Mystic day-dreams jotted down on a piece of paper

Drifting through space and time. © Charles Thibo

Do you manage to think about nothing? No. That is impossible. You cannot think about nothing because “nothing” is already something. Can you let your mind drift away? Can you day-dream? Alexander Skryabin (Scriabin) wrote a musical day-dream in 1912-13: his Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 70. Disconnected thoughts drifting through space, words jotted on a piece of paper… slowly a certain coherence emerges, the composer returns to his initial thoughts, casts them in a more precise way, emphasizes some ideas, disregards others. Skryabin is speaking to us, but what does he want to say? It is up to you find this out. You, the listener will give this music its meaning. Just like I did.

How to become your own god

Such wonderful music! Meditation music. By the time Skryabin wrote it, he had reached the end of his career. You will note that Skryabin didn’t indicate a key for Piano Sonata No. 10. He had left tonality behind himself, just like Arnold Schönberg and others in Germany and Austria. He also had gone beyond conventional wisdom, the Russian-Orthodox religion and political thinking. He had built his own metaphysical system, a kind of mysticism, and developed a personal harmonic language that partly derived from his creed and the combination of sounds and colours. “I am God”, he once wrote, and that was by no means meant arrogantly. Skryabin had created his own cosmos around himself.

Skryabin’s cry against fate

The composer started his musical career as a pianist, having graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. The lessons learned at Sergey Taneyev’s classes of polyphony reverberate through his early works. Right after graduation, he wrote a first piano sonata in F minor (Op. 6). He called it a “cry against God, against fate”. What had happened? He had very small hands and in 1891 he had practised a piece written by Franz Liszt so hard that he had overstrained his right hand. His physician had warned him that his hand would never fully recover. Subsequently, he adopted a left-hand technique. An obsessive pianist. A mystic composer. Quite a man!

Transcending the Romantic language

Skryabin’s Piano Sonata No. 1 is influenced by the Romantic style and at the same time, it already transcends it. Skryabin rejected any of the folklorist elements that some of his Russian contemporaries liked to use. There is much of Liszt’s virtuosity and brilliance, but the sonata is less structured and ventures into tonal realms where Liszt would never have dared to go. Stylistically, it is close to the musical language of Sergey Rachmaninov, his fellow student in Moscow. It has a lot of passion, for example in the third movement, but its thematic orientation is very different. Rachmaninov never ventured into symbolism. It was only a small step from thematic symbolism to the development of a new sketch-like form of composing.

“Skryabin sanctified ecstasy and the act of creation by which that state is achieved; for both artists [Skryabin and the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé] this process represented a means of passage to and a form of self-identification with the divine”, says Oxford Music Online. Divineness – that is the essence and finality of Skryabin’s music. As such he is a worthy successor to Johann Sebastian Bach. The French-Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin has recorded both piano sonatas in 1996. Happy day-dreams!

© Charles Thibo

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