Little is known of the circumstances in which Prokofiev wrote the music for Romeo and Juliet in Polenovo, the Bolshoi Theatre Rest Home, during the summers of 1935 and 1936; few letters have survived and, unfortunately, he had ceased to keep a diary in 1933. It is, however, possible to find references to his impressions of Polenovo, thanks to the fact that in July 1935, having arrived there much earlier than his family, he frequently wrote long letters to his wife Lina, as well as the occasional letter to his friends, the composers Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke) and Nikolai Miaskovsky.
In 1935 Prokofiev came to the USSR to deal with concert engagements, with the commission from the Bolshoi Theatre to write the ballet Romeo and Juliet and to address the problem of obtaining a flat in Moscow. After spending some time in Moscow, he then went to relax and work at the Polenovo Rest Home. His family – my brother Oleg (aged seven), myself (aged eleven) and our mother Lina – arrived in Moscow in August and immediately joined our father in Polenovo.
My brother and I were extremely impressed by Soviet Russia, beginning with the Russian train – far broader than the French (the gauge was wider) - and the first-class coach, which, being totally unoccupied, allowed us to get up to all manner of crazy escapades, to take over the numerous compartments and enjoy wonderful games of hide-and-seek and pillow fights under the lenient eye of the guard who obviously sympathized with us. In Moscow we stayed at the “National”, an old-fashioned but first-class hotel, right in the centre of Moscow. We gazed with curiosity from our windows, which looked out onto the enormous, recently rebuilt Manezhnaia Square. Above the remains of old structures could be seen the picturesque Kremlin walls and towers. Dressed in Western fashion, we excited attention, smiles and comments and were much photographed. We met the Raevskys [see Three Oranges, No.1, pp. 20-21], our relations on Father’s side, who showed us around Moscow and the first Metro line, which had only just been opened to the public, and had become one of the sights.
We didn’t stay long in Moscow and were soon on our way by car to Polenovo, roughly two hundred kilometres south of Moscow. I was struck by the fact that the further we were from Moscow, the worse the road became. It was raining and deep ruts in the earth track filled with water, in places becoming small lakes. The car had difficulty negotiating them and, when in mud, would go sideways, and even at times get stuck. I remember clearly my feelings of helplessness and fear as I realised that there were moments when the car was out of control as it went down into holes where it would skid about for ages... It began to grow dark.
After four hours on the road, the driver suddenly stopped and told us that we had arrived. At first I couldn’t make out where, because it was the empty bank of a broad river – the Oka. There were some lights in the pine forest on the opposite bank. Here was the Polenovo Rest Home. The driver got out and started shouting loudly in the direction of the opposite bank: “Uncle Nikifor! Bring the boat!” A small two-oared rowing-boat came up at once unhurriedly out of the darkness and they had to put us and all our cases into it! At the oars was an old, bearded grandfather out of a fairy-story – the buoy-keeper Nikifor. He ran a small boat business and combined this with ferrying folk across the river. Later on, Nikifor, in spite of his grumpy exterior, became fond of me and I remember how he always gave me the best rowing-boat, one that was light and moved easily when I rowed along the river – which became a passion of mine.
Polenovo, which had been turned into the Bolshoi Theatre Rest Home after the Revolution, had been the estate of the Russian painter and theatre artist Vasilii Polenov (1844-1927), who was famous for his landscapes of the central regions of Russia and his Biblical scenes “From the life of Christ”. Polenov had purchased a small estate named Borok on the banks of the Oka, where he spent the last thirty years of his life, painting some of his best landscapes. The house, built to Polenov’s plans, is still there today and is a fascinating museum of the artist, containing his paintings and collection of rare objects brought back from his numerous travels in Europe and the East. After the Revolution the estate was nationalised, and Polenov and his family were granted the right to live there. His son Dmitrii became the first (and highly efficient) director of the museum.
It is amazing that although they never met, Polenov – who lived a long time abroad – and Prokofiev shared the same desire to return to their native land as well as a love of Russian nature. Furthermore, Polenov wrote some music too.
The expanses of the broad Oka, flanked by water-meadows and seemingly never-ending wheat-fields and forests rich in mushrooms, produced a calm that had a beneficial effect on Prokofiev, and were an inspiration to him. My father liked Polenovo, where he spent the summers of 1935 and 1936 and felt at ease and free there – he enjoyed meeting colleagues (artists, singers, dancers, conductors, stage-directors and choreographers). There were discussions on every subject imaginable, tennis, volley-ball and chess. He loved to go for long walks along the Oka, sometimes with us, and sometimes in the forest, by himself. He was provided with a separate house and a Blüthner piano, which helped him work hard and to good effect at important works – the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the Second Violin Concerto.
When all the family was finally re-united in Polenovo, father was very happy because, in spite of all the interesting and amusing people on holiday there, he longed for his family, and in the letters in which he gives a detailed description of his life and work, he always asked Mama many questions about us. I should like to emphasise that what we know about his life in Polenovo is thanks to these letters. NEXT