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Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), the pianist and composer, rented rooms in this house at 11 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane, just north of the Arbat, for the last three years of his life. He died on the very day that his rental contract expired. (His landlord was Apollon Grushka, a prominent philologist, a specialist in historical Latin grammar and Roman poetry.) Thanks in large part to the efforts of Scriabin’s common-law widow Tatyana Shlyotser, the building was turned into a museum honoring Scriabin’s memory in 1922 – just as Shlyotser herself died. Today it continues its life as a museum and a cultural center where concerts and other cultural events are often held. The plaque that hangs on the second floor of the building (a rare enough occurrence) is probably one of the oldest in Moscow. It was surely made and first displayed within two or three years of the composer’s death for it uses the pre-revolutionary script, including the so-called hard sign that is added to the end of several of the words. The plaque reads: “Here lived and died Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin.”
Scriabin’s reputation has gone up and down over time. I doubt that means much; I mention it as a fact. During his life, especially in the later years, Scriabin was hugely famous. More importantly, his influence on other musicians, Russian and otherwise, was significant. As Arnold Schoenberg was developing his form of atonal music in Europe, Scriabin was independently performing similar experiments in Russia. I have never had a close personal connection to his music and so I asked my wife Oksana Mysina, a musician by education, what she might say about him. “He is an elemental storm,” she said. “His music comes crashing at you like a storm at sea. His compositions are for pianists what Paganini’s are for violinists.” Scriabin was and remains an enigmatic figure, a mystic, a symbolist, a Theosophist. A Russian biography site begins with a nice, if somewhat florid, description of the man and musician:
“Scriabin’s works embody ideas of ecstatic aspiration for unknown ‘cosmic’ spheres, as well as the idea of art as a transformative power. His music is characterized by great tension and a range of images from inspired idealism to the expressively heroic. He was a brilliant innovator of musical methods of expression, particularly in the field of harmony. He developed the notion of light music [see below] and was the first to introduce a part for light into musical practice – this in his symphonic poem “Prometheus”…
Alexander was a very suspicious and religious man. His abrupt mood swings frightened his family and friends, as did his views on current events. In addition to his unique music, he was also the first in history to employ and popularize color music. According to doctors, Alexander suffered from schizophrenia…”
Scriabin’s work with color and light in music is much better known in Russia than in the West. You can find all kinds of writings on the topic in the Russian netsphere (go here, for instance). I did find one source, originally written in Russian, but translated into English, that offers views on some of the complexities of Scriabin’s experiments. This piece, titled “Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?” goes into much detail about topics that are translated variously as “colored hearing”; “color tonal”; “color sound”; “light-music synthesis”; “light-sound synaesthesia” &cetera.
“There are geniuses,” the poet Konstantin Balmont wrote, “who are not only brilliant in their artistic achievements, but who are brilliant in their every step, their gait, in every aspect of their personal being. You look at one of these individuals – they are pure spirit, beings of a complete other kind, from another dimension. Of all the particular people who are no longer entirely human, or who have, at least, gazed deeply and often into the non-human, into whatever is done outside the three dimensions – it was Scriabin who gave me the impression of being the most complete and inexhaustible genius.”
Balmont, incidentally, lived two doors up from the house pictured here. I wrote about it some time ago on this site.
Scriabin himself wrote the following in regards to the “moment of truth” when an individual would awaken to the full potential of the world:
Let’s be born into a whirlwind!
Let’s awaken into the heavens!
Let’s mix feelings in a single wave!
And in the luxurious splendor
Of the final dawn
As we appear to each other
In the naked beauty
Of glittering souls
We shall disappear…
We shall melt…
“He was not of this world, either as a man or as a musician,” said Scriabin’s biographer Leonid Sabaneev.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called Scriabin “a star of the first magnitude.”
Upon hearing one of Scriabin’s piano miniatures, Leo Tolstoy is said to have proclaimed, “Very sincere. Sincerity is valuable. This one piece alone allows us to call him a major artist.”