Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Scriabin's Piano Concerto

Continuing my series of program notes:

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)
Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op.20

Allegro moderato

The Russian Alexander Scriabin pursued a fascinating musical career. Beginning as a composer of Chopinesque piano miniatures, in his last works he entered the realm of atonal harmony that was soon to be filled by Schoenberg and Bartók. Moreover he sought impossible goals inspired by a vision that continued on where Wagnerian music drama left off. The older Scriabin wasn’t content just to create a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk blending all the arts into an operatic festival that could inspire the whole community, as Wagner intended with his Ring cycle; Scriabin sought to blend massive orchestral sound with colours and eventually fragrances in a work so powerful it might end the world. 1912’s Prometheus did in fact use a ‘colour organ’, but, ironically, Scriabin died of blood poisoning from a pimple on his lip before he could realise his more messianic visions. In the meantime, he had experienced probably the most extreme stylistic progress of any composer in the western repertoire.

Alexander Scriabin
Grandiosity might not be apparent in music of the younger Scriabin, who, like Chopin, was also a superb miniaturist. In listening to this concerto you can understand contemporary pen portraits of Scriabin as an effete dandy, brought up by two coddling grandmothers and a maiden aunt. Although Scriabin went to the military academy that his father had attended, he was spared some of the more rigorous duties. He ended up at the Moscow conservatory, studying with Zverev the hard task-master who also taught Rachmaninov and gaining second place to Rachmaninov on graduation in 1892.
Like Rachmaninov, Scriabin was a fantastic pianist. This concerto was written for his own repertoire. It was conceived in the throes of an infatuation with ‘M.K.F.’, a girl from Düsseldorf. By the time it was ready for scoring and copying Scriabin was on the verge of marriage to Vera Ivanovna Isakovich, a fine pianist herself who prepared the two-piano version of this concerto, but not someone approved of as a match by Scriabin’s guardians. Indeed, the changes in Scriabin’s personal life measured against the unprecedented high-speed at which this concerto was composed gives you some sense of how quickly Scriabin’s emotional moods and allegiances swung at this time; how rudderless he could seem. Scriabin’s aunt,  Lyubov’ Aleksandrovna, sought the publisher Belayev’s help in discouraging the marriage to Vera. She ended a December 1896 progress report on that score by telling Belayev that Scriabin had just cut his fingernails without her having to remind him!
Despite the speedy conception of this work, Belayev had continually to cajole Scriabin for the orchestrations, corrections and other more tedious preparations prior to publication. He also wanted Scriabin to send the score to Rimsky-Korsakov for comments and ‘everything must be done by the 20th of May [1897], if Safonoff is to try the Concerto out on his pupils before vacation’. Scriabin eventually supplied movement one. After quickly looking through it, Rimsky confessed to incomprehension and criticised ‘its disorder and inaccuracies of musical etiquette.’ Mortified, Scriabin answered with a pledge to exterminate his carelessness, but placed the letter in an envelope addressed to the composer Liadov, while Rimsky got Liadov’s letter. ‘Is it possible that you find yourself blowing your foot when you mean to blow your nose?,’ his frustrated publisher Belayev bellowed.  
Rimsky was equally critical of the second and third movements, but it’s difficult to understand why he was so scathing. More successfully than his idol Chopin, Scriabin achieves an orchestration that complements the fulsome solo part.
Scriabin’s biographer, Faubion Bowers, describes the work as one of ‘elegance, grace and ineffable delicacy of craftsmanship....a concerto for soloist and fifty other musicians with constant rubato or irregular rhythmic flow, and much of it to be played con sordino [muted], with the soft pedal down as well. Yet, it is written in shade, as the opening horns announce and few shafts of sunlight penetrate...’ Those that do, however, have an intensity which we have come to expect from Russian romanticism.
The work’s second movement consists of four contrasting variations ‘full of ingenious melismata and crystalline figuration’. Bowers describes the folktune-like theme as the Russian soul speaking softly but audibly. The last movement is a polonaise, although perhaps not obviously so. The second theme provides some of the few instances of sweeping Russian lyricism in this urbane work.
In the end, those who opposed Scriabin’s marriage to Vera failed in their quest to stop it. Scriabin and Vera married in August 1897. In Odessa on their Crimean honeymoon, Scriabin premiered the concerto with a local orchestra conducted by Safanoff.    

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013 
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013 
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013 
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013  
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013 
Wagner's  Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013

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