This article was first published in Tempo, New Ser., No. 11, pp. 5-9, Spring 1949 (an issue dedicated to Prokofiev), and is reproduced with permission.
The original spelling of Prokofiev’s name has been retained as is the journal’s policy. (See “Is it Prokofiev, Prokofieff or PRKFV”, Inaugural issue, January 2001, p. 3).
I was introduced to Serge Prokofieff in 1931. It was in Paris one evening when he came to conduct at the Salle Pleyel a festival of some of his symphonic works. In the diffused grey-green light of the foyer a tall man was standing, his arms crossed on his chest in what I later came to know as a characteristic attitude, with fingers gripping the elbows firmly. His face was in shadow as he had his back to the light. The shape of his head was oblong, solid and regular. His chest looked strong. I approached him from the side and as he turned towards me with liveliness I was struck by the extraordinary blue luminous clarity of a look that I shall never forget – one of those looks that a child gives you, that is so unusual and so moving in a grown man. In the years that followed I was to see this freshness, this transparent naïveté sometimes shadowed over, the pupils troubled like those of a boy who begins to ask himself what is beauty, or what is beyond it. But on this particular evening it was sparkling, because the concert had been an unqualified success. At the same time, for a fleeting moment, I noted in his face the reflection of that seriousness which is habitual when one is alone. It lasted for a tenth of a second; then an irresistible charm was born. Serge Prokofieff had begun to smile – that delightful smile which spreads across his mobile lips, a shade sensual, but scarcely deeper in colour than his fresh complexioned face. At last I noticed the details of this face: the nose narrow and straight, the chin wilful, the forehead broad and noble in its strength. His hair was thin and the less noticeable by reason of its extreme fairness, which the colour of the skin seemed to absorb. He spoke to me in excellent French with soft, heavy Russian intonation. He held out his hands to me. They caught one’s notice – large, fleshy, strong and supple at the same time, the fingers long and well shaped.
He invited a few friends and myself to a little party which he was giving in his third floor flat at 5, Rue Valentin Haüy. He practised Slav hospitality, which is one of the most generous in the world, and entered into these frequent parties with spontaneity, excited, hustling, boyish, listening to every good story, always quick with his answer, making jokes, his lips and eyes sparkling with unbridled laughter. This impulsiveness, this wit, this imaginative vitality, explain those passages of good humour which bound unexpectedly out of so many of his scores in the middle of a serious utterance. Does that mean to say that he was superficial? Was the irresponsibility of childhood his real territory? No. Serge Prokofieff lived a life of deep thought, fed by philosophical scruples. To go further, he was concerned with the problems of the life of the spirit. He even tested them himself. The world of metaphysics disturbed him less than everyday reality, although he managed his own business perfectly well – except for contracts drawn up in French. I used to try to explain these to him, which was by no means easy if one thinks of the legal bombast of which they are composed.
I saw him frequently because he was very much interested in the French forms of musical instruction to which I was devoting myself at that period. He often opposed their lengthiness: “You are going to lose all your spontaneity with tricks like that,” he exclaimed when I told him things about double chorus with double counterpoint. “Put your fellows there and do like Mussorgsky!” I retorted that I wasn’t Mussorgsky – or Prokofieff either – and that he himself had submitted to a severe scholastic discipline. He gave a great laugh, throwing the upper part of his body violently against the back of the light brown sofa where we usually sat. “But I sent all that to the devil with the Scythian Suite,” he declared.
He was an ideal friend and colleague who was never sparing either of advice or assistance to any of the young people who came to see him. One day I showed him a solo Violin Sonata, for at that time I used to compose. He refused to give it back to me, submitting it to the Parisian Chamber Music Society, Le Triton, in whose committee meetings he invariably participated. It was refused (a matter on which I congratulate myself today). So what did my celebrated friend do? He resigned. I had the greatest difficulty in getting him to revoke this decision. Dozens of musicians were sustained and pushed in just such a way at the beginning of their careers by this wonderful older contemporary.
In everyday life he was a child, playing interminably with his two boys, Oleg the little one and Sviatoslav the elder, until his very beautiful and strong-minded wife, Lina, who was Cuban by birth (1), would come and restore a little order. This childlike quality, intermixed with his grim way of working, made him badly adapted to the ordinary demands of everyday life; I have seen him helpless, looking at his hand gashed and bleeding from a razor cut. “What ought I to do?” “Bandage yourself!” “Ah, yes, of course.” Another example, one of a dozen. On a certain afternoon I arrived at his house and found him much disturbed. An unbelievable maid, a native of Martinique, taken on the evening before and dismissed after a number of misdeeds, refused to leave the place. “Serge,” said the master to me with feeling, “do be nice, do throw her out.” Naturally I did so, and successfully, enjoying myself hugely, thanks to some violent phrases spiced with threats and Creole oaths which I had learnt when travelling in the tropics. I could tell a lot of stories of this kind. I could make comic sketches which would be more or less accurate, but to no purpose, as in reading them an admirer might possibly forget what real power dwelt in him.
I have seen Prokofieff for weeks on end in his little work room furnished with an upright piano, a small table and a few chairs, composing for fourteen hours a day, not going to eat except occasionally and then in complete silence. At these times he only emerged from his office to give the manuscript pages covered with a fine calligraphy in pencil, to his secretary, or, moved by an unusual nerviness, to take the flat green ruler with which he ruled his scores and make for the room where the children were being over noisy. Justice done and calm restored by a few strokes on the seat of the pants, he would return to the piano or the table, for he could compose equally well either through his fingers or through his brain (in this latter case he would hear the music with complete precision, although in practice he could not sing two notes in succession). To be exact, he no longer composed at the piano, letting it suffice just to confirm certain harmonic combinations, for he had often been turned out of various lodgings for making too much noise. Even this confirmation was not, however, without danger to his domestic peace and that of his neighbours. One day when he was working, a process-server arrived – yet another one! – with an order to quit. “You have just played two hundred and eighteen times in succession the same wildly barbaric chord,” affirmed the civil officer of justice. “Don’t deny it; I was in the flat below, I counted them. I summon you to vacate these premises.”
An astonishing pianist, Prokofieff did not practise very much. “Two hours a day and a week for a Paris concert, or a fortnight for an American concert,” he explained to me one day when I had expressed astonishment at never hearing him repeating scales, and he added, spluttering with laughter at my air of bewilderment. “In France the average speed of a car being forty kilometres an hour and in America eighty, the American quaver is played twice as quickly as the French quaver.” It is true that the work of composing maintains the finger suppleness of a composer by sending him to confirm at the piano the passages and chords in his mind, but it calls for genius in the fingertips to throw oneself, as Prokofieff was bold to do, into the giddy turns strewn with hazards of the piano works that he composed. Such is my opinion, for, after Prokofieff had given me this confidence, I examined his interpretations extremely closely and I never found him at fault except on one single occasion: a scramble through the famous modulation which introduces the soloist after the instrumental statement of the varied theme of the Andante in the Third Piano Concerto. PART 2
(1) Carolina Codina was born in Madrid. Her father, Juan Codina, was Spanish and her mother, Olga Nemysskaia, was half French, half Polish.