Georgii Popa-Gorchakov, 1926

The chronicle of Prokofiev’s career began while he was still alive, and was enriched in the first decades after his death, thanks to the efforts of historians both inside and outside of Russia. But it remains far from complete. There are still archives to be accessed and documents to be published. Every new detail, no matter how small, helps fill in the gaps. The places where Prokofiev lived and worked—Ukraine, Russia, America, and France—provide essential sociopolitical contexts. And other places where the composer spent time on tour, performing his own works, giving interviews are also of inte-rest. This essay is dedicated to Prokofiev’s biographical and creative ties with Moldova, where he never lived, but where he had a connection for many years thanks to his friend and irreplaceable assistant, the Moldovan Georgii Nikolaevich Popa-Gorchakov, from Chisinau. In addition to their relationship, Prokofiev’s 1931 tour to Romania (which at that time incorporated present-day Moldova) is detailed below.

Prokofiev’s 1926 meeting with his future assistant, Popa-Gorchakov, in Paris was by no means accidental. The two needed each other. At the time, Prokofiev was working on the score of The Fiery Angel. He was in desperate need of a competent assistant to transcribe 500 pages of challenging music into fair copy, realising his instructions for orchestration line by line. The person who had been previously employed for the task, a certain Labunsky, proved unsatisfactory. In the composer’s caustic assessment: “by nature [Labunsky] is incapable of diligence, or is unaccustomed to it”(1). Plus, “he works slowly and, needless to say, omits accidentals”(2); and then, on the subject of Labunsky’s perceived laziness, “to be sure, he’s a real worker, not the type to barely scrape by.”(3) (The last criticism was unfair: Labunsky had banged his finger in a door and needed time to recuperate; he could barely write. – Ed.)

Further on in his diary, Prokofiev reports: “While doing her lessons in Christian Science, it dawned on Ptashka [the composer’s nickname for his wife Lina] that the ideal person to be my secretary would be Popa-Gorchakov from Chisinau. He writes ecstatic letters to me, plays my music, and he is a Scientist—in other words a decent man, devoted and loyal. I dealt with the matter when I received his last letter—back in April, I think it was. He wrote that his military service ended on 1 November. That served my purpose. So I promptly dropped him a line inquiring how he was getting on and what his prospects were after demobilisation. Did he have any plans to come to Paris?”(4) Popa-Gorchakov immediately responded yes. On or around 13 November he arrived from Chisinau at Prokofiev’s apartment on Rue Troyon in Paris. Here is how Prokofiev described their first encounter: “He is 23. He is dark and bears himself a bit stiffly, like a soldier. That’s no wonder, as he has just completed his military service. He has two Georges on his chest; these are for the Kornilov March. As a youth of 15 he volunteered to fight the Bolsheviks and got caught up in the most appalling ‘ice march.’ Three subjects interest him in life: Christian Science, music, and Boy Scouting. He has been familiar with Christian Science since he was 6; he was cured of gangrene and many minor afflictions, all the while studying Science and Health, very insistently for several hours a day. He is a serious man, steadfast and committed, although a bit strange; to many questions he makes no response. He doesn’t smoke or drink wine and, in all likelihood, he doesn’t know women.”(5)

Of the same first encounter here is Popa-Gorchakov’s description: “I will never forget the moment when Prokofiev entered my room. I experienced something like an electric charge; such was the radiant energy, youth, and life emanating from him. My first thought was of The Fiery Angel.”(6)

The meeting with the eminent composer seems to have been predestined from the very outset of the 23-year-old Popa-Gorchakov’s life. He was born in 1902 into the noble family of the Moldovan Nikolai (Nicolae) Georgievich Popa from Bessarabia—as Moldova was called until 1940. The surname Popa remains very common to this day; in Russian translation it denotes a priest, a clergyman. His grandfather, Georgii Nikolaevich Popa (1839-1911), received a noble title of the third grade as a privy councillor in the civil service.(7) He married the Moldovan Olga Oata, descended from a family of long noble ancestry (of the first grade) dating back to the end of the 17th century.(8) All the relatives of Prokofiev’s secretary on his grandmother’s side, Olga Oata, were prominent people with positions of responsibility: among them a court councillor and publicist, the chair of the Khotyn district council (zemstvo), and the director of the M. Eminescu Lyceum in Chisinau.

The son of Georgii Popa and Olga Oata, Nikolai Georgievich Popa (that is, the father of Prokofiev’s secretary) received a solid education in historical philology at the universities of St. Petersburg and Moscow. His passion for music, and his beautiful singing voice (a lyric-dramatic baritone), altered his career plans. He began taking voice lessons from the celebrated teacher A.Santagano-Gorchakova, who insisted that he study in Milan, Italy. After returning from Italy, Popa distinguished himself on the stage; he appeared as a soloist at the Kiev Opera Theatre (1906, 1912-13, 1915-16) and Odessa Opera Theatre (1916-1918). In the seasons of 1909-11, he received accolades for his performances at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.(9)

To rid himself of a surname that sounded strange to Russian ears, he took the stage name Gorchakov, the name of his original vocal coach. Subsequently, he petitioned His Imperial Majesty the Tsar to officially change his name from Popa to Gorchakov. His son, Georgii, was also officially registered as Gorchakov. In 1918, when Bessarabia became a part of Romania, the Romanians did not accept this change and some of Georgii’s documents had to be drawn up again in the name Popa. Thus Prokofiev’s secretary came to have the double name Popa-Gorchakov.

Though born in Moldova, Popa-Gorchakov was entirely a product of Russian culture. He spent his childhood and youth in Chisinau, which, like the rest of Bessarabia, was part of the Russian Empire until 1918. In 1899, a branch of the Imperial Russian Music Society opened in Chisinau, headed by the composer Vladimir Rebikov and the cellist Vasilii Gutor, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A year later, in 1900, the first music school opened, with Rebikov as its director for the first two years. With Gutor’s assistance, he turned the school into a serious facility whose activities laid the foundation for professional musical education. The level of performance was especially high, with graduates of the conservatories of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Leipzig and Prague teaching at the school. Two prominent composers, Anton Arensky and Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, gave it high marks.

Nurtured by Russian musical traditions, Popa-Gorchakov studied piano at the school. Class concerts featured works primarily by Russian composers and the foreign classics: Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, Rebikov, Arensky, Grechaninov, Skriabin, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Grieg, Dvorak, Wieniawski, Spohr, Vieuxtemps, Bériot and others. At the beginning of the 20th century, Chisinau became an attractive tour destination for Rakhmaninov, Skriabin, Arensky, Siloti, Auer, Chaliapin, Sobinov, Nezhdanova, Pirogov and Figner. Popa-Gorchakov had the opportunity to hear and meet these composers in Chisinau. In addition, when he visited his father in St. Petersburg, he heard the young Prokofiev perform his First Piano Concerto. From that moment, Prokofiev became his idol, and he endea-voured to master Prokofiev’s music at the keyboard.

In an article on Popa-Gorchakov by M. Panova and N. Gladilina-Shoma, the piano cycles Visions fugitives, Sarcasms, and the Fourth Sonata are specifically mentioned as influences.(10) Before 1917, however, he could not have performed Visions fugitives and the Fourth Sonata because they had not yet been published. (Sarcasms appeared in print in 1916. – Ed.) Panova and Gladilina-Shoma also report that Popa-Gorchakov studied at the Chisinau Conservatory, but that his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war. Yet before the war there was no conservatory in Chisinau. In 1918, when Bessarabia became part of Romania, the financing of the Chisinau Conservatory by the Imperial Russian Music Society—its annual subsidies approached 3,000 rubles—naturally came to an end, as did the activities of the local branch of the Russian Musical Society. In Music in Bessarabia, the Romanian scholar A. Boldur writes: “In this atmosphere of general indifference, one of the most remarkable and worthwhile musical institutions of Bessarabia perished.”(11)

The private conservatory Unirea, organised by the singer A. Dicheska, rose out of the ashes of the Chisinau Conservatory in 1919. Without government subsidies the conservatory eked out a wretched existence. But finances were not the only problem with musical education in Bessarabia. Standards declined, and the politics of Romanianisation, which affected culture in its entirety, curtailed performances of Russian music. Observing the anniversaries of the births and deaths of leading Russian artists was likewise forbidden. Details about the prohibition of the celebration of Alekander Pushkin’s centennial appeared in the press.(12) Given these circumstances, Popa-Gorchakov certainly could not have studied Russian music at the Unirea Conservatory. His love for Prokofiev’s music, which grew stronger over the years, along with his desire to become a composer himself, coalesced in the formation of a single goal: to leave Bessarabia and emigrate to the West in search of a better life. He corresponded with Prokofiev for se-veral years, then asked that the composer accept him as a student.

The desire to leave Bessarabia was not, of course, Popa-Gorchakov’s alone. It seized thousands of people during this cataclysmic, radically unstable period. The intelligentsia was traumatised by the severing of Bessarabia from Russian culture. Here the memoirs of the pianist Viacheslav Bulychev, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory who became a prominent cultural figure in Romanian Bessarabia, merit quoting: “At that time I spent a significant amount of time with N. N. Aleksandri and we became friends. As a Romanian nationalist, but a man of Russian culture as well, he constantly felt the conflict between his national aspirations and his Russian upbringing and education. He was a great de-votee of Russian literature, Tolstoy in particular, so everyone considered him Tolstoyan.” Bulychev adds the following comment about the Unirea Conservatory: “I really didn’t want to join dubious company and become a professor of that quasi-conservatory.”(13)

Bessarabians found themselves in catastrophic circumstances. They felt unsafe in Bolshevik Moldova and unwelcome in Romania, and their families were often tragically se-parated. Popa-Gorchakov’s sister decided, like hundreds of others, to try to enter Romania by swimming across the River Prut, but she was captured by the Bolsheviks and ended up trapped in Odessa without means. While Prokofiev was on tour in Odessa in 1927, he met with her and pledged to help any way he could. Another of Popa-Gorchakov’s relatives, his cousin Alexander Oata, who was the director of the prestigious M. Eminescu Lyceum, committed suicide in 1940 when Soviet troops entered Bessarabia. For many, salvation took the form of emigration to France, where a Union of Bessarabians (“for famine relief, cultural and educational work”) was established in Paris in 1929.(14) Knowing this situation, one can only imagine Popa-Gorchakov’s relief when he received an invitation from Prokofiev to become his assistant. The rest of the tale is familiar from Prokofiev’s published diaries: Popa-Gorchakov became a member of the family, acquired the household nickname “Groggy” (as little Sviatoslav was the first to call him), and progressed in his compositional endeavours in consultation with Prokofiev. They became close, devoted friends. Sometimes Groggy even involved himself in the disputes between Prokofiev and Lina, defending the former. His interventions occasionally tested Lina’s patience. In a diary entry da-ted 6-12 October 1927, for example, Prokofiev writes that “Groggy was cheeky with Ptashka and she sulked at him for several days.”(15)

We turn now to Prokofiev’s other connection with Romanian Bessarabia, namely his performances there. The composer first visited Bucharest in March of 1915 while travelling to Italy at the invitation of Serge Diaghilev. On this occasion he did not perform; he merely spent a night at the magnificent Athenee Palace Hotel. In March of 1931, as part of a grand tour from Paris, through Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest, Prokofiev gave two taxing concerts in Romania, performing both as a piano soloist and accompanist to Lina, a soprano who went by the stage name Llubera. Concert life in Bucharest was very rich at the time. The composer played at one of the most beautiful and prestigious venues in Europe: Bucharest’s Romanian Athenaeum Hall. His appearance, which came at the invitation of the director of the hall, the symphonic conductor George Georgescu, followed those by several other famous European composers: Richard Strauss, Vincent d’Indy, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók.

Prokofiev’s tour to Bucharest marked the third, culmina-ting phase of the composer’s relationship with the Romanian public. The first phase was in 1921, when his name was first featured in the music pages of newspapers and magazines. The journalist E. L. Manu actively promoted Prokofiev’s music and musicianship; for example, he published an article titled “A Great Russian Composer and a Great Russian Conductor” in the newspaper Rampa on 7 May 1922.(16) The article closed with the words: “This is a name that must be remembered.” In another article published in Rampa on 19 June 1922, Manu compared the young Prokofiev with Stravinsky, finding that “the music of Prokofiev is healthier, more rhythmic and more active... It is pure music; it is the heart of music.”(17)

The second phase began in 1927, when Prokofiev’s music was featured on programmes by the Bucharest Philharmonic. On 9 October 1927, his Classical Symphony was conducted by George Georgescu. Six months later, the Polish conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the same symphony, and it thereafter remained in the repertory. On 17 March 1929, the Romanian conductor Djil Plesoianu conducted the March from the opera Love for Three Oranges; a month later he performed the complete suite from the opera with great success. Also in 1929, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto earned many rave reviews when Polish pianist Leopold Münzer performed it under the baton of Egizio Massini.

The first announcement of Prokofiev’s performances appeared in the newspaper Rampa on 8 September 1930 in an article titled “A Sensational Musical Season in Bucharest.” The dates of his concerts were first advertised in the newspaper on 12 March 1931 in “Sergei Prokofiev and the Musical Modern Movement,” whose author wrote: “This will be the first concert of modern music this season and the first grand European tour by S. Prokofiev and soprano Lina Llubera.”(18) As the concert approached, the amount of information steadily increased. In the daily paper Epoca on 15 March, the compo-ser’s portrait was published with the caption “Celebrated Russian composer and pianist,” and the added remark: “Without a doubt, he is the most interesting phenomenon among composers of the new generation.”(19) Prokofiev was described as “one of the youngest leaders of the modern school. Side by side with Stravinsky, he demonstrates independence. All our music lovers anticipate this concert with great interest.” On the day of their arrival, the programmes of the two concerts on 25 and 27 March were announced and photographs of the two perfor-mers, Prokofiev and Llubera, were published. The first of the recitals, which featured Prokofiev alone, had three parts:

Prelude and Fugue in D Minor D. Buxtehude – S. Prokofiev
Waltzes F. Schubert – S. Prokofiev
Two Whimsies – N. Miaskovsky
Pictures at an Exhibition – M. Musorgsky
Promenade, Bydlo, Two Jews, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks

Sonata No. 2 in D Minor S. Prokofiev

3 Gavottes, Op. 12, 25 and 32 – S. Prokofiev
Tales of an Old Grandmother – S. Prokofiev
March, Rigaudon and Prelude, Op. 12 – S. Prokofiev

The second concert on 27 March 1931 was even more ambitious, consisting of five parts. Prokofiev appeared both as soloist in his own compositions and as his wife’s accompanist.

Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 20 – S. Prokofiev

“El jilguerito con pico de oro” – B. de Laserna Nieva
“Qual farfalletta amante” – D. Scarlatti
“There’s not a swain of the plain” – H. Purcell
“The Fire of Longing Burns in My Blood” – M. Glinka
Vocalist – L. Llubera, pianist – S. Prokofiev

8 Visions fugitives, Op. 32 – S. Prokofiev
Etude in C Minor, Op. 32 No. 3 – S. Prokofiev

“The Beetle” from the cycle Nursery – M. Musorgsky
Parasia’s song from the opera "Sorochinsky Fair" – M. Musorgsky
Circles – N. Miaskovsky
“Complaint,” Russian Folk Song – arr. S. Prokofiev
“The Viburnum Bush,” Russian Folk Song – arr. S. Prokofiev
“Dew,” on text of S. Gorodetsky – I.Stravinsky
Vocalist – L. Llubera, pianist – S. Prokofiev

Sonata No. 4, Op. 29 – S. Prokofiev
Divertissement, Op. 43 – S. Prokofiev
March from the opera "Love for Three Oranges" – S. Prokofiev
Toccata, Op. 11 – S. Prokofiev
Piano – S. Prokofiev

Here are some of the reviews that appeared in the press. In the newspaper Lupta (Battle), Miron Grindea wrote: “S. Prokofiev is a wonderful phenomenon, stylish in the extreme. A Slavic giant, with impenetrable glasses, elegant down to the most unexpected details. An enigmatic magician... Prokofiev has a fiery virtuosity, similar to top aerobatics. The Sonata in D Minor contains technical difficulties with which, we believe, only the author himself can cope brilliantly. The cold inspiration, from which any temptation to sentimentality has been removed, is appealing. The motives are austere but at the same time produce a strong impression. Prokofiev is the ideal interpreter of his works. Actually, it is neither possible to imagine these unusual themes and abrupt chords, nor all of the pianistic acrobatics and bracing humour of the works heard last night, without this performer—who, for all we know of the Slavic soul, is unusual. The success of yesterday’s concert was enormous. The audience was constantly aware that it beheld a musical persona, the head of contemporary art.”(20)

Not everything, however, went well. Here, for example, is what the renowned Romanian musicologist, Lazar Cosma, wrote: “From the reviews and responses at the conclusion of Prokofiev’s concerts, it must be said that there was a great difference between the two manifestations: to the extent that the performance of Prokofiev was brilliant, the impression created by the voice of the soprano was deplorable. The brilliant form of Prokofiev’s manifestation was eclipsed in collaboration with Lina Llubera; the discrepancy between the performers onstage was blatant. The interesting presentation by a brilliant innovator was followed by the appearance of Lina Llubera, the composer’s wife. In actual fact, this was the only qualification that justified her appearance on the stage of the Romanian Athenaeum.”(21) The chronicler in the paper Adevarul (Truth) expressed the following opinion: “The thing about last night’s concert that defies understanding is why the famous guest burdened such an extensive programme with the lamentable vocal divertissement of Madame Llubera, who ruined dozens of beautiful tunes, managing to sing them not only without any voice but a quarter-tone low as well. We concede, nevertheless, that such a magnificent personality as Prokofiev can be forgiven such an astonishing whim.”(22)

But most of the reviews were enthusiastic, lockset in their praise. Liviu Artemie wrote the following in Rampa on 28 March: “Without a doubt, Sergei Prokofiev is a rare phenomenon of astonishing musical freedom and ingenuity. Prokofiev scored a great victory both for himself and for contemporary music as a whole.” K. Nottar remarked on “the spirit of Musorgsky in the music of Prokofiev, his technical polish and rhythmic riches, as well as the neo-classic orientation in the Gavotte, March, Rigaudon and Prelude.”(23) Romeo Alexandrescu assigned Prokofiev’s tour “a special place in Bucharest’s concert landscape... It was an unforgettable event that for us signifies an important beginning and a crucial inspiration for aesthetic and spiritual renewal.”(24) I quote one additional important observation, from Emmanuil Chomak: “The issues raised in our midst by the splendid Russian composer and pianist are crucial. The European and the Russian, the traditionalist and the innovator have been fused in this powerful creative artist into a seamless whole. He has no need to introduce folklore to validate his ethnic identity... So, beyond the unmi-tigated pleasure we experienced listening to Prokofiev both as pianist and as composer, we are indebted and grateful to him for the immense tutorial and guidance he offered to a young Romanian music in search of its path.”(25)

Finally, I would like to present a little-known interview that Prokofiev gave to the aforementioned Miron Grindea, published in the paper Lupta on 1 April 1931:

M.G. What compelled you to compose the Classical Symphony?

S.P. The whole world thinks that I composed it to poke fun at classical music, that it is some stunt of mockery. It was 1917, in the summer. I found myself alone in the Russian provinces. Until that moment everything I had ever composed had been at the piano. This wasn’t due to lack of knowledge about orchestration, or laziness, but habit. So one day I asked myself: Could you write without a piano, only with your head? You never can tell. I’ll try a symphony. What is a symphony? The masterpieces of the brilliant pioneers Haydn and Mozart haunted me relentlessly. And I got down to work. It is a symphony that preserves the classical canons but dresses in modern clothes and employs modern orchestration. The Classical Symphony emerged from this necessary mental effort. Beyond its author’s admiration for the great creators of the past, nothing should be read into it.

M.G. Do you think that all sentimentality should be banished from music?

S.P. To the extent that music is a pure art, yes. There is sentimentality and sentiment (feeling). Massenet was a sentimentalist, but he wasn’t a musician who could spearhead the future. At the same time, the Andante from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony contains feeling that is timeless but that is nonetheless subject to sense-based experience. The same can be said of Wagner, Bach, and Musorgsky. I do not believe that feeling, in the genuine sense of the word, can disappear from my works. Of course, I am a true son of my time and seek to reflect it, but I cannot say that I am its slave.

And then, I am a resolute foe of theorising, definitions, guidelines. I will provide you a persuasive example. In the period of his full creative maturity, Rimsky-Korsakov —who was undeniably a great musician—wrote an authoritative treatise on orchestration and, after that, continued to compose guided by the rules laid down in this book. And all his subsequent works were inferior to the ones that preceded them. It follows that I prefer the opera The Snow Maiden to The Golden Cockerel, which is written academically, rigidly, with the imprint of an inspiration that is hamstrung. A similar shortcoming is characteristic of the music of Skriabin, who composed with a fatally huge ego. (At that, Prokofiev played on the piano for me several fanciful chords from the works of Skriabin, explaining theoretically to me their amazing originality.)

M.G. What can you say about the music of the Bolsheviks?

S.P. About Russian music of the recent past, if you like. A great composer, Miaskovsky, appeared after the Revolution. He is the author of ten symphonies, four piano sonatas, and several sinfoniettas that are all very original. What is interesting to note is the remarkable fact that Miaskovsky continues the line of great Russian music—Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov—using revolutionary themes and images in his compositions, like the rhapsodist of a new age. There are two directions in Russian music today: the traditional, Skriabin-esque line that is represented in the first place by Sabaneev, and the other, represented by Mosolov and Shostakovich, who compose inspired by the revolutionary atmosphere.

In conclusion, I would like to reassert that the study of even the lone tour Prokofiev made to Romania helps to refine our knowledge of his career, placing familiar facts into sharper relief.



1 Sergei Prokof’ev, Dnevnik 1907-1933 (Paris: sprkfv, 2002), Vol. 2, 422.

2 Ibid., 423.

3 Ibid., 434.

4 Ibid., 432.

5 Ibid., 446. [By “two Georges” Prokofiev refers to the Imperial Russian St. George Medal. The “Kornilov March” was the strategic retreat of anti-Bolshevik forces from Rostov to Kuban in southern Russia, under the direction of General Lavr Kornilov, in the late winter and early spring of 1918. Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health is the foundational text of Christian Science. – Ed.]

6 M. Panova and N. Gladilina-Shoma, “Georgii Gorchakov: Taina ‘blagochestivogo marabuta’—o zhizne i tvorchestve sekretaria Sergeia Prokof’eva”, Novyi zhurnal No. 258 (March 2010) (on the web here)

7 G. Bezviconi, Boerimea Moldovei (Bucure?ti, 2004), 118.

8 Ibid., 113.

9 S. Pozhar, Moldavsko-russkie vzaimosviazi v iskusstve v litsakh i personaliiakh (Chisinau, 2009), 160.

10 Op. cit.

11 A. Boldur, Muzica în Basarabia (Bucure?ti, 1940), 29.

12 See B. Zhur, “K 100-letnemu iubileiu A. S. Pushkina”, Krasnaia Bessarbiia No. 3 (1937), 15.

13 Moldovan National State Archive R-2960, d. 327 (V. Bulychev, Vospominaniia).

14 Unsigned, “Bessarabtsy vo Frantsii: Informatsiia o deiatel’nosti Soiuza bessarabtsev vo Frantsii”, Krasnaia Bessarabia No. 8 (1929), 21.

15 Prokof’ev, Dnevnik, Vol. 2, 596.

16 E. Manu, “Velikii russkii dirizhor i velikii russkii kompozitor”, Rampa, 7 maia 1922, 2.

17 E. Manu, “Muzyka zarubezhom: Novie napravleniia v russkoi muzyke”, Rampa, 19 June 1922, 5.

18 L. Artemie, “Sergei Prokof’ev i dvizhenie muzykal’nogo moderna”, Rampa, 12 March 1931, 3.

19 M. Grindia, “Znamenitii russkii kompozitor i pianist v Bukhareste”, Epoca [Epokha], 15 March 1931, 2.

20 Quoted in L. Cosma, “Prokofiev la

Bucure?ti – martie 1931”, Muzica No. 4

(1991), 109.

21 Ibid., 108.

22 Ibid., 110.

23 Ibid., 109.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., 110.