The Russian multimedia performer a century ahead of his time
Last Monday was the birthday of one of music's oddest characters. Alexander Scriabin first saw the light in Moscow on January 6, meaning he was born on Christmas Day according to the Russian Orthodox calendar. That gave rise to some delusions of grandeur later in life.
His view of himself as a chosen one was to some extent encouraged by circumstances. His mother -- a pianist herself -- died when he was only a year old and he was brought up by female relatives who thought the world of him.
Scriabin began composing music for the piano in the style of the man he most admired, Frédéric Chopin. He'd been in the same class as Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory and was in the same class as the concert pianist, but whereas Rachmaninov remained the great Romantic, Scriabin moved on into experimentation with his music.
He moved with his family to Switzerland and sought connections for his work that went beyond simple listening pleasure. He was something of a mystic.
Around the time of the creation of his third symphony, he split with his wife and left her with their four children, his head turned by a 19-year-old girl who'd been one of his pupils.
They moved on to Paris where that symphony had its first outing in 1905. He was now exploring the relationship between music and the metaphysical, and where it all might fit in the search for the ultimate truth.
He veered off in the direction of atonality -- what the Encyclopædia Britannica calls "the absence of functional harmony" -- and though he actually composed music without key signatures, he didn't quite go all the way in the manner of a Schoenberg or a Charles Ives.
No less a judge than Tolstoy called his work the expression of a genius, though others weren't so sure. The eminent English conductor Adrian Boult refused to oversee performances of Scriabin's music, describing it as "evil".
The notion of pushing the bounds never left him. For one of his compositions he invented an instrument, a keyboard with lights, that would connect sounds with specific colours. In a sense, he was foreshadowing the kind of shows that would become a staple of modern rock music.
A small man who was a bit of a hypochondriac, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz remembered Scriabin as a bundle of nervous tics who had difficulty sitting still.
Mysterium was going to be his magnum opus, a performance -- religious in nature -- involving all the arts and all the senses, to be staged in the Himalayas that would announce the dawning of a new world.
It would, in effect, have been a multimedia show. He was that much ahead of his time.
It all came to a sorry early end for Scriabin. He died aged 43, the result of a sore beneath his moustache going septic.
GEORGE HAMILTON PRESENTS THE HAMILTON SCORES ON RTÉ LYRIC FM FROM 10AM EACH SATURDAY.