Monday, June 1, 2015

Scriabin and Symbolism

I am a winged caress, I flutter bird-like,
And I come to life as a savage lacerating beast.
As a writhing, crawling snake I have awakened,
I, voluptuous one, as the darling of the moist elements.
— Alexander Scriabin, from the Prefatory Action (trans. George Reavey)

My interests are, sometimes, a very long time brewing.  Hard as it is for me to believe, I realize that it was somewhere in the vicinity of twenty-five years ago when the seed of my current fascination with the music of Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was planted.

At the time, I was product manager of the Wherehouse store on the corner of Kearny and Sutter in San Francisco.  It was a marvelous store, situated as it was between the City's financial and theater districts.  Our clientele had divers tastes and, generally, the money to indulge them.  I would order the oddest imports, the most obscure jazz recordings, confident that they would sell.

The top floor was devoted entirely to Classical, and it was the domain of Mr John Fugazzi.  He, I know, enjoyed the opportunity to order and sell worthy but obscure items in his department as much as I did elsewhere.  It would never have occurred to me to try to second guess or gainsay John's decisions in the Classical department, and I valued his judgment on a personal as well as professional level.  My favorite lutenist, Jakob Lindberg, was first recommended to me by him, for example.

At one point, John was asked to select a few album covers to have blown up and hung on the walls of the Classical section of a new Wherehouse store opening in our area.  With impish glee he showed me what one of his selections was: the cover of the Hyperion recording of Scriabin's Complete Etudes, performed by Piers Lane.


Intrigued, I asked him if it was merely the cover which was noteworthy, or if the music was, as well.  He responded favorably, and I purchased a copy for my collection.  I enjoyed the CD from the first listen, and continued to listen to it from time to time.  Around five years later, I believe, I decided to try some more Scriabin piano music, and picked up the Harmonia Mundi CD of Sonatas 3, 4, 5 & 10, performed by Robert Taub.  It also pleased me, and has remained in occasional rotation in my CD player ever since.

Now, I enjoyed both of these recordings, yes, but neither became anything close to an obsession with me.  I would listen to each every so often, and when I wasn't listening to them, I didn't give them much thought.

About ten years ago I was listening to the Etudes, and I wondered about that striking cover image.  It was, after all, the first thing that had caught my attention about the album.  The album notes credit it as Depression and Ideal (1907) by Carlos Schwabe.  (I was interested to learn that it is alternately known as Spleen and Ideal, a title which also adorns a Dead Can Dance album which I listened to often in my youth.)  I started looking for other examples of his work, first online, then at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose.  This mainly meant perusing collections of Symbolist art, a movement I had been previously unfamiliar with, as such.  I discovered that I very much appreciated a great deal of Symbolist art.  It became quite a passion of mine for the better part of a year, and I still pick up new volumes on Symbolism to this day.

Le Faune (1923) by Carlos Schwabe

So, okay.  Two and a half decades after buying my first Scriabin recording, I retain a casual, low-level fondness for his music, and a more passionate fondness for the art movement which that CD led me to.  Then one day, a few months ago, I listen to this collection of etudes again.  For some reason, that day, it really reaches me.  I follow it immediately with a playing of the Sonatas CD.  This affects me even more.  I play it again.  Marvelous.  Over the next week or so I listen to almost nothing but these two CDs.  I've been listening to them for years, and suddenly I am hearing them as if I had never heard them before.  They amaze me.

I want to hear more of Scriabin's sonatas.  I order the two volumes of Bernd Glemser's performances on Naxos.  I love volume one: Sonatas 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, plus Fantasy in B Minor.  I love volume two, if anything, even more: Sonatas 3 and 10, plus the Sonata in E flat minor, Po√®me-Nocturne, and Vers la flamme.  This music is amazing.  It is also—particularly the later works—weird.  Who was this guy?  Why did he write such odd, but gorgeous, works for piano?  What else did he compose?

As I was looking into that last question, I discovered that, about a month from the date that I found out about it, Decca would be releasing an eighteen CD collection of Scriabin's complete works.  I pre-ordered it eagerly.  I also purchased Faubion Bowers' biography of Scriabin (two volumes combined in a single Dover edition).  This became the first biography of a composer that I ever read (the first that I ever acquired was of Mozart, in my teens, but I never read it).


I started in on the biography as soon as it arrived.  I just finished reading it last weekend.  I never know quite how to evaluate a biography—particularly one of someone who I previously knew nothing about.  It was mostly an interesting read.  It contained many letters from Scriabin to his friends, patrons, and most especially his wives.  Scriabin had two wives in fact, though only one in law.  When he separated from the first, she refused to grant a divorce.  So although Scriabin considered the woman that he left his first wife for to be his wife, and lived with her as such, he was never able to make it official.  He had children with both women, and it seems that he doted on his offspring, though distantly.  This biography also contains excerpts from Scriabin's notebooks.  I suppose the best praise that I can give the book is that it describes a man who I can definitely see composing the music in which I've been steeping myself these past few months.

I adore Scriabin's works for solo piano, nearly without exception.  His orchestral works I am, at present, more diffident towards.  Some, such as the Piano Concerto, I am decidedly fond of.  Others, such as the Poem of Ecstasy, I find more difficult.  It is generally true—not just for Scriabin—that I tend to prefer works for solo instrument, or small ensemble, to works for full orchestra. Yet it will be interesting to see if, sometime in the next quarter century or so, Scriabin's works for orchestra grow on me—either gradually, or all of a sudden.  As remarkable as this man's music is, nothing would surprise me.

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