Scriabin Turns 139

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Alexander Scriabin often comes across as an unsavory character, even when compared to his Russian colleagues (among whom we find hardened recluses and raging alcoholics). He left his wife and four children to live with another woman (and, at the same time, seduced a young female student). He believed that he could develop magical powers through his music. He once wrote "I am God" in his diary.

Some accuse him of egomania, while others take it one step further and see in him full-blown megalomania. Even music as powerful as Scriabin's is liable to be viewed with a degree of skepticism, given the ill-conceived ideas and seemingly sinister motives of its creator.

Beneath the surface, however, is a far more sympathetic figure than the one just described (which, ostensibly, is the one most shared by the casual listener). For instance, when ending his first marriage, he took pains to see that his wife and four children were provided for. As frenzied and impulsive as he may have been, his sensitivity was such that the process of leaving his first marriage took over a year.

One also finds that his leanings toward Theosophy -- a cult that believed that humans would soon evolve to develop magical powers -- were kept in check, in a way, by his fundamental belief that man's greatest power lies in creativity. In other words, whatever highest truth he may have dreamt up, there was no better service to that truth than the perfection of his art. And it was likely the yearning for an ultimate truth -- rather than the thirst for power that comes across in some of his writings -- that provided the inspiration for Scriabin in the latter part of his life. The words "I am God" appear a good deal less arrogant when viewed in their full context: "If there is no God, then I am God."

Scriabin's later style -- the music he wrote from about 1903 on -- both anticipates and encapsulates the early 20th Century's radical and rapid changes. His music captures with uncanny precision the tension, agony and turmoil of the world around him during his final years, and does so without resorting to Stravinsky's violent gesticulations or Schoenberg's brutal serialism. His departure from tonality and forays into "sensory painting" in his music -- for example, images of fire and suggestions of blinding flashes of light -- pre-date the revolutionary works of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and other contemporaries. Had he lived just a few more years and his music reached a few more ears in the west, he might very well have become the defining musical voice of the 20th Century.