Can you put explicit sexual images and ideas into music?
Alexander Scriabin certainly thought so and went further than any other composer in this direction.
Born in Moscow in 1872, Scriabin’s father was a wealthy aristocrat and his mother a professional pianist, who died of tuberculosis when Scriabin was one year old. He was brought up by his aunt and surrounded by women.
Short in stature at about five feet tall, he made up for his height with arrogance. A womanizer and predator around young girls, Scriabin was infamous for sexual abuse and rape, and was forced to resign as a teacher at the conservatory after a sex scandal with a girl. In spite of his lechery, some of his deepest attachments were with enormous, gruff men, unlike his effeminate self. He married a pianist and they had four children. He left his wife for a mistress whom he later married and fathered three more children.
Scriabin was a child prodigy and a brilliant pianist in spite of his small hands. His piano music is highly original, with a broad palette of unusual colours, harmonies, textures, and a preoccupation with eroticism, which he referred to as “ecstasy.” Some of the titles he gave to his music include “Sensual Delights,” “Danced Caress,” “Desire,” and “Poem of Ecstasy.” He inserted instructions in markings like “orgiastic,” “voluptuously,” and “with ravishment.”
The Étude in D sharp minor, Op.8 No.12 (1894) became a favourite with pianists like Horowitz and Richter. This piece is based on repeated cadences, creating the impression of multiple climaxes, although later in life, he suppressed and postponed climaxes. In the Fifth Sonata, for example, he avoided chords with an augmented or diminished note that would require resolution. The effect is an impression of music floating for 12 minutes on the edge of a climax.
In his orchestral Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54 (1905-08), the markings include accarezzevole (caressingly), très parfumé (very perfumed), avec une volupté de plus en plus extatique (with a voluptuousness becoming more and more ecstatic) and estàtico (ecstatically). According to Scriabin: “the creative act is inextricably linked to the sexual act. I definitely know that in myself the creative urge has all the signs of sexual stimulation…”
The Ninth sonata has a second subject that Scriabin lovingly described as “dormant or dreaming saintliness.” Mixing carnal and spiritual passions, he marked the score “avec une langueur naissante,” (with nascent languor) and developed the theme into a “sweetness that gradually turns more caressing and poisonous.” When the second subject returns for the final time in Alla Marcia, it signals the devil and terror.
The first composer to invoke sex in music, Scriabin also became fascinated by transforming sound into light, in the belief that the Greek gods used flashes of light to communicate.
In his symphonic poem “Prometheus: the Poem of Fire” (1909) he used a specially designed projector with colored light bulbs that he controlled. At the same time, he played a multi-colored keyboard, built in Russia by physicist Alexander Moser for performances of “Prometheus” in Moscow and New York. These were the first orchestral concerts with color accompaniment.
Scriabin was a mystic and follower of Helena Blavatsky, one of the leaders of the Theosophy movement and eventually exposed as a charlatan. The movement encouraged sexual liberty and included many pedophiles.
In his attitude to women, Scriabin was derogatory and chauvinistic. He considered them materialistic and only creative with the assistance of men.
Eventually, he came to love the epicene. He also confessed his effeminacy when he reportedly said, “I could not have become what I am without fostering the masculine side of me and suppressing the feminine.”
Scriabin believed the world could only be saved by art, which was sacred and transformational. Before he died of septicemia from an infected pimple in his lip, he embarked on “Mysterium.” This enormous work aimed to rescue mankind from sin through art. It was planned as a synthesis of all the senses in one orgiastic performance over seven days in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas. Bells suspended from the clouds would devastate the universe with vibrations that would leave “nobler beings,” transfigured by the experience.
When he died at the age of 43, Scriabin left many orchestral works and a huge output of piano pieces, including 12 sonatas, Poèmes, etudes, waltzes, impromptus, mazurkas, fantasies, nocturnes and preludes.
Did he suffer from a mental illness? He had auditory hallucinations and believed the world would end in a sexual orgy. An alcoholic, he wrote many of his compositions while drunk. He believed he had greater powers than Christ and tried to prove this by walking on the waters of Lake Geneva. In the event, he had to be rescued from drowning.
What reactions have people described when listening to his music? Some have related visions of light waves and fire. One London critic wrote of “flashes of blinding coloured lights…totally different from the…emotions more commonly associated with conventional music… This experience convinces me that Scriabin’s music adjusts or negotiates human sensibilities in a mysterious and intuitive manner. He tapped sources as yet poorly documented or understood.”
Do performers or listeners find sexuality in his music? Mostly not. In spite of this failure, as well as his delusions, hallucinations and personal dysfunction, Scriabin’s music has very wide attraction, evoking the sacred and profane, in a profoundly emotional, complex and challenging sound world of great art.
“No composer has had more scorn heaped or greater love bestowed…” ~ Great Soviet Encyclopedia.