David Brett reflects on Skryabin’s life and music

“I am the apotheosis of world creation. I am the aim of aims, the end of ends.” It might be thought appropriate that a man who could give these words to the autobiographical hero of his opera had been born (according to the Julian calendar, used in Russia at the time) on Christmas Day 1871. That man, with his Messiah complex, was Alexander Skryabin. Few composers have better illustrated the thinness of the line between genius and insanity.

It had not always been thus. Skryabin was born in Moscow into a family of minor nobility. His mother died when he was still an infant and, with his father often abroad, young Alexander was brought up by a combination of his grandmother, aunt, and great aunt, who all doted on him. Displaying early musical talent, he was sent for piano lessons with Nikolai Zverev. A charming photo survives from the late 1880s of Zverev surrounded by his pupils, including Skryabin and Rachmaninov, two of the greatest pianists of the age.

Skryabin later studied at the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1892 with a gold medal in piano performance and spent the next few years touring Russia and Europe as a concert pianist, to growing acclaim. In 1897 he married, and accepted a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory, allowing him more time to devote to composition. His hero was Chopin, and in those years he stuck to the Romantic style, composing études, preludes, three sonatas, his only piano concerto and two symphonies.

Thus far, conventional and unremarkable – his career running virtually on a parallel track with Rachmaninov. All this was to change, however, from 1903. No obvious external event triggered it, but driven by some inner force, Skryabin left Moscow and moved his family to Switzerland. A year later, he abandoned his wife and four children, started a new relationship, and lived a peripatetic existence travelling Europe and the United States, before returning to Russia in 1909.

Musically, he conceived the idea of an opera, with himself as the unnamed hero. This was then abandoned in favour of a genre he called ‘poems’. The Poem, op 32 no 2 and Poeme Tragique, op 34 were early examples (both intended originally as arias in the opera) and were followed by Symphony no 3, The Divine Poem and The Poem of Ecstasy, op 54, arguably Skryabin’s masterpieces. Stylistically, he began moving away from late Romanticism towards more dissonant musical language, even atonality. 

Back in Russia, Skryabin became increasingly obsessed by theosophy, a religious movement which believed God could be encountered directly through spiritual ecstasy, and by synesthesia, which associates letters, numbers, or in Skryabin’s case, musical keys, with particular colours. These influences caused him to conceive ever more grandiose projects, culminating in Mysterium, a multimedia work planned to be performed in the foothills of the Himalayas as “a religious synthesis of all arts which would bring forth a new world”. Only sketches of this exist as, in 1915, aged only 43, he died after an infected boil on his lip turned septic – hardly the end he would have envisaged for himself.

Was Skryabin a lost genius? Celebrated during his life, but largely forgotten afterwards, the 150th anniversary of his birth is a good time to reflect and re-evaluate the music he has left us.

Related programs Sunday Special, Sunday 9 January, 3pm, The World of a Symphony, Thursday 6 January, 8pm and The Piano Alone, Saturday 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 January, 9.05am