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For now Russia has other things to worry about rather than music. Sergei Prokofievs emigre path and return home

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For now Russia has other things to worry about rather than music. Sergei Prokofievs emigre path and return home


Anna Genova

Sometimes I wandered about a huge park in the center of New York and, looking at the skyscrapers that bordered it, thought with cold fury about wonderful American orchestras that didn’t care about my music…” Sergei Prokofiev wrote in 1918, immediately after emigration. The audience listening to The Love for Three Oranges, his opera, would never think that the composer of this brilliant sunny music could speak that bitterly about the country where he had his first real success. And that 18 years later, he would finally return to Russia and see new openings for both life and creativity.

In the spring of 1918, the 27-year-old Prokofiev went on a journey from Moscow to Tokyo by Trans-Siberian Express. Anatoly Lunacharsky, People's Commissar for Education, approved his trip "for the matters of art and for health improvement". Prokofiev already knew for a fact that he would not return soon.

He was never interested in politics and always put his own creative work first. Like many great creators, he ignored the environment if it did not affect him personally. For now Russia has other things to worry about rather than music /.../, but in America, you can see a lot, learn a lot, and show your musical compositions, he concluded in his diary shortly after the October Revolution. The composer's diary was published by his son Sviatoslav Prokofiev on the 50th anniversary of his fathers death. And it is not surprising: before finally moving to the USSR in 1936, Prokofiev left both the diary and part of the correspondence in a safe in the United States as he had realized that the content of his notes could ruin his life, as well as lives of his relatives and friends back in the homeland.

Sergei Prokofiev, between 1918 and 1920. Photo credit: the Library of Congress

In the Land of the Rising Sun

For the first time, I saw the calm, light expanse of the Pacific Ocean. I did realize that it was not just the sea, but the ocean itself, wrote the young composer. Fleeing from the revolutionary riots, Prokofiev was surprised with the "syrup service employees" and, in particular, with the fact that "a quiet and polite Japanese waiter apologized for the bad weather."

While composing the Sonata for Violin, Sergei Sergeevich criticized himself, Is the scherzo really empty and stupid? But you either compose well or do not compose at all!" He wrote in his diary, I visited Aiko Ose in the afternoon. I brought him a letter from Balmont. He speaks Russian and publishes a newspaper about Russia in Japanese and Russian!" While in Japan, the composer gave the first in-depth interview to Motoo Ōtaguro, a music expert. In particular, he renounced the fact of being labeled as a futurist. Prokofiev had personally met Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the leader of Italian futurism, three years ago. It was new and different. I even felt pride that I communicated with such an extraordinary person. But his theories went under my radar, Prokofiev recalled much later. By the way, he was very impressed by the paintings of Giacomo Balla, one of the proponents of Futurism.

It is interesting that with all the antagonism to the ideas of the futurists, Prokofiev really resembled them in outward appearance, as he loved to wear bright clothes and be extravagant in dress. He bought himself a pair of yellow shoes in Tokyo and proudly wrote about it in his diary. And later on, in Moscow, the composer could be immediately noticed by his yellow gloves. It was yellow that futurists considered to be one of the key colors. What a coincidence.

Prokofiev gave a couple of concerts as a pianist in Tokyo and Yokohama. However, there was no much success. Nevertheless, it was the short period when he had everything going for his literary activity. Back then, such stories as "Criminal Passion", "White Friend", "Toad", etc., were written. Prokofiev also had in mind a story about a man without bones. If I were not a composer, I would probably have been either a writer or a poet, he once remarked.

For two whole months, the composer tried to get an American visa and finally sailed to the United States on August 2.

Big Apple

The journey took over a month. On September 6, 1918, Prokofiev finally arrived in New York. Immediately upon his arrival, he completed his first work of the foreign period - "Tales of an Old Grandmother", a set of four piano pieces. New York newspapers immediately reported that the most promising Russian composer after Stravinsky had come to the country. However, the winning of the New World was postponed indefinitely.

Walter Damrosch, a conductor of the New York Philharmonic who had conducted together with Tchaikovsky at the opening of Carnegie Hall back in 1891, was the first to strike at Prokofiev as he failed to understand the scale of the young composer's genius. Damrosch gave recognition to the Classical Symphony only having compared it with the music of Vasily Kalinnikov, a decent successor of Russian musical classics who had extensively used Russian folklore in his works. Prokofiev was hurt but had to remain silent – having a row with Damrosch was not an option.

Take one Schoenberg, two Ornsteins, a little of Satie, mix those thoroughly with Medtner, add a drop of Schumann, some more of Scriabin and Stravinsky - and you get something like Prokofiev, one of the local critics said. The child has not matured to my music yet, Prokofiev angrily commented on the American public.

The impresarios insisted that the popular classics were to be prevalent in the repertoire, while his original pieces could be included at the smallest scale possible. It must be said that Prokofiev described exactly the same situation with his senior colleague, No, Rachmaninoff has sold his soul to the devil for American dollars - Chopin's waltzes, Liszt's rhapsodies, Mozart's variations, his own polka. This is instead of performing at least three-quarters of his compositions. But hes got success and lots of dollars. I am happy that our favorite is successful and glad that Rachmaninoff sent by the Bolsheviks to the poorhouse will win back in America, but I am sorry that he wastes himself on such a public program!"

One of Prokofiev's first performances at Carnegie Hall in 1918 brought not only applause. There he also met his first wife-to-be. Carolina Codina, a singer, was born in Madrid into a family of opera singers. Her father was Catalan and her mother was Russian. The young composer could not resist the charm of the beautiful girl who was 21. Although Carolina did not have the gift of a great singer, Prokofiev tried to support her in her artistic endeavors engaging her in his work. Perhaps it was Lina who became Prokofievs inspiration for Princess Lynette from The Love for Three Oranges, an opera based on the same-name fairy tale by Carlo Gozzi.

The opera was first staged in French under the composers direction at the Chicago City Opera. The visual imagery was not inferior to the music. I really love the stage as such, and I believe that a person who comes to the opera house has the right to demand not only for the hearing experience but also the visual one, the composer said.

Gradually, the audience comprehended the extravagant music, and the young composer began to gain popularity. Inspired by the success and his striking affair with Lina, Prokofiev immediately took up a new plot - The Fiery Angel, an opera in five acts based on the novel by Valery Bryusov. Unfortunately, both the composition and the stage production of the opera extended over the years. During his life, Prokofiev only once heard one fragment of it in Paris, and the world premiere took place at the Venetian theater La Fenice after his death, in 1955.

In the United States, Prokofiev and his wife became involved in Christian Science, a religious movement. The core idea of this movement was that the state of mind, health, and well-being of a person can be improved by perfecting the persons consciousness. Christian Science methods helped him and Lynette, for instance, to get relieved from performance anxiety. This devotion continued in France.

Russian Paris

After a three-year stay in America, the Prokofievs settled in Paris. Here Sergei and Lynette had their sons Oleg and Sviatoslav.

During the Parisian period, several ballets were composed. The most famous one was Le pas d'acier (The Steel Step), which was staged by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater in 1927. Diaghilev himself ordered the ballet - he wanted a Bolshevik-style ballet about contemporary Soviet Russia. The concept of the new ballet was a colorful representation of the "ideal" industrial progress in the USSR. The press reacted biliously again: "Steel fingers, steel wrists, steel biceps, steel triceps ... This is not music, but a sonic steel trust."

Diaghilev continued to patronize Prokofiev: Just like Noah, I have three sons: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Dukelsky. Please, Serge, forgive me for making you the second son!" Prokofiev was also friends with Serge Koussevitzky, a conductor, for many years; their correspondence lasted 40 years. As to poets, the composer became very close to Balmont who admired his music, and Prokofiev, in turn, loved the poetry of his elder friend. Visions fugitives, a cycle of twenty piano miniatures, were inspired by Balmont's poetry. Seven, They Are Seven, a cantata, and several romances were also based on the poet's poems.

Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky. Berlin, 1932. Photo credit:

Prokofiev communicated and kept a jealous eye on the work of more successful compatriots - Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Scriabin. Although, these relationships were not easy at all. We always kiss when we meet, but as soon as my success starts developing, some invisible forces close to Stravinskys warm circle build up opposition to me. Therefore, whenever he hugs me, I wonder if this is the true kiss or the kiss of Judas," he wrote about Stravinsky. Prokofiev also found elements of plagiarism in great colleagues works. For example, Prokofiev notices a phrase from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 that repeated several times in Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss), a ballet that he called boring and pale.

The composer's social circle was very wide and was not limited to people of Russian origin. His good friends included Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Charlie Chaplin, and, of course, famous conductors - Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini. "My friendship with Prokofiev was based on two principles: love for the piano we both felt - I played a lot with him, practiced his piano concertos with him - and another thing that has nothing to do with music - the commitment to the bridge," wrote Poulenc, a member of Les Six.

In addition to operas and ballets, the composer wrote a lot of symphonic works in Paris. The most significant ones include Symphonies No.2, No.3, No.4, and several piano concertos. The Violin Concerto No.2 completes the list of Prokofievs major works associated with the foreign period. It was composed for Robert Soetens, a famous French violinist back then. The concerto was composed in various countries reflecting my nomadic concert life: the primary area of the first part was composed in Paris, the first theme of the second part was written in Voronezh, the instrumentation was completed in Baku, the first performance took place in Madrid in December 1935, the composer recalled in his autobiography.

News from Russia

After several tours to the USSR in 1927, Prokofiev's attitude towards his homeland improved slightly - both friendly and creative contacts were re-established. The Love for Three Oranges was staged both in Leningrad and Moscow. Although, the productions of The Gambler in Leningrad and Steel Step at the Bolshoi Theater were canceled due to the activities of music crusaders.

In 1926-27, the composer successfully toured the USSR. In 1932 he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Gradually, the thought of returning recurred to him more and more often. And there was the famous phrase, "Prokofiev is ours." Allegedly, Stalin told it. And in 1936 Prokofiev returned to the USSR to stay.

As a truly Russian person, he missed Russia. When he came to the Soviet Union with concerts that were very successful, he met many old friends; well, old friends are not the new ones. I do not think that the triumph of concerts in the USSR was the only reason for the return home, Sviatoslav Prokofiev said in an interview.

Sergei Prokofiev, Sviatoslav Prokofiev, Oleg Prokofiev, Lina Prokofieva, 1936. Photo credit:

After returning to the USSR, Prokofiev left the family, but his sons actively participated in preserving the composers artistic legacy abroad. There is also a successor of the tradition in the family Sergei Prokofievs grandsonGabriel Prokofiev. He is a British composer, producer, DJ, founder of the Nonclassical label that promotes young musicians and performers of modern classical music.

Lina Codina returned to Europe in 1974, after 38 years in Russia, eight of which she had spent in Stalin's camps. She founded the Serge Prokofiev Foundation in London, which later grew into a larger organization theSerge Prokofiev Archives and Association.

For many years, the collection of Prokofiev's compositions and archival materials was stored at the University of London, and then it was transferred to the department of rare books and manuscripts at Columbia University in New York. This is the largest archive of materials related to the life and work of the composer abroad.


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