One of classical music's great friendships ended abruptly in 1915, when, with the world at war, Alexander Scriabin died at just 43.
Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff had attended the Moscow Conservatory together and become close friends. Both absorbed the influences of Chopin and Liszt, and they pursued parallel careers as composer-pianists. They remained close and followed one another's work. Yet these two innovative composers took very different aesthetic journeys.
Idolizing Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff kept one foot firmly planted in tradition, while to Scriabin, in the words of research psychologist Emanuel E. Garcia, Tchaikovsky "meant a kind of music to avoid." And when it came to their own work, the two composers were not quite a mutual admiration society. Rachmaninoff biographer Victor Seroff wrote that Rachmaninoff "recognized Scriabin as an important composer in spite of their dissimilar tastes, while Scriabin was indifferent toward Rachmaninoff because he considered his music only an imitation of Tchaikovsky's, which he hated."
However stern your modernism, I find it hard to imagine "hating" Tchaikovsky's music. But from the beginning Scriabin was insistently his own man. Upon their graduation from the Conservatory in 1892, Rachmaninoff took the Great Gold Medal, while Scriabin didn't graduate with a composition degree at all, having exasperated his professor Anton Arensky by refusing to compose pieces in forms that disinterested him, such as the fugue.
Scriabin later became an enthusiastic follower of the mysticism of his time, influenced by theosophy and symbolism and associating musical keys with colors. In 1910's Prometheus: The Poem of Fire he included a part for a keyboard instrument that projected colored light instead of sound. As conductor Gabriel Feltz put it, "Whereas Rachmaninoff remained true to his classical form principles until his death, Scriabin created an 'individual cosmos' in his later works...inspired by mystical-philosophical ideas."
After his death, Scriabin left unfinished a great work he called Mysterium, for which he had apocalyptic ambitions. The performance was to be a week-long event culminating in nothing less than the end of the world. The pianist and critic John Bell Young, known for his performances of Scriabin's music, described it this way:
Scriabin's dream was to stage the Mysterium in the Himalaya. He conceived it as a grand purification ritual where bells were to be suspended from clouds. Thousands of participants, clad in white robes, would intone his melismatic mantras with the fervor of the dervishes, expending every bit of their available energy in the service of his artistic idealism. He envisioned an orgy of the senses, and to this end created a choreography of lights, odors, colors and exotic dances. This was to have gone on for a week, leading to the apocalypse and the end of time. Thus transcended, the physical world, and ego itself would dematerialize; man would be reborn as pure concept. He even went as far as to purchase a plot of land in the Himalaya, fully expecting to realize this magniloquent event.
In concert, Scriabin performed only Scriabin. Rachmaninoff, likewise, habitually toured to promote his own works. But Rachmaninoff made a major exception on his friend's death, embarking on an unprecedented journey of tribute, touring Russia to bring Scriabin's music to a wider audience. On receiving a request to play some of his own compositions at one of these concerts, Rachmaninoff is said to have responded, "Only Scriabin tonight."
In fact, the tour had more than one purpose, and more than one result. It raised money for Scriabin's family. It helped cement Scriabin's reputation as an important composer. And it burnished Rachmaninoff's own reputation as a pianist.
Indeed it was Rachmaninoff at the piano. But in a way, it was also Scriabin's final journey.