Ernest Ansermet, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
After a short time in Paris, Prokofiev came to the conclusion that it was no place for him: “If Paris was the hub of the universe for art up till the First World War, now it’s finished. One must go to London”. With Stravinsky’s assistance Prokofiev quickly obtained a visa and went to London on 26 May. He first went for a long walk around Greenwich “to the Meridian”, as he thought it would be the right thing to do after completing his round-the-world trip, to go to the place “from where the Earth is measured”. In London he visited the exhibition of the artists Nikolai Roerich and Alexander Iakovlev and was delighted to meet these two old friends from St Petersburg. He visited the British Museum with Iakovlev “to see the Egyptian antiquities”.
But the most important thing was his meeting with Albert Coates who was delighted with Three Oranges, when it was played to him by the composer, and who “laughed like a child”. “How pleasant it is to play to a man who understands you, unlike the Americans Bodanzky and Gatti”, he noted. As a result there were again promises for a production at Covent Garden but the only definite agreement was for Prokofiev to appear in a concert the following season on 27 January 1921 and before that to conduct his “Scythian Suite” and “Classical Symphony”.
Even so, he found his time in London boring as he didn’t even have a piano. He realised that discussions with musicians, conductors and agents would not provide immediate results. He was unable to sit doing nothing. In Paris, Stravinsky had suggested that he take some Schubert waltzes for the American repertoire. There were a large number of them and he picked out “the most delightful” and made a suite of them, which he considered an outstanding concert number. Stravinsky was very fond of these waltzes – “Sometimes a real Glinka!”, he would exclaim.
Gradually things began to move but not quite in the right direction, although even this had a positive aspect. Prokofiev fixed himself up with a piano and prepared himself for concerts in America and Europe. He played a great deal – short pieces by Schumann, Beethoven and Miaskovsky’s second Sonata. His American agent Haensel had written from New York, proposing engagements in New York and California. Prokofiev agreed, as it would be useful for the “fight with the Chicago Opera”. But he would have to return to America for the concerts in October.
In the meantime Diaghilev had arrived in London with his company and Prokofiev met him on 8 June. “The man’s charm is such”, wrote Prokofiev, “that if up till now I wanted to fight him over the ballet Chout, now I only wanted to settle things gently.” Ahead lay the prospect of playing Chout to Diaghilev again. Prokofiev could hardly remember the music, as he had written it about five years previously. But the music “comes out of the forgotten” and while Diaghilev liked much of it, some sections needed re-working. In general the composer was pleased with his re-“encounter” with Chout. A few days after playing the ballet through to Diaghilev, Massine and Ansermet, it was decided he should re-work the score “in order to remove all descriptive sections and detailed workings and instead of them, to develop the themes as in a symphony. The choreography would benefit from it and be freer, as it would not be tied to each phrase.” Prokofiev liked the idea: “The idea of re-working Chout so that it became a more unified symphonic work, pleased me a great deal.” Thus the question of the production was settled immediately. The ballet would be staged in 1921. The other novelty of the season would be Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Prokofiev comments: “Diaghilev has great hopes of Chout as the French have started to say that, apart from Stravinsky, he hasn’t any new discoveries.”
On 17 June, he met Sir Thomas Beecham, then the artistic director of Covent Garden, who had asked to see the score of Three Oranges. It was agreed in principle that the opera would be staged in the 1921 summer season. When conversation moved to the designer, Prokofiev suggested Natalia Goncharova.
Prokofiev finally received the long-awaited telegram confirming his mother’s arrival on 20 June in Marseilles and left London to deal with this. On his arrival there, after agonised searches among the seething crowds on the deck of the boat which had docked, he found her below, in a dreadful cabin for eighteen people. It later transpired that she had not been able to get anything better and she was not willing to wait for the next boat. Wearing dark blue glasses and very much thinner, Maria Grigorievna was sitting turned away and her son did not know whether she was blind or was still able to see something. Their reunion “was extremely happy”, he remembered. “Among the things which arrived were papers of mine: the manuscript of Seven, They Are Seven, (not the full score, but the sketches, very full), the score of the Violin Concerto and the piano score of the Second Piano Concerto. In addition three books of my diary and three stories.” Maria Grigorievna had managed to keep all this and bring it out under very difficult conditions. Mother and son immediately went to Paris and stayed at the Hôtel Quai Voltaire by the Seine.
At the same time, at Prokofiev’s insistence, Linette came to Paris from New York. In the diary there is a joyful entry: “So in these three or four days all the questions have been settled: Mama, Linette and Diaghilev,” and further on “the summer couldn’t have gone better.” Serge and Linette immediately went on walks through Paris and the Bois de Boulogne. “Everything seemed strange to us as our relationship was so bound up with New York. Linette was rather tense but her usual nice self.” Next Back
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