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  • The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin by Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin
  • Simon Morrison
The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin. Trans. by Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin. Pp. xix + 263. (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2018. £53. ISBN 978-0-19086366-1.)

The A. N. Skryabin Memorial Museum in Moscow houses the composer's grand piano, Belgian art nouveau furniture, a small bookcase, a portrait of his mother, the prototype of the colour-sound keyboard for his 1910 tone poem Prometheus, framed concert announcements and reviews, images from different periods throughout his abbreviated life (he died at age 43 of blood-poisoning), and reproductions of paintings by Ferdinand Hodler, Nikolai Shperling, and Leonardo da Vinci on the subject of death. Skryabin was fascinated by death—his own and everyone else's—but more so the afterlife. He conceived his Preliminary Action (alternately translated as Preparatory Act or Rite) to narrate spiritual transcendence and depict individual souls combining in a collective oversoul. He hoped the plot would spill over into real life, in keeping with the 'mystic' influences he had absorbed as an artist of the Russian Silver Age. Skryabin also imagined bells hanging from the heavens and thick, inert, exceedingly dissonant harmonies facilitating the suspension of time. The project, however, barely moved beyond a libretto, a gathering of sketches, and occasional show-and-tell sessions at the keyboard. Skryabin experts remain conflicted about the plausibility of the Preliminary Action as were the people in his life at the time. He spoke of his plans to dissolve time and space, but he never finished—nor even really began—the music meant to do the dissolving.

The Museum emphasizes his tamer, 'Romantic' works and welcomes guests to conferences sometimes held in the first-floor salon, various recitals, and occasional 'Night at the Museum' events. It also boasts a research library and an archive that preserves the originals of his manuscripts. These sources were (puzzlingly) not consulted by Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin in their edition of Skryabin's notebooks. Nicholls and Pushkin instead translated and annotated texts published in Russian a hundred years ago in a series called Russkie propilei. The series, edited by the cultural historian Mikhaíl Gershenzon (1869–1925), ran from two years before the Russian Revolution to two years after it. Skryabin seems to have had a personal, friend-of-a-friend connection to Gershenzon through the pianist Alexander Goldenweiser (1875—1961) and through the poet Viacheslav Ivanov, which perhaps explains why Skryabin's notebooks were featured (p. 229). In both the original Russian and Nicholls and Pushkin's translation, these materials illustrate the composer's transformation from an artist to a theurgist—a new Prometheus who aimed to unite Heaven and Earth.

Because Gershenzon was a meticulous editor, I expect that consulting the original notebooks, had Nicholls and Pushkin done so, might not have told us much. Still, it is regrettable that facsimiles are not included here and that the annotations are not richer in content. The sketches of the Preliminary Action, moreover, are inaccessible except as crudely reproduced in a 1984 French-language book by Manfred Kelkel and roughly described in the error-filled, sensationalist 1996 biography by Faubion Bowers. (To believe Bowers is to believe that Skryabin died, in messianic fashion, on Easter, rather than three weeks before, and that the 'greatest Skryabin pianists are homosexual', because he was too. But he wasn't.) Nicholls and Pushkin credit the A. N. Skryabin Memorial Museum for some of the illustrations, even thanking past and present employees, but provide no details about their access to the archive.

Even so, there is much to admire about Nicholls and Pushkin's book. In the opening biographical overview, Nicholls notes the early loss of Skryabin's parents, his interest in the military, the injury to his right hand that changed both how he played and composed, and his interactions with his teachers, including an amusing anecdote from his piano professor Vasilii Safonov: 'One time [during a lesson with Skryabin] I just dropped off. I wake up to some charming sounds' (p. 8). Nicholls offers a tender description of the one solo song that Skryabin composed and the girl...


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