Prokofiev's vexing entry into the USA

Stephen PRESS

S.S. Grotius, the Dutch liner on which Prokofiev sailed from Japan to San Francisco.

(1) Sergei Prokofiev, Dnevnik 1919-1933, prepared by Sviatoslav Prokofiev (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), vol. 1, p. 678.

Prokofiev enthusiasts know about the composer’s troubles entering America for the first time in August 1918 from his autobiography, but, as with so many other events in his life, the newly issued Diary 1907-33 fills in a wealth of fascinating details.
     By 1917 Prokofiev was seriously considering a visit to America, his cumulative Diary entry for December of that year states in part, “To go to America, of course! Here it is becoming sour – there, life is in full swing; here, slaughter and wildness – there, cultural life; here, pathetic concerts in Kislovodsk, there, New York and Chicago. No hesitations – in the spring I am going!”
     In April 1918 the Soviet Commissar of Education Anatolii Lunacharsky questioned his need to leave, “Stay, why do you need to go to America?” Prokofiev replied, “I worked for a year and want to breathe fresh air.” “In Russia we also have a lot of fresh air,” Lunacharsky parried but to no avail. Prokofiev was struck with wanderlust: he had been to Europe three times and now he wanted to see new sites and pursue new audiences. He was especially excited about the prospect of traversing the Pacific on a diagonal. His destination was now Buenos Aires in South America, a change that came about only a short time before his departure. He had hoped to leave Petrograd on 30 April (all dates here are according to the western calendar) but when he went to purchase his train ticket he learned that the Trans-Siberian Express terminus had just moved to Moscow along with the relocation of the nation’s capital. This delay and his inability to secure as much travel money as he had wanted set the tone for the whole trip. The exchange rate would be a constant worry; indeed, by the time he left Japan the rouble would lose about half its value. He set out on 7 May, planning to be away for six months; however, he did not return to Russia for almost nine years.
     During his 17-day rail journey across Asiatic Russia Prokofiev studied Spanish and thought about Buenos Aires and the Pampas. Of course he never made it to South America. After a much-delayed and re-routed rail trip to Vladivostok and time lost there procuring a visa for Japan, he arrived in Tokyo at 5:00 a.m. on 1 June. In the station he saw a sign on a kiosk that told him the ship he wanted to take had left three days earlier. The next one would not depart for two months. He consoled himself with the thought that had he arrived a week earlier he probably would not have been able to purchase a ticket. If he had travelled to South America as planned he likely would have rubbed shoulders with pianist Artur Rubinstein who was enjoying his second well-received South American tour in the summer of 1918. And he might have befriended the 26-year-old Darius Milhaud who was then living in Rio de Janeiro.
     Later during that first day in the Tokyo-Yokohama area Prokofiev caught sight of a concert notice for a recital by two colleagues from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, violinist Mikhail Piastro and pianist Alfred Meerovich. He soon met the latter who regaled him with tales of the easy life in the Far East: he and Piastro were living like millionaires giving concert tours in exotic places such as Tokyo, Shanghai and Java. The next day the two introduced him to their manager, a Polish Jew named Strok, who managed to secure Prokofiev a few recital engagements. For a while Prokofiev considered abandoning his trip across the Pacific: “To travel among the tropical centres is no less attractive than America!” At one point in his Diary he reduced it to “America? Or India?” America it would be. But while he waited for a visa he needed to replenish his dwindling supply of cash (despite this predicament, he relocated to the fashionable Imperial Hotel in Yokohama on 1 July, one reason being the commanding ocean view it afforded from its terrace). Unfortunately he had to wait until 6 July for his Tokyo debut: protocol dictated that the Imperial Theatre was the place where it should be held, and that was the venue’s first available date. His concerts were poorly attended – it was out of season and in the worst heat of summer – and they failed to generate the sum of money Prokofiev thought he needed to continue to his new destination, New York. “I risk not scraping through” he recorded in his Diary.
     In typical Russian fashion but also out of concern for anti-Russian sentiment, Prokofiev trusted someone he barely knew to help him obtain an American visa instead of dealing directly with the authorities. After five weeks of waiting for this person’s telegram from the United States he finally decided to go through the proper channels – the American Consulate. They fulfilled his request in just two and a half weeks.
     With his American visa in hand Prokofiev boarded the S.S. Grotius on 2 August, bound for Honolulu second-class. His financial condition was precarious. To the Minsters who were seeing him off – a couple he had recently met while lodging at an inexpensive hotel in Omori – he quipped that he was leaving Japan with only $73 in his pocket and a pearl pin. They insisted he take five $20 gold pieces from them. Despite his protestations, he was grateful to have the extra money ($173 is equivalent to about $2,100 today). Still he was counting on earning some more money by giving a pair of recitals in Honolulu. So, with renewed optimism he set out on his eagerly awaited trip across the Pacific. Apparently he did not consider the earthquake that awakened him at 4:00 a.m. that morning to be an omen for the journey ahead.
     His stay in Honolulu proved to be both brief and frustrating. Upon arrival on the morning of 13 August a customs official warned him that because of the war there was a considerable backlog of travellers waiting to depart the island, “Go with this ship otherwise you will be here until November.” A travel agent soon confirmed this bad news and Prokofiev reluctantly returned to the ship. His cabin had already been sold but the crew found him a narrow berth. After purchasing his ticket for San Francisco he was left with just the five gold pieces – hardly enough to make it to New York. Awaiting departure time he wandered around Waikiki Beach, which greatly lifted his depressed spirits. The tropical beauty of the place was “intoxicating,” as he recorded, even greater than he had imagined. He was only sorry that he would have to leave “this miraculous paradise” in a matter of hours, but resolved to visit it again.   (

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