listen to Scriabin's Mysterium

Meet Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, whose week-long synthesised symphony was all set to bring about the end of the world.

The Mysterium: Preparation for the Final Mystery was to be Alexander Scriabin’s master work, intended to bring together all he had learnt about philosophy, synesthesia, theosophy and poetry. He thought of his music as fragments of this mystical vision – as bridges to the beyond in the tradition of composers such as Wagner and Stockhausen who wanted their music to bring about “aesthetic, social, or cosmic apocalypse”.

Scriabin delved heavily into Russian symbolism and theosophy and his notebooks are filled with fascinating passages charting his personal voyage. He believed he could attain the symbolist ideal of art having a material effect upon reality by channelling divine energy through the careful coordination of elements designed to stimulate multiple sensations.

He started working on The Mysterium in 1903, but it remained incomplete when he died in 1915. His vision comprised a seven-day-long mega work with dirigibles and bells suspended from clouds that would summon spectators from all over the world. A reflecting pool of water would complete the divinity of the half-circle stage, with spectators sat in tiers across the water and the least spiritually advanced in the balconies. Seating would radiate from the stage, where Scriabin would sit at the piano surrounded by a host of instruments, singers and dancers. The cast would include an orchestra, dancers, a choir and costumed speakers articulating rhythmic texts in processions.

The work required special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The entire group would be permeated continually with movement. Together with fellow theosophist Emile Sigogne, Scriabin worked on a new language for The Mysterium, which had Sanskritic roots but also included cries, interjections, exclamations and sounds of breath. The temple in which the event would take place would not be made of one type of stone but would continually change with the atmosphere and motion of The Mysterium.

This would be done with the aid of mists and lights, which would modify the architectural contours; sunrises would be preludes and sunsets codas; flames would erupt in shafts of light and sheets of fire and constantly changing lighting effects would pervade the cast and audience, each to number in the thousands. The choreography would include glances, eye motions, touching of hands, odours of both pleasant perfumes and acrid smokes, frankincense and myrrh from pillars of incense. Furthermore, the whole world would be invited: “Animals, insects, birds, all must be there.”

Scriabin intended that the first and only performance would be held in the Himalayan foothills in India, in a half-temple that would crumble due to the vibrations of the performance and open the ritual to the heavens. The event would annihilate space and melt reality, bringing about the end of the world and replacing humankind with nobler beings. All participants would dematerialise, allowing them to achieve spiritual unity with divine cosmos.

Fortunately for the human race, in 1915 Scriabin nicked a boil on his upper lip when shaving and died from septicaemia at the age of 43. His funeral was attended by such numbers that tickets had to be issued. Rachmaninoff went on tour, playing only Scriabin’s music. Scriabin was acknowledged as one of the essential voices of the early 20th century.

At the time of his death, he had sketched 72 pages of the prelude to The Mysterium, entitled Prefatory Action. Composer Alexander Nemtin spent 28 years reforming this sketch into a three-hour-long work, which was eventually recorded. You can hear it below:

You can read the full feature about Alexander Scriabin and The Mysterium (written by Tony Gill) in issue four of Ernest Journal, on sale now.

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