Serge Prokofiev was one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant composers yet is an enigma to historians and his fans. Why did he leave the West and move to the Soviet Union despite Stalin’s crimes? Why did his astonishing creativity in the 1930s soon dissolve into a far less inspiring output in his later years? The answers can finally be revealed, thanks to Simon Morrison’s unique and unfettered access to the family’s voluminous papers and his ability to reconstruct the tragic, riveting life of the composer’s wife, Lina.
Morrison’s portrait of the marriage of Lina and Serge Prokofiev is the story of a remarkable woman who fought for survival in the face of unbearable betrayal and despair and of the irresistibly talented but heartlessly self-absorbed musician she married. Born to a Spanish father and Russian mother in Madrid at the end of the nineteenth century and raised in Brooklyn, Lina fell in love with a rising-star composer—and defied convention to be with him, courting public censure. She devoted her life to Serge and art, training to be an operatic soprano and following her brilliant husband to Stalin’s Russia. Just as Serge found initial acclaim—before becoming constricted by the harsh doctrine of socialist-realist music—Lina was at first accepted and later scorned, ending her singing career. Serge abandoned her and took up with another woman. Finally, Lina was arrested and shipped off to the gulag in 1948. She would be held in captivity for eight awful years. Meanwhile, Serge found himself the tool of an evil regime to which he was forced to accommodate himself.
The contrast between Lina and Serge is one of strength and perseverance versus utter self-absorption, a remarkable human drama that draws on the forces of art, sacrifice, and the struggle against oppression. Readers will never forget the tragic drama of Lina’s life, and never listen to Serge’s music in quite the same way again.
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Lina rarely spoke about her arrest and eight years in prison. Silence was a condition of her release, but she would have chosen it anyway. American journalists were the most tactless, and British journalists the most persistent, in the pursuit of details about that time, but no one learned much, though she sat for interviews. Lina had perfected the art of evasion and used her skills against those with the hubris to write about things that they did not understand. She would, she decided, revise her life on her own in an autobiography, but she never wrote more than scattered notes and an outline.
The list of forbidden subjects grew as she aged. The events after her arrest were suppressed, then too her experiences with her children during the Second World War. Soon the silence spread across the entire period between 1936, when she moved to Moscow, and 1974 — the year of her de facto defection to the West. She papered over the period with élan, making it seem as if she had never even lived in the Soviet Union, that she had not been forsaken by her husband. She slipped, however, in an interview for the New York Times by mentioning "eight years in prison and in the north" even while insisting that her life had not been "a tragic one." Still, the trauma could not be suppressed. Jumbled memories haunted her nights and fueled the paranoia of her days.
The past for Lina included Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and her upbringing in New York, where she learned about world politics from Russian émigrés. More often she transported herself to the distant past, harking back to her relatives in nineteenth-century France, Poland, Russia, and Spain. But these people and places were so long lost that she could no longer remember who was who, when was when, or where was where. Her memories, or memories of memories, came out confused and fragmented. There was the engineer uncle who laid underwater cables until he contracted malaria in a swamp, and the doting Polish Lithuanian grandfather who became a high-ranking councilor in the Russian government (Poland being part of the Russian empire at the time). Grandpa Vladislav, her mother's father, favored Lina, taking her to fancy restaurants where the waiters glided like ghosts over the floor; he presented her with bouquets of flowers and watched her dance when she was four years old. The erudite, spiritual Grandma Caroline, Lina's namesake, helped the little girl overcome her fear of the dark. "Can't we turn on the light because I'm afraid?" Lina pleaded during a thunderstorm. "But you know everything in this room," her grandmother cooed. "Nothing has changed. And the quietness ... Listen to the quietness in the dark, and the thunderstorm, it's wonderful."
Lina reveled in these flickering memories, recalling image after image of her mother's family, despite her interviewers' lack of interest. She described scarily mystical childhood summers in the Caucasus, the southernmost part of Russia, where fragile wooden houses huddled on mountain plateaus from which torrents of water cascaded. Her aunt Alexandra lived there with her Welsh husband, who might have been the cable layer. The place was wild, and the howls of the jackals and the savage barking of the wolfhounds that guarded the houses made Lina cower at night. Later, when she heard this same barking in the barracks, she escaped into thoughts of her girlhood, willing herself to remain unafraid of the dark.
Of all the places she had visited or lived in, Russia remained a dominant and powerful attraction. It stood out in her recollections of her childhood, even though the time she spent there was trivial compared to her years in Spain, Switzerland, Cuba, and the United States. She remembered her peripatetic upbringing as an adventure.
Born on October 21, 1897, on Calle de Bárbara de Braganza in Madrid, Lina inherited her chestnut hair and dark, heavy-lidded eyes from her father, but otherwise she was very much her mother's daughter: courageous, impetuous, and relentless once committed to something — though that something was often hard to find. Her father, Juan Codina, who began his musical career singing at the Catedral Basílica de Barcelona, became a professional tenor and amateur composer of songs with a Catalan flavor. He took lessons with Cándido Candi, a prominent composer, organist, and arranger of folksongs. From Barcelona Juan went to Madrid, where he studied at the Royal Conservatoire. His voice dropped from countertenor to tenor range during this period but retained its delicate thinness. Later in the United States he taught American students to sing solfège, the do-re-mi system of musical syllables.
In Madrid, Juan met and fell for Olga Nemïsskaya, a fair-haired, gray-eyed soprano from Odessa, Ukraine. She had trained in St. Petersburg, Russia, before traveling to Italy and on to Spain for lessons with the eminent tenor Giorgio Ronconi, who was then in his seventies but still accepting students. Juan and Olga married in 1895 or 1896, despite protests from her parents about his being Catholic and from his about her Calvinist Protestant origins. Juan had six brothers who made their living on the sea, plus a sister, Isabella, a late addition to the Codina family much beloved by her parents. But Olga never got to know them, having been coarsely branded an herética, and Juan never spoke of his family, save for the occasional suggestion that his mother had studied Asian languages and some of his brothers ended up in South America. His financial prospects as a musician worried Olga's father, who grumbled that she would have done better to marry a caretaker. In truth, Juan was something of a dabbler, a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, too much the artist to succeed in business. And as an artist, he suffered terrible stage fright.
As a very young girl, Lina traveled with her parents to Russia. This was long before the radical upheaval known as the Russian Revolution, before even the First World War and the rise of the communist movement. The basement execution of the Russian tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and their five children still lay a decade in the future.
Perhaps in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, perhaps in Moscow or somewhere else, Juan sang a few recitals under the Russian equivalent of his name, Ivan. Olga did not perform with him, even though her talent rivaled — or even exceeded — his. In the early 1890s, she carved out a niche for herself in the regional theaters of Italy. A notice from 1894 places her in the role of the coquettish peasant girl Micaela in Carmen, staged at the Teatro Sociale in the northern Italian town of Montagnana. Engagements with opera troupes in Moscow and Milan would follow. She sang under the stage name Neradoff, which, as her teacher advised her, was much easier to spell and pronounce than Nemïsskaya.
While her parents were busy performing, Lina was left in the care of her maternal grandparents in the Caucasus. Her bond with them intensified during successive visits, and there she formed some of her strongest childhood memories. There was a beekeeper who, warning Lina of the dangers of the creatures in his care, placed a mask over her face before she approached the hives. She retrieved eggs from her grandfather's henhouse, and with a shovel chased geese around the yard, imitating their hissing and honking. At some point around 1906 she was in Moscow at a fashionable department store, where her parents or grandparents presented her with a pleated coat and velvet beret imported from Paris. She kept one of the leaf-embossed buttons long after outgrowing the coat.
Lina was there when her grandmother died. Her parents had made the fortnight trek from Switzerland in hopes of seeing her one last time. At the wooden house, her grandfather took eight-year-old Lina by the hand and guided the girl to her grandmother's bedside. She watched as he bent to caress the weathered face. He then asked Lina to do the same, explaining that Grandma Caroline was about to leave. "Kiss her on the forehead, or on the cheek," he said, guiding her. Lina complied but wondered aloud, "But she's so cold. Why doesn't she get well?" "Well, she's going away, to another world."
This was the beloved grandmother who had taught Lina not to fear the night and who had also introduced her to ancient fables as told by Jean de La Fontaine. Reciting them in the original French, she encouraged Lina to learn their elegant phrasing by heart — which she did, though much later in life. Her grandmother was also an accomplished scholar of French literature and an author: she read Lina the stories she herself had written. Most of them dwelled on religious conflicts that were difficult for a six- or seven-year-old to understand. One of the grimmer tales concerned the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and seemed to refer, perhaps by allegorical extension, to the persecution of Caroline's Huguenot relatives. In gratitude to her grandmother, Lina recalled as an adult the moral of the La Fontaine tale about a butterfly that leaves its hiding place, only to be torn apart by children. "To live happily one must live hidden," she offered as a clue to understanding her experiences in the Soviet Union.
Lina's life became sadder when her grandfather, whose beard she would remember twirling in her fingers, decided that he could not continue on his own. His metabolism was weakened by various nagging ailments; he contracted pneumonia and made it worse by throwing open the windows of his house and breathing in the frost. He died in November 1907. Juan and Olga never returned to Russia after his death.
Home for Lina was now Switzerland, in the quaint Grand-Saconnex suburb of Geneva. She recalled a park and a lake, with skaters in the winter, a pair of bakeries, one much more elaborate than the other, and outdoor parties arranged by the local mayor. Neighbors alternately called her La Petite Espagnole or La Petite Russe, unable to decide from which corner of Europe the exotic child with the long dark braids had emerged. She attended kindergarten in the village, frowning at its strictness and struggling with French grammar. This setback, which her mother helped her to overcome, belied what would prove to be a phenomenal talent for languages. During her early years, Lina would hear and absorb five: Russian from her mother and maternal grandfather, English from the nannies, French from her maternal grandmother, and Spanish and Catalan from her father. German came in dribs and drabs. This exposure was the greatest blessing of her cosmopolitan background, fitting her for a likely career as an interpreter. Near the end of her life, she went back to see the kindergarten schoolhouse again, only to find that it had been razed, along with the entire village, to build the Geneva international airport.
Juan and Olga pursued their musical careers, performing in and around Switzerland. There survive short reviews of recitals at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève, where Juan performed Italian arias on a mixed program in January 1904. According to a paragraph in Le Journal de Genève, he capably interpreted songs by Paolo Tosti, an Italian English composer still active at the time and very much in demand in drawing rooms and salons. Olga also performed, and attracted her admirers. One of them made a profound impression on Lina and, thanks to his connections, became a crucial contact for her, years later. This was Serge M. Persky, a prominent Russian-to-French translator who worked for a dozen years as secretary to the prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau. His admiration for Olga and her mother, Caroline (Lina's grandmother), was longstanding. Having arranged several concerts for Olga in Europe, he expressed frustration that she had not achieved the fame that, in his estimation, she deserved. Nor could he quite understand her decision to curtail her musical activities in order to raise her daughter.
Lina benefited from his chivalrous largesse and looked forward to his visits and the beautiful tins of chocolate-covered biscuits he presented to her in an effort to sweeten his relationship with Olga. When, in 1920, Persky learned that Lina was living in France, he sought her out, lavishing chocolate truffles on her as if she still had ribbons in her hair and asking, "Avez-vous une aussi belle voix que votre mère?" (Do you have as beautiful a voice as your mother?) Deaf to Lina's protests, he imagined marrying her off to one of his millionaire friends.
Juan and Olga were not poor, but their finances were precarious and they found themselves having to draw on Olga's family money. When discussing this and other sensitive matters in Lina's presence, they would write notes to each other in languages she had not yet learned to read. During one of these exchanges they decided to accept an offer of help from Olga's Swiss uncle to sail to New York City, where it was hoped they could further their careers. This was naive, since Juan at forty was past his prime as a singer and Olga, thirty-five, had let her skills slide. They promised each other and their daughter that the move would not be permanent.
On December 21, 1907, the family sailed from Boulognesur-Mer on the ocean liner Statendam, listing Juan's brother Paul as their nearest living relative in Spain and an unnamed hotel as their destination in New York. They disembarked at Ellis Island on New Year's Day, 1908, becoming part of a vast wave of immigration that would, by 1910, bring the population of the five boroughs of New York to some five million people. Nearly two million residents were foreign born, including the thin-lipped, top-hatted mayor, George B. McClellan Jr., a native of Dresden. McClellan earned as much fame for the architectural wonders he muscled into being between 1904 and 1909 as he did for his puritanical campaign against the rising fad known as the moving picture. The same man who oversaw the building of Grand Central Station and the Chelsea Piers revoked the licenses of the hundreds of nickelodeons that operated at the time in concert halls, restaurants, and bars. Other forms of entertainment, for both the masses and the elite, remained safe: Lina and her parents arrived in New York during the opening run of George Cohan's vaudeville entertainment The Talk of the Town at the Knickerbocker Theatre, and just ten days before the Viennese composer Gustav Mahler conducted the Metropolitan Opera. (Mahler would soon be replaced at the Met by Arturo Toscanini and pivot to the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall.)
For assistance, the Codinas at first relied on Olga's uncle, who had sailed on the Statendam with them. Frederic Charles Verlé had long since emigrated from Europe with his wife, Mary; she had died on Christmas Day, 1898, at the age of fifty-four. The widower, whose surname was Americanized to Wherley, rented an apartment on Division Avenue in Brooklyn for a while, later relocating to the Williamsburg area. He taught German in the evenings at Public School No. 19. And in an effort to supplement his income, he took out postage-stamp-sized ads in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle under the name Professor Frederick C. (or F. C.) Wherley. These offered lessons in French, German, and Spanish at moderate rates.
Lina and her parents squeezed into his lodgings at 206 Rodney Street. Wherley was an insistent and petulant man whose only real passion, according to Lina, was the "made-up language" of Esperanto, which he foisted on the unconverted with revivalist zeal. For his efforts, he would be elected vice president of the Brooklyn Esperanto Society, which he helped to found. Living with him was unpleasant, and his repeated efforts to indoctrinate Lina in Esperanto precipitated an argument with her mother that almost landed the immigrant family on the street. Olga complained that her daughter had more than enough languages to contend with, and besides, Esperanto sounded terrible.
The conflicts motivated the family to travel to Havana, Cuba, where Juan had friends. That was the last time Lina remembered seeing her irascible uncle, but in fact she lived with him again when she returned from Cuba. She would also lodge with him in her early teens while her parents traveled abroad to perform. The separations were painful, hence forgotten. Since his cherished Esperanto was banned by Olga, Wherley resolved to force some of his second-favorite language — German — onto his niece. The experiment proved successful, though Lina continued to begrudge his presence in her life. She would not see the last of him until she was in her midteens. Wherley mysteriously disappeared from his apartment; unable to find any trace of him through mutual friends, Lina's mother concluded that he had committed suicide.
Excerpted from "Lina and Serge"
Copyright © 2013 Simon Morrison.
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