Lina Codina, 1903
Lina Codina and her mother Olga Vladislavovna, 1903
Balaclava, Crimea, where my maternal grandfather Vladislav Albertovich Nemissky and my grandmother Caroline Verlé spent the summers of 1892 and 1893 with their two daughters, one of them my mother, Olga, the other her sister Alexandra (my aunt).(Written by Lina Prokofiev on the back of the photo)
Her memories, or memories of memories, came out in fragments. She sometimes mentioned an uncle who worked laying underwater cables until he contracted malaria in a swamp, then skipped to her doting Polish-Lithuanian grandfather, Vladislav, who became a high-ranking councillor in the Russian government (Poland being part of the Russian empire at the time). Lina also frequently referred with affection to her French grandmother Caroline, her namesake. But the parts never added up to a whole.
Two years ago, Noëlle Mann asked me to write an essay for Three Oranges about Lina’s childhood, challenging me to make sense of these fragments and whatever supporting information I could locate in New York City, where Lina spent most of her youth and where she met her future husband. What follows makes extensive use of the Lina Prokofiev Fonds (henceforth LPF) at Goldsmiths, with the details of Lina’s notes and interviews checked, whenever possible, against historical records. The research extended over two summers, and it showed that Lina’s childhood was even more exciting than she remembered it.
Born on 21 October 1897, on Calle de Bárbara de Braganza in Madrid, Lina inherited her chestnut hair and dark, heavy-lidded eyes from her father, but otherwise was very much her mother’s daughter: courageous, impulsive, and unstoppable once committed to something. Her father Juan, who began his musical career singing at the Catedral-Basílica de Barcelona, became a professional tenor and amateur composer of songs with a Catalan flavour. He took lessons with Candido Candi, a prominent composer, organist, and folksong arranger. From Barcelona Juan went to Madrid, where he studied at the Royal Conservatory; when his voice dropped from the counter-tenor to tenor range, it retained its delicate thinness. Later in the United States he taught American students to sing solfège, a system of musical syllables.
In Madrid Juan met and fell for Olga Nemysskaia, a fair-haired, grey-eyed soprano from Odessa, Ukraine. She had trained in St. Petersburg, Russia, before travelling to Italy and then Spain for lessons with the great tenor Giorgio Ronconi, who was then in his seventies but still accepting students. Juan and Olga resolved to get married despite protests from her parents about his being Catholic and from his about her Calvinist Protestant origins. Juan had six brothers who made their living on the sea, plus a sister, Isabella, a late addition to the Codina family much beloved by her parents. But Olga never really knew any of them, having been branded a heretica, and Juan never spoke of his family, save for the occasional suggestion that his mother had been trained in oriental languages and some of his brothers ended up in South America. His financial prospects as a musician worried Olga’s father, who grumbled that she would have done better to marry a caretaker. In truth, Juan was something of a dabbler, a jack of all trades but master of none, too much the artist to succeed in business. And as an artist, he suffered rather severe stage fright. (1)
As a very young child Lina travelled with her parents to Russia, where Juan sang some recitals under the Russian equivalent of his name—Ivan. Olga did not perform with him, even though her talent rivalled his or perhaps even exceeded it. In the early 1890s, she carved out a niche for herself in the regional theatres of Italy. A notice from 1894, for example, places her in the role of the peasant girl Micaela in Carmen, staged at the Teatro Sociale in the northern Italian town of Montagnana. (2) Engagements with opera troupes in Moscow and Milan would follow. She sang under the stage name Neradoff, which, as her teacher advised her, was much easier to spell and pronounce than Nemysskaia.
While her parents were busy performing, Lina was left in the care of her maternal grandparents in the Caucasus. Her bond with them intensified during successive visits, and there she formed some of her strongest childhood memories. There was a beekeeper who, warning Lina of the dangers of the creatures in his care, placed a mask over her face before allowing her to approach the hives. She retrieved eggs from her grandfather’s henhouse, and chased geese around the yard with a shovel while imitating their honking. At some point she was in Moscow at a fashionable department store, where her parents or grandparents presented her with a pleated coat and velvet beret imported from Paris. She kept one of the leaf-embossed buttons long after outgrowing the coat.
Lina was there when her grandmother died. Her parents had made the long trek from Switzerland in hopes of seeing her one last time. At the wooden house, her grandfather took eight-year old Lina by the hand and guided the girl to her grandmother’s bedside. She watched as he bent to caress her weathered face. He then asked Lina to do the same, explaining that Grandma Caroline was about to leave. “Kiss her on the forehead, or on the cheek,” he guided. Lina complied, but wondered: “But she’s so cold. Why doesn’t she get well?” “Well she’s going away, to another world.” (3)
This was the beloved grandmother who had taught Lina not to be afraid of the dark, and who had also introduced her to the ancient fables of Jean de La Fontaine.
1 Information in this paragraph and the next from Sviatoslav Prokofiev, “Little-known facts about people close to Prokofiev”, Three Oranges, No. 1 (2001): 20-21; and from notes taken by Malcolm Brown in a November 1967 interview of Lina Prokofiev.
2 Link to web (25 June 2010).