Scriabin’s Left Hand Exercises

Scriabin’s piano technique and compositions were always controversial. From Op. 1 through Op 28, his compositions were inspired by Chopin Etudes. He was a pianistic genius who composed with treacherous left-hand writing, novel widespread figuration, and imaginative trills. He said he wanted his music to express the unheard tones between the keys, an effect calling for creative use of the pedals.

His piano rolls were executed with writs that are rotary machines. His playing was arrhythmical, vertiginous, uniquely ecstatic, and faster than anyone else’s. A contemporary described him as “all nerve and a holy flame.” Alexander Pasternak remarked: “His playing was unique. It could not be imitated by producing similar tone, or power of softness, for he had a special and entirely different relationship with the instrument. I had the impression that his fingers were producing the sound without touching the keys. His spiritual lightness was reflected in his playing. Scriabin’s nervous playing was one of his characteristics.”

Mellers writes, “Scriabin’s music depends on the pedal effects of the modern grand piano, which dominates all his musical thoughts.” Swan attests that above all was the prevalence of soaring ecstatic moods that unveils the true Scriabin from his Chopinesque influence.

The middle period music, from Op. 30, the fourth Sonata, through his Fifth Sonata, Op. 53, is languorous and erotic, the pianism more widely spaced, while major and minor triads appear less as he constructed harmony in quartal blocks. Yet his modified ninth chords are still basically treated as dominant harmony waiting to be resolved into the home key. After the Fifth Sonata, key centers almost totally disappeared, and Scriabin dispensed with key signatures. The music dissolved into atonality, the idiom became more incandescent, intoxicated, and fevered. The composer’s favorite description was “sensations.”

Except for one piano concerto and five symphonies, Scriabin’s music is all for piano solo. There are upwards of 200 pieces, including 90 short preludes, nine impromptus, five waltzes, four nocturnes, ten sonatas, several concert pieces, and more.

Following is a review of selected pieces of Scriabin.

  1. Concerto in F-sharp minor, Op. 20: This concerto is in three movements, the middle movement being a simple set of variations.

  2. Sonata No. 2, Sonata Fantasy in G-sharp minor, Op. 19: The first of the two movements is an Andante with supreme melodic elaboration that has moldies chasing one another in playfulness. The second movement, a Presto, is shorter, and in triplets.

  3. Eight Etudes, Op. 42: Romantic examples of Scriabin’s middle period with advanced harmonic schemes and musical emotion. As studies, they feature irregular cross-rhythms, such as five against three, three against two, four against three. No. 3 is a measured trill study. The largest in emotional scope is No. 5 in C-sharp minor, marked by Affannato. It is one of Scriabin’s most smoldering works.

  4. Five Preludes, Op. 74: Scriabin’ last music is ominous, painfully intense and psychologically shattering.

To play Scriabin often requires a strong left hand. It is recommended to strengthen the left hand with left-hand piano exercises when practicing. Pianists inclined to Classicism or mental balance may have interpretive problems in Scriabin’s rarified world. It is among the most original piano music composed in Russia during the first half of the 20th Century.