Scriabin: Rêverie, Opus 24

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was born January 6, 1872, in Moscow and died there on April 27, 1915. He composed his Rêverie in 1898, and it was premiered December 5, 1898, in Saint Petersburg, with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov conducting. These are the first performances by the San Francisco Symphony. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about three minutes.

Alexander Scriabin would go into history as one of music’s most visionary composers. Like many of his generation, he moved away from the world of late-Romantic tonality toward a realm of still greater harmonic freedom. From his experiments in sound he eventually devised his famous six-note “mystic chord,” which serves as the harmonic basis of his 1911 extravaganza Promethée (or Poem of Fire), for solo piano, orchestra, organ, and chorus. That work also included a part for color keyboard, which was to project a constantly evolving stream of colors as visual accoutrements to the sonic portion of the score. The technology required to realize his conception was woefully undependable, and during his lifetime well-meaning attempts to mount the piece in all its multimedia glory failed miserably.

In his Piano Sonata No. 7 (1913) Scriabin expanded his writing to encompass a fundamental chord sounded through twenty-five notes (actually a five-note chord repeated over the span of five octaves), which he viewed as an audible realization of a religious vision. When he died, in 1915 (of blood poisoning resulting from an abscess on his lip), he was working on a sacred theater-piece that he hoped to produce in the Himalayas in India over the span of seven days and seven nights as “the act of union between the Male-Creator and the Woman-World.” This Mysterium, as he planned to title it, was to integrate all the arts, including perfumes, and it was supposed to prove a transforming event not just for the composer, performers, and audience, but indeed for all of humanity. (A posthumous realization, by Alexander Nemtin, of its three-hours-plus Prologue was unveiled in 1973, and in 1999 its musical content only—the visual and olfactory elements are up to you—was released by Decca on three CDs under the title Preparation for the Final Mystery.)

All this lay considerably in the future when Scriabin composed his Rêverie, in 1898, but this short orchestral movement nonetheless betokens obvious talent and a penchant to lean toward music’s future rather than its past. Scriabin’s technical foundation was by then quite advanced. His father was a lawyer in the Russian consular service (a profession considered déclassé by the more conservative members of the family), and his mother was an accomplished pianist, a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Alexander was an only child, and he lost his mother to tuberculosis shortly after his first birthday. Since his father was usually away on assignment to a foreign country (principally Turkey), Alexander was raised by his grandmother, aunt, and great-aunt, who apparently coddled him practically beyond description. They also encouraged his interest in music. As a teenager he studied piano and composition (alongside his lifelong friend Sergei Rachmaninoff) and when he was sixteen he entered the Moscow Conservatory.

He met with limited success in his composition studies but he did graduate from the conservatory in 1892 with a second-place medal in piano—no dishonor in that, since Rachmaninoff took first. Scriabin then embarked on the career of a concert pianist. By all accounts he was an excellent but not quite top-notch performer, limited by the fact that his hand spanned only an octave.

In 1894 he was introduced to Mitrofan Belyayev, a philanthropist and music publisher in Saint Petersburg who would remain central to the composer’s career until Belyayev’s death in 1904. Belyayev, heir to a fortune in the lumber industry, was at the center of Russian music in the late nineteenth century, and he managed to navigate the opposing currents of the era’s musical politics thanks to his even hand and his open wallet.

As his publishing firm grew, Belyayev enlisted the composers Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Liadov to serve as advisers, and they joined him in voting about whether to accept composers into his fold. When several of Scriabin’s piano scores were presented to the firm, Liadov seconded Belyayev’s inclination to commit to publish everything the young man would write. (Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov were more reserved in their assessment.) Scriabin instantly became Belyayev’s favorite composer in the stable and was paid double the going rate—to the consternation of Belyayev’s advisers, who were also published by the company and therefore well aware of how much less they were being paid.

Belyayev managed Scriabin’s career personally and increasingly tried to command every aspect of the young composer’s personal life. Arbitrary as Belyayev sometimes seemed in their relationship, he surely exerted a positive influence, using money to lure Scriabin to complete works that sat around half-written. In the end, Belyayev always did keep Scriabin afloat, and in September 1898 he arranged for him to be named piano professor at the Moscow Conservatory, a position Scriabin would hold for four years.

In November 1898, Scriabin traveled to Saint Petersburg bearing an orchestral miniature for Belyayev. Although he normally told Belyayev about every piece he worked on, this one was a surprise, and its recipient was delighted. Rimsky-Korsakov dropped by for tea and played through the score at the piano, finding it “delightful, wreathed in piquant harmonies and not badly orchestrated.” This qualified as a rave from Rimsky-Korsakov, the dean of orchestration in Russia. The harmonies are indeed piquant, or more; Scriabin here flirts with dense, yearning chromaticism born of late Wagner. Even if the composer suggests different harmonic destinations, the music remains anchored in E minor. On a structural level, the piece is simplicity itself, being cast in an easily discerned three-part form (A-B-A) plus a coda. The A sections are quiet and gently flowing, while the B section grows in volume and gets progressively quicker.

Although Scriabin referred to his piece as a “prelude,” Belyayev was not keen on that title. They agreed on the French name Rêverie, but then disagreed about whether its Russian title ought to be Mechty (“daydreams”) or Gryozy (“musings”). Belyayev preferred the former, so of course that joined Rêverie on the title page. “Imagine my joy,” wrote Scriabin to his wife as the work went into rehearsal. “The piece sounds very well. At the rehearsal of December 1, Korsakov was so sweet. He had each section go through its parts separately and spent a whole hour on it.” (Rimsky-Korsakov was apparently on good behavior. In his Memoirs he would write, only in passing, of “that star of the first magnitude, newly risen in Moscow, the somewhat warped, posing, and self-opinionated A. N. Scriabin.”) The premiere of the Rêverie went so well that the audience demanded it be repeated on the spot, a wish easily accommodated since the piece is only three minutes long.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: Neeme Järvi conducting the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Decca)  |  Leif Segerstam conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS)

Reading: Scriabin: A Biography of the Russian Composer, 1871-1915, by Faubion Bowers (Dover)  |  The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers, by Faubion Bowers (St. Martin’s Press)  |  The Music of Alexander Scriabin, by James M. Baker (Yale University Press)  |  Scriabin: Artist and Mystic, by Boris de Schloezer (University of California Press)