Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev

In Lina & Serge - The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, Simon Morrison, a music historian at Princeton, tells the sad, strange, but compelling tale of Lina Codina, known to us as the wife of Serge Prokofiev, one of the 20th century’s most original and brilliant composers.

At risk of sounding like an advertisement, I can truly say that I could not put this book down once I began reading it. Morrison succeeds in making this book both scholarly and readable, a difficult balance. Through Serge Prokofiev Jr., the composer’s grandson, the writer had access to letters, documents and photographs from Prokofiev’s estate as well as memories of several acquaintances of Lina Prokofiev. I am certain such a book would not have been possible during the days of the Soviet Union, when access to information about the Stalinist purges would not have been possible. Holding this book and reading it is to relive a dark and terrible period in our recent history.

Lina was born on October 21, 1897 in Madrid. Her parents, Juan Codina and Olga Nemïsskaya, were both professional singers with modest careers. Because of various circumstances, Lina grew up living in Spain, Switzerland, Cuba and the United States at different times in her young life, and Lina often thought of her “peripatetic upbringing as one big adventure. Because of her mother Olga, who came originally from Odessa, Ukraine, Lina could speak, read and write Russian, a skill that stood her in good stead in the Russian émigré circles in New York. Lina met Serge Prokofiev on February 17, 1919, after a solo piano recital by the composer at Aeolian Hall. According to Morrison, Lina was “mesmerized by Serge’s phlegmatic demeanor and blistering technique at the keyboard. Throughout their stormy and oft-interrupted courtship, Lina had always been the one to push for commitment from Serge who, though attracted to Lina, did not want to commit himself. It was not until Lina became pregnant with Serge’s child that they married on October 8, 1923.

In 1925, when Lina was 28, Anatoliy Lunacharsky, the head of cultural affairs, under orders from The Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party and, I’m sure, with Stalin’s tacit approval, began an intense campaign to reestablish cultural relationship with the West as well as to lure émigré Russian artists to return to the Soviet Union and add luster to its odious regime. The Soviets pulled out all the stops to attract Prokofiev, with attractive commissions for new works, as well as high profile performances of existing compositions with generous royalties. The target of their campaign included Lina, a trained singer struggling to carve out a musical career, and playing upon her desperate need to be accepted as a musician. They appealed to her vanity as the wife of the “great composer and offered her performing opportunities as well.

After a few highly successful visits, including a stunning performance in Leningrad of Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges, a performance reportedly far superior to the one given by the Chicago Lyric Opera (who commissioned the work), Prokofiev decided to make the permanent move back to the Soviet Union, one that would turn out to be the biggest mistake of his life. It was then that the doors of the Iron Curtain began to be (slowly) closed. At first, the couple was still able to travel outside the Soviet Union their sons had to be left behind as “hostages”. Eventually, travel beyond the Soviet bloc was not permitted. At the end, Prokofiev was a broken man, in health as well as in spirit, and one of the 20th century’s most original geniuses was reduced to churning out hackwork for the Party. Ironically, Prokofiev died of a massive stroke on exactly the same day as Stalin, in 1953.

As for Lina, her life began to become a living hell when the harsh realities of Stalinist Russia sank in, when the Party began to tighten the screws on both her and Serge. Things became even worse when Prokofiev fell for a much younger woman, Mira Mendelson. Mendelson, according to Morrison, “wrote talentless poems, as she herself realized, and imagined that she might become a librettist. When they met, she was a member of the Komsomol (Communist Youth League), and was on her way to joining a Communist Party, a real mark of distinction in that society. Like her parents, she was a true believer of Communism and its dogma, and “she had imagined nothing more for herself than a dull-grey existence in the service of the state before the colorful Serge entered her life. Eventually, Prokofiev left Lina and their two children, while Moscow was under siege from Hitler, and later divorced her and married Mira. 

Then, on February 20, 1948, Lina heard the knock on her door, a knock dreaded by so many Soviets at the time. She was first detained at the Lubyanka, then at Lefortovo prison, for a total of nine and a half months, before being sent to the Gulag on trumped-up charges, the most serious of which included “her persistent efforts to leave the Soviet Union with the aid of foreign embassy workers. This did happen, but there is a big difference between wanting to visit her mother in Paris to defection. During her initial detention, her tormentors would beat her, deprive her of sleep and warmth, her limbs were bound “in excruciating positions. Once she thrown into a cell filled with ice. She was held in captivity at various prison camps for eight years until being released after Stalin’s death.

After being released, she was somewhat rehabilitated by the regime to the extent of being invited to the world premiere of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto shortly after her release, and was even assigned a modest apartment. The life she lived within the Soviet Union was certainly a far cry from the life she first envisioned when the Prokofievs made the fateful decision to return to the country.

Lina Prokofiev did eventually receive permission to leave the Soviet Union, and she ironically became the guardian of the Prokofiev legacy. She attended fashionable performances of his works, and even narrated a performance of Peter and the Wolf in New York. For the rest of her life, however, she would live in the shadows of her days in the Gulag: She had a fear of being picked up on the street, she jumped whenever a car passed close to her, and she would relive the nightmarish days of prison camp in her sleep.

In 1988, Lina visited Bonn, then the capital of West Germany, but fell seriously ill there. Her younger son Oleg arranged for her to be transferred to the Churchill Clinic in London where she died on January 3, 1989, aged ninety-one.

To borrow from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, there “never was a story of more woe than the life of Lina Prokofiev (née Cordina), one of many victims who fell prey to the Soviet regime. Author Simon Morrison, in a masterful way, weaves this sad but fascinating tale of Lina Prokofiev.  Those who would like further information, or further reading into the subject, could do worse than referring to the detailed notes at the end of the book. Morrison is also the author of The People’s Artist, a book about Serge Prokofiev’s career after his return to the Soviet Union. If this current book is any indication, I am sure The People’s Artist would be a very interesting (I am not sure if “enjoyable” would be the appropriate word) read as well.

I am grateful to Simon Morrison for telling this compelling human drama, one that should be told, and leaving us shocked and saddened by the very long and very dramatic life of this colourful (albeit minor) figure in the annals of 20th century music.

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