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There is an uncanniness about the music of Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), a strangeness which has not been diluted by the century that has passed since this music was written. No study of the musician existed in English until 1967 when Faubion Bowers published his enormous two-volume biography, and with the exception of a few champions, pianists in the West didn’t venture into this alien terrain. He has been labeled a mystic, a megalomaniac, and a visionary. The eerie trills and atonal disjunctions of his later works, the outwardly improvisatory, though minutely calculated, structures of his mature piano sonatas, have all contributed to his reputation.

Given the widely diverging paths followed by these two Russian giants (as we will hear later in the program), is it surprising to know that Scriabin was a classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Moscow Conservatory, receiving rigorous training in composition and piano until graduating with him in 1892, taking second prize to Rachmaninoff’s first? 

Scriabin’s Sonata No. 6, Op. 62, was written in 1911, but cleaves to no historical category other than its own. Lasting just over ten minutes in a single movement, its technical demands are demonic as are its lingering reverberations. It had been the habit of the composer in his previous sonatas to append a written program, sometimes in the form of poems, to habituate the listener to the music’s intentions, but no such program was provided here.

To quote Bowers: “The Sixth Sonata is a netherstar. Its dark and evil aspect embraces horror, terror, and the omnipresent Unknown. ‘Only my music expresses the inexpressible,’ Scriabin boasted, and called the Sixth’s sweet and harsh harmonies, “nightmarish… fuliginous… murky… dark and hidden… unclean… mischievous.’ When he played excerpts for friends, he would stare off in the distance away from the piano, as if watching effluvium rise from the floor and walls around him. He seemed frightened and sometimes shuddered.”

In the final pages of the score Scriabin writes, “the terror arises and joins the delirious dance” as trills and flashes in the extreme high register of the piano, more terror-laden for not being loud, require notes physically beyond the highest reach of the keyboard!

If one were open to suggestions of the occult, one might see in Scriabin’s Sonata a warning of the darkness that was about to overwhelm Europe. The Great War (1914-1918) would bring about the death of millions in hellish trenches, the best and the brightest of an entire generation, “Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,” in Ezra Pound’s phrase. Europe would never regain the optimism that the new century had promised.