I met him and his wife, Lina Ivanovna Llubera, in 1927 in Leningrad, where he arrived after a long stay out of the country. Standing next to his wife, a small brunette, he seemed very tall, which in fact he was, long-limbed, with little of his light hair left on his head. On the stage he held himself stiffly and bowed from the small of his back, half bent over. His wife, a concert singer, spoke excellent Russian, even though this was her first trip to Russia; she was born in Madrid, and met Prokofiev in New York. She learned Russian from her mother, who was half French, half Polish; in those days almost all Poles spoke Russian. In any case, Lina Ivanovna had a wonderful gift for languages, she spoke several without accent. Her father was Spanish-Catalonian. About this, Stravinsky once said to me: “Prokofiev’s wife? I barely know her, but I don’t like people whom it’s hard to place; she comes from too many races, one cannot grasp who she is”.
In Leningrad, Sergei Sergeevich appeared as soloist with my husband, Nikolai Andreevich Malko, who at the time was Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic. N.A. (1) was considered among the first ardent advocates of the new music of composers like Stravinsky, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. At first, the general public responded critically to Stravinsky and Prokofiev and in effect it was Malko who paved the way for their eventual recognition.
From the very beginning, my husband’s relations with Prokofiev were, as he put it to me, “prickly”. Sergei Sergeevich entered the Petersburg Conservatory as a boy of thirteen. He was an only child. At the age of five and a half he began to compose music and by the age of six was already able to notate his compositions. His mother, who, according to Prokofiev, played the piano quite well, gave serious attention to his interest in music. In 1902, on the advice of the well-established music personage and composer Sergei Taneyev, she invited Reinhold Glière, a composer now famous for the ballet The Red Poppy and other works, to their estate in the Ukraine, where he spent the entire summer teaching Sergei theory and composition.
In the autumn of 1904, she took him to St. Petersburg to enter the Conservatory. There he took general subjects as well. His mother, Maria Grigorievna, stayed in Petersburg with her son for the entire school year, though for holidays they either returned to their estate to join his father or his father came to them.
Compared to his life at home, where love and attention were showered on him, it was not easy for Prokofiev to be among classmates eight to ten years older. Contemporary psychologists would probably say that his prickliness and quickness to strike out were the result of “complexes” generated by his circumstances. I think it was probably more of a defensive mask. N.A. told me, for example, that Prokofiev at one time annoyed everyone by repeatedly questioning whether a composer needs to be intelligent or not.
Much later, when N.A. was already conducting at the Mariinsky Theatre and was also responsible for the music library, Prokofiev wrote him a rude letter about some score with a reference to “your employees, who pick their noses and do nothing”. In his 1905 diary, Prokofiev wrote:
- looked through the concert schedule for the next three weeks and removed the scores of the three compositions of mine that were to be performed (the music publisher Beliaev, among whose directors were Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadov, and Glazunov, allocated a special library for student composers). Seeing that the majority of the compositions in the library existed in only one copy, it’s understandable why the theory students were unhappy with me. All the same, when I appeared for the first rehearsal, my popularity had reached a new pinnacle: one of the older theorists, Malko (he was eight years older), asked permission to sit beside me (before this he wouldn’t have deigned to speak to me). On the other side of me another theorist sat down, and then three sat behind, craning their necks over our shoulders to follow the score. After the break I intentionally moved to a different seat, but they immediately found me and arranged themselves as before. I glowed with pride.
This anecdote certainly illustrates Prokofiev’s “prickliness” in dealing with others. But of course when it came to music he was, from the very start, a firebrand and innovator who tried to do everything in a different way and often had confrontations with his professors. For example, in Rimsky-Korsakov’s class, Prokofiev once referred to Sibelius [to justify one of his harmonies], saying: “The flat would have sounded good to him”. Korsakov lost his temper: “Why are you listening to Sibelius?” “Well,” Prokofiev shot back, “what about Ruslan? Glinka?” Liadov responded to such behaviour by declaring “I don’t understand why you’re studying with me. Go to Richard Strauss, go to Debussy…”
The only theorist with whom Sergei Sergeevich developed a friendship was Nikolai Iakovlevich Miaskovsky, who was in the same class as him. Miaskovsky was ten years older, and had entered the conservatory after completing studies in engineering. By nature, he was not a radical; in fact he was the diametric opposite of Prokofiev. With a small beard and moustache à la Nicholas II and bright blue eyes, Miaskovsky acted very calmly even as he somehow quickly managed to project authority and inner confidence. Quite by accident, he and Prokofiev once found themselves playing four hands; they thereafter started meeting to show each other their compositions. Looking through one of Prokofiev’s pieces, Miaskovsky said: “This is some serpent we’ve apparently nurtured in our breasts”. Ultimately, they became close and remained the best of friends their entire lives.
Despite the fact that, as my husband put it, “Prokofiev’s personality wasn’t exactly pleasant”, he later said that he was able to rid himself of the negative impressions made on him by that personality, and even later said that his sense of being somehow trapped by that personality had passed, and readily acknowledged Prokofiev’s qualities as a composer. My husband always performed him, and when Sergei Sergeevich played his 2nd Piano Concerto, N.A. wrote: “My ears don’t easily get used to Prokofiev’s music, but the personality and talent exert a pull. It’s not difficult to conduct him, especially considering Prokofiev’s marvellous sense of rhythm”. I have to add that Prokofiev was a brilliant pianist; he had large pianistic hands with long fingers. When he completed his studies at the Petersburg Conservatory in the piano class of A[nna] Esipova he was awarded the Anton Rubinstein prize, which came with a concert grand piano.
When Sergei Sergeevich returned to Russia in 1927 he appeared, as I have already written, with my husband. The entire programme comprised Prokofiev: the Overture Op. 42, the Suite from the opera Love for Three Oranges, the Classical Symphony, and the 2nd Piano Concerto with Prokofiev as soloist.
Prokofiev enjoyed broad success with the general public and among musicians. Of course a large part of his success can be attributed to the sensation he created: he was appearing in Russia after a long ten-year absence, a foreign novelty. But his music was known in music circles – primarily of course his piano works – and young composers, including Shostakovich, were heavily influenced by him. Naturally, he was fêted: at the Conservatory a matinee concert was organised in his honour and his Classical Symphony performed (N.A. conducted, and I was there). Then he performed his own compositions, then the director of the Conservatory, [Alexander] Ossovsky, hosted a dinner, then Prokofiev again played his works, and then a banquet… thus the celebration went from two in the afternoon to long past midnight.
Malko and Prokofiev at the piano, Prague 1935
After the Leningrad concerts we were all in Kiev, where Prokofiev again appeared with Nikolai Andreevich. In those days I was very shy. I remember blushing every time Prokofiev looked at me or even spoke to me. His wife, Lina Ivanovna, was exceptionally pretty. When we walked together through the streets of Kiev, she always attracted attention, her leopard-skin coat commanding glances of admiration.
I have no notes on that trip. I remember N.A. asking S.S.: “Apparently you haven’t practised the piano today, yet you’re playing tonight”. Prokofiev replied: “I don’t need to practise. It’s like riding a bicycle, once you’ve learned you can always do it, besides which I’m playing my own works”. Especially considering his pianistic hands…
After we left the Soviet Union in 1929, we often met with Sergei Sergeevich. In January of 1932, he appeared with N.A. in Prague. Someone from the Czech Philharmonic informed us that he immediately wanted to look us up. N.A. invited Prokofiev over, and he showed N.A. his 3rd Concerto and the Scythian Suite, which were part of the programme of 11 January. He was very sweet and pleasant. N.A. later wrote the following to Miaskovsky, with whom he regularly exchanged letters:
- Both of us enjoyed our get-together with Prokofiev. Compared to other established musicians he stands out favourably. He doesn’t behave idiotically with his nose in the air, doesn’t chatter constantly about what this or that important personage said to him or wrote about him. Overall he is serious and attentive and maintains a sense of propriety. This impressed me. Even when you find yourself exchanging stupid gossip (2) or jokes he reacts compassionately. And yet the stage and the public platform are akin to positions of serious rank and serious responsibility: a man can harden and get stupid. Once a long time ago a genial general said to my mother: “Once you get these stripes you can feel yourself getting dumber”.
So Sergei Sergeevich changed and grew milder or, as he put it, “abandoned self-aggrandisement”, even as he recounted what he did after someone addressed him with insufficient respect (“I said to him, ‘Do you know to whom you’re speaking?’”). When in his presence our mutual booking agent saw me and called out “Bebo!” (my nickname in the female form of the nominative case) Prokofiev asked: “Why do you allow him to address you with such familiarity?”
The concert was outstanding, with many curtain calls. At the end a small crowd gathered at the apron of the stage. S.S. revelled in N.A.’s conducting and later said to me that he felt as if he were in the embrace of an adoring woman.
When N.A. began performing regularly in Copenhagen, one of his tasks was to put the orchestra on a “contemporary footing”. He began to introduce contemporary composers into his programmes and invited many of them to Copenhagen as soloists. Stravinsky played his Capriccio, Hindemith his Viola Concerto, and Prokofiev his 3rd Piano Concerto. Roussel attended a performance of his symphony.
Copenhagen, 1932. Prokofiev is standing beside the director of programming for Danish Radio; Nikolai Malko is sixth from the left in the front row.
Photograph courtesy of Malcolm Brown.
At the concert on 27 October 1932, they played, in addition to the piano concerto, the Scythian Suite. At the end of the first part there was a bewildered silence, but after the piece was over it received great applause. Prokofiev came out and took his bows, as always, with insecurity. But in effect, Prokofiev had “passed the test” in a city which at the time was singularly conservative. His playing, N. A. noted, was tremendous.
After the concert we went to the famous restaurant Vivex, where the food was always fantastic; when it came time for dessert, several waiters appeared triumphantly carrying vases of ice cream, under which multi-coloured lights burned (the regular restaurant lighting was dimmed). Afterwards, one was of course obliged to dance. S.S. did not dance in those days, but I was energetically swept around by Kammerherr Lerche, already in his seventies but still more than capable of dancing everyone under the table. S.S. sat for the duration with the wife of the general director of Radio Denmark, Kammersänger Emil Holm; she [Katerina] was a former opera singer who considered herself clairvoyant. She kept talking about her occult insights and made all sorts of observations about Prokofiev and his family, whom she had never met. She told him at the end that he was a “white Negro”. No one knew what she meant by this. About her own husband, Kammersänger Holm (3), then a prominent singer in Germany, she repeatedly claimed that he had been a Spaniard in a former life: “Can’t you see it, a Spanish grandee?” About my husband, she repeatedly claimed that his strength in music was centred entirely in the thumb of his left hand. Prokofiev, as far as I understand, listened very patiently without creating a scene. Truly, he had become much calmer.
Prokofiev came to our home and showed N.A. his 3rd Symphony and discussed his 5th Piano Concerto, which N.A. had heard in Berlin under Furtwängler. I heard this work later, when S.S. performed it in London. When I appeared backstage after the performance he said: “So?” I replied: “I liked it, but I don’t understand the first movement”. Prokofiev said: “Don’t fret; you’re still maturing [as a listener]”. I was told that in moments like these he would often also declare: “Water it, you have to water it, and then it’ll grow”.
N.A. knew how I felt about Prokofiev and in a letter to Miaskovsky in February of 1932 wrote: “You love Prokofiev and will be glad to hear that his Violin Concerto with Szigeti in London gave me much pleasure and put my wife in a dreamy mood for a long period”.
Around this time, N.A. began learning Four Portraits and ‘Dénouement’, the suite Prokofiev had arranged from his opera The Gambler. Prokofiev’s wife Lina Ivanovna sent N.A. a letter with brief descriptions of the Portraits. N.A. memorised the first part and the large fifth part. In his diary he wrote: “I stumbled and became anxious conducting the first part of the Portraits by rote. In the middle of the finale I opened the score and, even though I didn’t look at it, I felt calmer”.
After this concert S.S. wrote to my husband asking him for his candid opinion of the Portraits. N.A. replied in kind. Sergei Sergeevich answered harshly, attacking N.A. as in his “prickly” days.
N.A. performed the Portraits again in London for the BBC, on a programme of contemporary music. To confirm his impressions, my husband made a point of memorising the entire suite. Here is what he wrote in his diary about it:
- I find myself influenced by Prokofiev’s letter, in which he asked me for my opinion of the Portraits. Like a fool, I replied candidly. He wrote back: “Of course it’s easy to throw stones…having inadequately studied [the score] or not studied it enough”. But in fact Portraits is a kaleidoscope: learning it is torture; memory fails both in rehearsal and in concert. It’s nerve-wracking. The difficulty resides in the “transitions”, where things can proceed in different directions.
Two days after this concert Prokofiev arrived in London for his own concert. He telephoned us at our hotel. N.A. was preparing to go to Liverpool and chose not to take the call. I told S.S. that my husband had already left. Prokofiev invited me to dinner. When we sat down in the restaurant, Prokofiev looked at me, and said: “Well, now you look completely European, as is required”. I was wearing a small black hat. When he said that he regretted not seeing N.A., I immediately started commenting on his letter and how it had deeply hurt my husband. At first he was astonished: “Did I actually write something rude?” But later, and I don’t precisely remember the phrase, he said something on the order of “but he gnawed me apart to the bones, so I lashed back”, or maybe “he pinned me to the mat and I lashed out”. He began discussing how well N.A. had worked out the tempi and how no other conductor had yet grasped them. During the course of the evening I brought our conversation back to this subject several times.
Finally, as he was seeing me back to the hotel, he said: “But I lashed out in jest; on the contrary I’m very grateful to him for having seriously expressed his opinions. It would be silly to ask for someone’s opinion expecting only compliments”. It even seemed to me that S.S. started to say something on the order of “I myself thought that – ” but then cut himself off and changed the subject. This was just my impression, but I think that he wanted to acknowledge that he considered the piece flawed in terms of its structure. At the beginning of our conversation about the remark in his letter concerning “inadequate study” he explained to me that when N.A. gets used to the piece, the transitions will become more natural for him. To this I replied that now that my husband had played the entire suite by heart, he sensed these transitions.
I told him about N.A.’s performance of Miaskovsky’s 5th Symphony in Glasgow: the public considered the work too difficult. S.S. agreed with me that it’s important to familiarise the public with Miaskovsky’s symphonies little by little. After dinner we went to the cinema and saw a very good film about Eskimo life. I was sorry that Kolia (4) wasn’t with us as he loved nature very much.
In my letter to N.A. in Liverpool I described my evening with Prokofiev in detail. On the subject of Eskimos, S.S. brought up my libretto, which was actually about Eskimos, among other things (in those times I was trying to produce potential librettos for ballets; one of them, set in Copenhagen and concerned with life in that city, was deemed too “touristy”. In Liverpool I had conceived a different libretto for a work set above the Arctic Circle). Now in London S.S. told me that it wasn’t right for him as he was already working on a ballet.
We went to the cinema in various cities. On that evening when we went to the cinema Prokofiev asked if we could sit close to the screen. I agreed because I knew that he was near-sighted, whereas for me at that time it made no difference; I was young and my eyesight was very good. Prokofiev said, “How obedient you are. My wife would have never complied”.
That evening, I told Prokofiev that Hindemith was also in London and that I had heard his latest composition on the radio. I added: “Just imagine, Hindemith has started to compose lyrical music”. Prokofiev replied, “All of us sinners have become lyrical composers. I wrote a ‘Symphonic Song’, but [Serge] Koussevitzky didn’t like it. I said to him, ‘You don’t understand anything.’ I still don’t know if he’s going to publish it”.
I reminded him how much Koussevitzky had done for him. “The thing is,” Prokofiev said, “he often performs my music, so if he suddenly starts performing it less often people will think I’ve croaked”.
I remember writing the following to my husband in 1932:
- I’m more attuned to sentimentalism in Stravinsky or Prokofiev. It slips into their work even when they think it’s not there. It seems to me that Prokofiev will continue to compose works where sentimentalism is prevalent.
At that time, Prokofiev’s influence and esteem in Russia were so high that his friend Miaskovsky was astonished to hear from N.A. that Prokofiev had merely “passed” in Copenhagen: “Does Prokofiev actually have to ‘pass’ anywhere?” Yet this was only logical: audiences still weren’t used to him, and he was not yet an undeniable influence in the West. In his diary, N.A. wrote about the concert: “Somebody hissed, which immediately increased the applause”.
In 1936 S.S. was in Prague, where we were as well. Our mutual booking agent called to say that Prokofiev was again hoping to see us. He called; we went to a fish place and then to a film, a terribly stupid one. He saw me home, on foot, and came upstairs with me to see our baby son, who was about six months old. As we walked, he kept assuring me that all children are ugly and that only their parents think they’re wonderful (though he himself had an adorable son, judging by the photograph which he and his wife brought to Leningrad in 1927 – a splendid gravure, showing the lovely Lina Ivanovna and an appealing child).
When I showed him our son, I could see that the baby made an impression on him. Iura was asleep at first, but then started to stretch, awoke, stared at Prokofiev’s eyeglasses, and then began to express his displeasure that it was taking so long for him to be fed. I picked him up – he liked being held – and he stopped complaining and studied S.S., who said, “what large eyes he has”, and then again, “his eyes are larger than his mouth”. He stayed another moment to watch Iura have porridge and then went home, observing that our son had “several nannies” (Marie was our nanny and cook).
During this particular trip to Prague, S.S. conducted a concert on the radio. The programme included his Egyptian Nights and the Jewish Overture. (5) I attended the broadcast. He had begun conducting only recently; although he took conducting lessons with Nikolai Tcherepnin he had not previously appeared as a conductor. He was not sure of himself and there was a moment when my heart was in my throat, a ritardando leading into another tempo. Everything was starting to come apart and I feared that a complete collapse was imminent. But Prokofiev pulled it together and the performance was saved. After the concert, maybe still affected by the story about the Portraits, I said to him, “Sergei Sergeevich, you should write another symphony now”. He instantly shot back, “Are my previous symphonies being performed so often?”
Sergei Sergeevich told me about the circumstances of his life: he and his wife had barely seen each other that year. She stayed behind in Moscow when he left, and arrived in Paris three days before his departure for Prague. They planned to liquidate their apartment in Paris, keeping just two rooms. They planned to set up an apartment in Moscow. S.S. said that he would probably have to stay in place for a couple of years. He spoke about the attack on composers [in the Soviet Union], and said he was very glad that he wasn’t there when it was happening: “Maybe by the time I arrive in Moscow it will have simmered down”. When his wife arrived in Paris, she told him that Stalin had apparently attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera (6) and was outraged. Prokofiev thought Asafiev whispered in Stalin’s ear. “Asafiev writes like crazy,” he said, “one ballet after another, but composers don’t take him seriously. I for one rarely see him, but when we do run into each other, I say nothing about his music. Shostakovich, on the other hand, treats Asafiev with disdain and looks down on him, but Asafiev’s ballets draw audiences”. (7)
So now everyone was terrified, Shostakovich’s works were being removed from concert halls. Before Prokofiev left, there had been a popular song contest. Prokofiev submitted five works. One of them was chosen for a prize and S.S. left Moscow satisfied. At that moment, however, the Shostakovich scandal erupted and the organisers of the competition panicked: “What if Prokofiev ends up among the ‘unreliables’? Perhaps it’s dangerous to give anyone a first prize”. So when Prokofiev’s wife left Moscow, she learned that no one would be receiving a first prize, and that a second prize would be divided between Prokofiev and someone else. There would be an announcement. To date there hadn’t been an announcement anywhere and Prokofiev concluded that the organisers were still frightened and waiting for some directive as to what to do. As a result Prokofiev didn’t know where he stood: would he be considered a legitimate composer or not?
I know that S.S. didn’t like Shostakovich and spoke critically of Lady Macbeth. I remember being at a railway station – I was seeing him off to somewhere – and as we walked the length of the train he spoke with disgust about the scene in which Katerina spends the night with Sergei; Prokofiev said the music was all sex, and that [Shostakovich] was merely describing a passionate encounter (I can’t remember the precise expression he used).
Once, during one of his earlier visits, he discussed his circumstances in Russia with my husband. I don’t remember the details – mention was made of financial security – but it seemed to me that the main issue was of his homeland. I sensed he feared that the source of his creativity would dry up without his native soil. He was like Ilia Muromets, the Russian warrior hero who grew not by the day but by the hour, and who had to be able to touch his native land in order to renew his strength. Maybe that’s just my imagination. I can’t remember his exact words about this.
Prokofiev was again in Prague in January of 1938. He came to us at half past six in the evening (N.A. was on tour), played with Iuri, dashed off to an embassy reception for almost an hour, and then returned and dined at our place. Afterwards we went to the cinema, which was by then already our “tradition”. This time it was a wonderful film, The Ghost Goes West, with Robert Donat. After the film we went to the Lucerne Bar, where we danced until three in the morning. Even Prokofiev grew tired. Dancing was probably his last remaining diversion – he had learned to dance very well, but he drove me mad with all sorts of theoretical remarks. I teased him that he wasn’t listening to the music but counting steps.
Prokofiev told me about an appearance by his wife in Moscow (she’s a singer with a light clear soprano voice). As he put it, “they gave her a hostile reception”, even as he added that she had performed well. Prokofiev told her to see a certain G(8), but she said that the man was disgusting. Prokofiev himself remarked that this man was so large it was scary, and that his skin looked ready to burst. Nevertheless, he held rank at State Radio. Later she said, “I don’t understand what they were thinking, that if I’m Prokofiev’s wife I have to be a particular kind of singer, when I’m simply a singer rather than Prokofiev’s wife”. Prokofiev replied, “Then you have to act like just a singer when you perform, not like Prokofiev’s wife”.
Such was the last time Prokofiev escorted me on foot across the park to the hill where we lived in Prague. When we bade farewell, we shook hands and he said, “So where will we next see each other and go to the cinema? Shall we say New York?”
Soon after Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union they stopped allowing him to travel abroad. I never saw him again.
Berthe Malko was born in Kharkov in 1902 and died in New York City in October 2000. She met Nikolai Malko, who was many years her senior, in Kiev at the beginning of the 1920s, when he came to the conservatory there to teach. After her husband’s death in 1961, Berthe Malko, with Radio Denmark, established the Nikolai Malko International Competition for Young Conductors, a fitting tribute to Malko’s work as a teacher. The first competition was held in Copenhagen in 1965. It has taken place there every three years since. The next competition will be in May 2009.
(1) Russians often rely on a person’s initials when making either initial or subsequent reference to them in letters or manuscripts, either to save space, as in this case, or to conceal an identity.
(2) S.S. loved to gossip.
(3) Holm was very tall and wielded enormous authority over everyone except his wife.
(4) The pet version of the name Nikolai.
(5) Prokofiev wrote the following to Miaskovsky about performing this work: “In due course it became necessary for me to busy myself cleaning up the orchestration of the Jewish Overture, which was left in a rather dismal state. Malko’s performance in Prague served me well: on one hand I became convinced that it’s not at all badly orchestrated, something I wouldn’t have concluded had the performance been dreadful; on the other, I was able to make some improvements”.
(6) Katerina Izmailova (Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District).
(7) My husband once asked Prokofiev what he thought of an Asafiev ballet (Flames of Paris) that Prokofiev had seen recently. “How is it?” he asked. “Only one thing left to do”. “What’s that?” “Compose the music”. Later, my husband remarked: “Prokofiev casually discredited it while expressing something profound”.
(8) Perhaps Boris Gusman.