Aleksander Scriabin’s music is a modern conundrum. Born in 1872 in Moscow, Scriabin was a misunderstood, shy child. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was very young, and his diplomat father remarried later in his life. Scriabin was mostly raised by his grandmother. Small and frail, he became heavily involved in his music (despite his inadequately minute hands, which were a definite setback as his career progressed). He would even construct pianos and give them to family friends.
He later studied the piano at Moscow Conservatory, where he eventually became a music professor. Composition was something that attracted Scriabin, but he ultimately did not complete a composition degree because the typical musical forms did not interest him. After a fulfilling and fascinating career, Scriabin died at only 43 years old.
Not one to follow typical composition patterns, Scriabin was a progressive for his Romantic-contemporary time. He experimented with sounds, unafraid to combine notes in ways that had never been considered by his fellow Russian composers. His music is much more complicated, nuanced, but there is a breathtaking subtlety in the power of his melodies and harmonies. The sound is grand, and extraordinarily emotional, but often confusing, more wild. Scriabin’s sound is impossible to contain.
Brilliant Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin plays Scriabin’s Etude Op. 8, No. 12.: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfXjk7GkCF8
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz plays Scriabin’s Poeme Op. 32, No. 1 (a truly incredible piece - but maybe I’m biased because I invested months of practice into playing this piece!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeIkc573yJg
Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Philharmonic play Scriabin’s Piano Concerto Op. 20, Third Movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Mf1DSl2vP8 (Part 2 of recording here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giXANI8T0h4&feature=relmfu )
AND FINALLY… THE DEBATE:
So who’s better? Rachmaninoff vs. Scriabin, the ultimate Russian Romantic showdown. The critics often argue that Rachmaninoff is a true Russian iconic, a national composer. His incorporation of Russian folk sound, of Russian emotion, is hard to beat. His music appeals to all - passionate, emotional, and filled with swelling climaxes. It’s simple, easy to understand, but packs the emotional punch of thousands of years of melancholy Russian tragedy. Meanwhile, Scriabin is incredibly difficult to listen to. It’s dramatic, yes, but complicated, hard to follow. It is still undeniably Russian, but in a new, contemporary way. One has to learn to like Scriabin - there is no automatic love for his music. It must first be tolerated, and then appreciated for its complexity.
Within the [Russian] musical world, it’s rare to find someone who appreciates the beauty of both Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. People will argue themselves to death over who they find better. Rachmaninoff can appeal to the masses - but, no - Scriabin appeals to the intellects! - but Rachmaninoff is more nationalistic, Scriabin shuns his country’s musical forms - no, but Scriabin was a true contemporary visionary! The debate will play on for centuries to come, no doubt.
As for me, I’ve been attracted to Rachmaninoff’s sound since I was little. I’ve ached to play his emotional, dramatic, and powerful music for years, but alas, my hands are too small for Rachmaninoff’s massive chords. As for Scriabin, I spent nearly a year learning two of his poems as a solo pianist. The amount of work I put into learning these pieces was incredible - I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder (at least, not in terms of stretching my fingers. In some way, thank God Scriabin had small hands too!) At this point, while I can say the emotion and dramatics of Rachmaninoff is undeniably appealing, I’ve grown to appreciate and admire Scriabin’s intensity and complexity. But enough about my opinions - who do you think deserves the title best?