presage Stockhausen's moment form better than Mompou's. Scriabin's various extra-musical activities may be better known, such as the development of a color keyboard and the grandioise, mystical musical apotheosis that remained in sketches at his death. Musically, a handful of large-scale pieces, ten sonatas and a half-dozen large orchestral works, gets the most attention from critics and virtuoso pianists, but his short works are technically accessible, musically very interesting, and have the additional advantage of being somewhat outside the standard repertoire (unlike the Chopin preludes, the easiest of which are among the first real pieces that piano students are taught). Except for the orchestral works and a couple of juvenilia that were never published during his lifetime, everything he wrote was for piano.
Scriabin's definitive biography in English, Scriabin: A Biography of the Russian Composer, 1871-1915 in two volumes, was published in 1969 by Faubion Bowers, who also saved the Kabuki theater in Japan after World War II. Its writing style is a throwback to an earlier era of scholarship, with virtually no footnotes and a minimum of jargon. Bowers describes Scriabin's life in all of its soap-operatic detail, and he includes extended translations of Scriabin's notebooks and mystical poetry, but there isn't much in this book about the music or Scriabin's relationship in the turbulent culture of his time (the book clearly predates the cultural studies fashion). But in Scriabin's centennial year, the Soviets opened up some of his archives to western authors, and in 1973 Bowers published a second and much shorter book, The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers. Only 200 pages instead of the biography's 650, The New Scriabin skims Scriabin's life in the first half, then spends the second half on his mysticism, his commentators and his music.
Unlike Mompou, Scriabin concertized throughout his life, playing his own music across Europe and even for an American tour. My speculation about moment form for Mompou's small pieces was much more of a reality for Scriabin. Although most of his published opus numbers were collections of short pieces, only one of them (opus 11) was a recognizable cycle, and he seems to have published collections based on financial need rather than anything inherent connecting the pieces. On his concert programs, Scriabin treated each piece as an individual to be juxtaposed freely with any other piece, intermingling the sketches with one or two sonatas over the course of the concert. All-Scriabin Russian concert recordings from the 1950s and 1960s suggest that the groupings of short pieces were treated as multi-movement works, and that breaks for audience applause occurred only after larger works such as the sonatas. This practice can create a pleasant sense of drift, as each piece has its own self-contained atmosphere. In my own playing, I combine Scriabin's miniatures with Mompou's and Stockhausen's (the Tierkreis zodiac melodies).
The turn of the 20th century was a pivotal moment for western art music when the late romantic harmonic language lost all tonal bearings. Scriabin's music exemplifies this shift, from his early works which are very much in Chopin's mold, to his late works which are among the first atonal compositions. He claimed to have a complete harmonic system all worked out, but scholars still debate what's going on harmonically in Scriabin's late work. Although his tonal works have attractive melodies, I find myself drawn to his middle period, when there was still enough tonality to have a resolution, but the coloring is so languid that fatigue doesn't set in. When I hear too many of the early preludes strung together, there's too much tension and resolution, and I find myself rapidly weary. With too much from the late period, I don't hear any points of reference at all. His harmony has a lot in common with jazz, and I stumbled across a big band inspiration from some of Scriabin's late pieces that is a much better album than the name (Scriabin's Groove) and label (Super Bad Trax) would suggest.
I noted a while back that classical albums aren't sequenced for the best listening experience, but act instead as an encyclopedic reference. This is especially true for a composer like Scriabin. There are a number of complete sets available of Scriabin's sonatas, but they are such dense and complex pieces that I can't listen to 70 minutes of them back to back. The miniatures are grouped together and presented as units as well. Often this circumstance drives me to the download sites, but the miniatures are so short that they are a pretty bad deal on emusic — I would spend my entire monthly allowance on one and a half CDs worth of material. So Scriabin remains somewhat of a guilty pleasure, a composer for performing more than for listening, for savoring in the privacy of my studio.
The photograph of Scriabin at his piano is by Alexander Mozer, the physicist who worked with Scriabin developing his color keyboard.