sprkfv.net

The history of a personal collection in an archive presents a kind of biography within a biography. Fond no. 33 of Serge Prokofiev in the Glinka Museum, as the “kin” of other collections devoted to the composer (the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art [RGALI], the Serge Prokofiev Archive in London, and so on), has its own character; due to the nature of its acquisition it is distinguished by its “uncommonness.” What do I mean by that?

1) It contains far fewer individual items than, say, RGALI, but they are more varied.
2) It is less forbidding because the individuals (not only Prokofiev) and institutions represented in the collection are well known.
3) And, finally, the collection is catalogued inconsistently, not always by the rules, so it holds many surprises.

Without providing either a detailed characterisation or a specific analysis of the Prokofiev collection, I would like to focus attention on its “surprises”: materials from the composer’s legacy in the archive for which there is little demand and that bear the subheading “no place, no date” (abbreviated “n.p., n.d.”). This acronym could head the list of abbreviations in an imaginary set of instructions for novice archivists; it is the most frequently encountered term in museum binders and archive inventory lists. The complexities of identifying the material, the difficulties in cataloguing it, often lead to such a “blank” designation. The detailed study of the life and work of Prokofiev is impossible without resorting to material of this type. The search for new facts within materials concealed behind standard museum cataloguing is one of the most important tasks of contemporary “Prokofieviana”. Sometimes cataloguing an item on deposit accurately is impossible. The inquisitive researcher working with the material will inevitably find something hidden from the eyes of the cataloguer.

So what we are talking about are isolated, unrelated materials in Prokofiev’s archive that have not yet attracted attention due to their apparent insignificance as well as their insufficient attribution. Some documents are dated by the year referred to in the body of their text; the dating of others is hidden behind the notorious “n.p., n.d.” designation. A closer look at these miscellaneous materials proves useful in addressing the silences in Prokofiev’s biography. Without setting out to upend or overturn our general perception of the composer’s life, I would like to draw attention to a number of long-standing misconceptions, adding something new to our knowledge.

I
Two of the Prokofiev autographs processed in succession and deposited together in a single folder have nothing in common besides being in the composer’s hand. The date the documents were written has not been established, although the text of one provides the timeframe “from 17 May 1935 to 29 March 1936.” (1) The place where these documents were created is also unknown; there is no basis for attributing them to the same period. The handwriting and ink are diverse. The paper is different. The only thing they have in common is their storage location (consecutive inventory numbers and one folder). I believe that these documents are from the first years of Prokofiev’s life in the USSR—that is, the later 1930s.

Consider the first document. The following text is copied on a quarter-page
of a school notebook lined in blue ink:


Proxy for an agreement with the housing administration on behalf of Ustinya Bazhan (2)

Proxy

This proxy is issued on behalf of Ms. Bazhan, Ustinya [sic] Dmitrievna to conclude a contract to hire a domestic employee. I request the local committee for domestic employees to execute the contract. Monthly salary is [omitted by Prokofiev] rubles. Everything stipulated in the contract will be fulfilled. A certificate from the building management is enclosed.

SPrkfv.

(No “enclosed” certificate has been preserved; otherwise it would not have been difficult to attribute the document.)

After moving to Moscow, Prokofiev found adapting to new social patterns, a new lifestyle, and new relationships with people problematic. Prokofiev’s wife, the singer Lina Ivanovna Codina (she used the stage name Llubera) was accustomed to the comforts and amenities of another civilisation, and thus was unable to assimilate into what was for her a paradoxical Soviet reality. Prokofiev’s contemporaries could not help but thinking that she had been spoiled by Paris. Valentina Chemberdzhi, the daughter of the composer Nikolai Chemberdzhi and a fairly close friend of Prokofiev’s wife in the 1970s, clarifies that life à la russe did not entirely satisfy Lina Ivanovna, who was fond of and accustomed to a high-class existence: “She adored social functions, receptions, repartee, and the attention of men. She was always fabulously dressed, elegantly, expensively; she wore conspicuous jewellery, with great taste.” (3) Obviously, Prokofiev himself had to deal with many problems in the Soviet Union, including personal domestic ones, to which “Ptashka” (Birdie, Prokofiev’s nickname for his wife) was not always disposed. Judging from his Paris diaries, he seems to have been actively involved in family matters, whether the issue was the choice of a dacha for the summer, the purchase of furniture, transport of the piano, car repair, switching apartments or mana-ging bank accounts. Prokofiev often viewed political developments through the prism of his family’s basic, household needs. “[Prime Minister Édouard] Herriot has formed his new cabinet,” Prokofiev wrote in his diary on 20 July 1926, “as a consequence of which the dollar has soared to 48 francs. Nothing good can be expected in France. On the one hand, it is very advantageous to buy furniture now for the apartment. On the other, in such an alarming atmosphere in France, does it make sense to set up housekeeping and settle down here at all?” (4) After moving to Russia, it is unlikely that Prokofiev or his wife changed the distribution of household responsibilities. Indeed, compared to Lina Ivanovna, he was practically a trendsetter in the Soviet way of life. Alongside sketches of compositions, we read the following in his notebooks of the period. Notebook of the mid-1930s: “Upon return to Moscow: household concerns. Faucet.” Notebook of 1937-1940: “Eggs: melt the butter, then place the egg on a low flame until the white is cooked through.” (5)

It is unlikely that the housekeeping proxy was written later than the 1930s: In the 1940s-1950s, all cares, including household, were undertaken by Prokofiev’s “second” family—in other words, his second wife (from 1948) Mira Abramovna Mendelson; her father Abram Solomonovich Mendelson; and her mother Vera (Dora) Natanovna Mendelson. Furthermore, the discussion in the proxy is obviously about a city apartment and not about the dacha in Nikolina Gora, which was owned by Prokofiev. Perhaps it refers to the new apartment on Mozhaiskoe shosse (Mozhaisk highway) that he obtained at the end of 1944? The problem is that he lived there only briefly (and a certain “Natasha” helped around the house). Halfway through 1945 Prokofiev and Mira moved into the apartment across from MKhAT (the Moscow Art Theatre), where they lived with Mira’s parents. Prokofiev had no need to register the employment of a housekeeper at this latter address. From 1946 all the way up until the mid-1960s, the duties of cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes at the dacha in Nikolina Gora alternated between two Annas: a certain Anna Grigorievna, and a local resident named Anna Nikolaevna Kaluzhskaia (“irreplaceable Annushka,” in the words of Mira Mendelson).

These points support dating the proxy to the second half of the 1930s. At that time the hiring of servants was handled by the local committee for housing management. There was a trade union for housekeepers. According to the requirements of labour law, when registering a domestic worker—the term “servant” was politically incorrect and never used—the drafting of a contract indicating the salary and providing certain workplace guarantees was mandatory. Later, after the war, when the devastated Soviet capital was overrun by hungry, wretched people uprooted from their provincial homes, people who ended up replenishing Moscow’s labour force, the hiring of domestics took place surreptitiously, semi-legally. Usually—especially in the “restricted” (6) cities of Moscow and Leningrad—housekeepers were registered as distant relatives, more often than not with a permit to reside in the home of their employers. In the late 1940s-1950s, therefore, thoroughly vetted recommendations from friends and acquaintances were more important than a formal contract for the recruitment of housekeepers. Thus the “irreplaceable Annushka” (Kaluzhskaia) came at the recommendation of Mira’s acquaintance Anusya Viliams and friend Nina Shostakovich.

There are various reasons why the proxy did not end up in the files of the local committee for domestic workers: the draf-ting of a different proxy, for example, or Ustinya Bazhan’s rejection of the terms of employment. In his reminiscences of his father, Prokofiev’s younger son Oleg recalls that, at one point, the family had the services of “a peasant girl from Smolensk, Frosya, who mangled the word [composer], laughing and straining, to say in the end, stressing solemn syllable after solemn syllable: ‘Cam-pan-zer’.” (7) She had replaced another housekeeper. Could it have been Ustinya? At the moment there is no answer.

There exists a theory as to Ustinya’s identity based on remote lineage—Prokofiev’s childhood in Sontsovka and his earliest musical activities. About the dramatis personae in his first opera The Giant, which he composed when he was just nine years old, Prokofiev recalled the following in his autobiography (written in the mid-30s, as it happens): “‘I’ would be Egorka—but this wasn’t a proper name. I immediately came up with Sergeyev and Egorov. This left the heroine: ‘Stenya,’ which sounded rather un-operatic, but [the other option,] ‘Ustinya’[,] was very ugly.” When Prokofiev’s father suggested that he use another name, the young composer stubbornly refused: “But it’s Stenya. How can we call her by another name?” (8)

What if we assume the following: By some quirk of fate and by some unknown circumstances, the Ustinya Prokofiev thought to use as a character in his little opera was a real person—namely Ustinya Vlasova, born in 1890, a friend from Prokofiev’s paradisiacal Sontsovka childhood. Perhaps this same Ustinya appears in the proxy, having taken her husband’s name of Bazhan. It is also perhaps no accident that Prokofiev did not destroy this note, although clearly the proxy proved unnecessary. His handwriting is not only neat but beautiful, the script of a happy person. Here it’s worth recalling a general theory concerning the psychology of genius, specifically musical genius. I am referring to the notion of eidetism: an imaginative, emotional recollection that does not merely reproduce the past, but “lives through” events again just as vividly and intensely, even many years after the fact. The composer seems to have possessed this psychological trait. While writing his autobiography, he remembered Ustinya and the happiness of his years in the sun-drenched steppes of Ukraine (how much he wanted to go there in his final years, when he was terminally ill!). Prokofiev was unable to throw the note into the trash, even if Ustinya Dmitrievna Bazhan was not the same Ustinya he had known way back when in Ukraine.     (TO PART 2)

BACK TO SUMMARY

1 GTsMMK [Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture] f. 33, no. 1181.

2 GTsMMK f. 33, no. 1180.

3 V. Chemberdzhi, V dome muzyka zhila (Moskva: Agraf, 2002), 101.

4 Sergei Prokof’ev, Dnevnik 1907-1933 (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), Vol. 2, 423.

5 RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, ed. khr. 332, l. 1; ed. khr. 334, l. 7.

6 In the Stalinist period the cities and territories considered strategically important numbered over 100. Moscow, Leningrad, and other sensitive sites had strict passport controls and measures for purging “undesirable elements”—those citizens who had been deprived of their rights as “enemies of the people,” for example.

7 Oleg Prokofiev, “Papers from the Attic: My Father, His Music, and I”, The Yale Literary Magazine, Vol. 148, No. 2 (September 1979), 21.

8 S. Prokof’ev, Detstvo (Moskva: Muzyka, 1983), 61.