Scriabin, Etudes, Op. 2, No. 2 and selections from Op. 8

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915)

Etudes, Op. 2, No. 2 and selections from Op. 8 (1894)

Alexander Scriabin is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of classical music. He once lamented that he might be remembered merely as a composer whereas his artistic and philosophical visions found expression in poetry, fantastic multi-media spectacles and a burning mission to literally transform the world through mystical experiences of spiritual ecstasy. Far more than just a composer, Scriabin fancied himself an aesthetic avatar leading the way to a higher universal incarnation. Historically, the Russian Scriabin comes after Tchaikovsky and before Stravinsky and stylistically his music arises from the context of late Romanticism progressing in a unique fashion towards the modernism of the 20th century. Scriabin’s music changed rather dramatically moving into impressionism and, in his late works, towards a kind of atonality, diffuse, free ranging, as if rising above and beyond all conventions of 19th century in a manner that was literally transcendent. Curiously, he composed exclusively for piano and orchestra. His cycle of 10 piano sonatas is considered perhaps the most significant since Beethoven, irrepressible in its restless quest for new means of expression. Scriabin’s orchestral music is similarly astonishing demanding some of the most vast sonic resources for symphonic tone poems with names like “Poem of Ecstasy” and “Prometheus, the Poem of Fire.” His ultimate conception comprised orchestra, chorus, an organ that produced a colored light show (rather than sound) and a coordinated projection of incense and perfumes, to be performed in foothills of the Himalayas in a cosmic multi-media happening intended to catalyze a global rebirth. (It never materialized).

Scriabin was an excellent pianist and, much in the manner of Chopin, composed a compelling series of etudes, preludes, dances and character pieces for solo piano spanning his creative life that, like the piano sonatas, illustrate the progression of his artistic development. The etudes are particularly prized beginning with his earliest from Op. 2 and Op. 8, composed between 1886 and 1894 when Scriabin was in his late teens and early twenties. The word étude comes from the French and means “study” and was initially applied to short pieces intended to emphasize a particular keyboard challenge or problem, an exercise to build virtuoso technique. Chopin and Liszt composed brilliant sets imbuing the technical etude with great artistic integrity as music in its own right. Scriabin’s etudes follow naturally in this tradition and are, aside from their enormous technical demands, satisfying works of art. They are essentially Romantic character pieces exploring a variety of moods and qualities of motion typically featuring an essential texture, pattern or figuration that dominates. Scriabin’s early etudes sound much like Chopin but in some cases display a uniquely poetic melancholy suggesting Rachmaninoff and a somewhat “oriental” character.

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