Book review: The Love And Wars Of Lina Prokofiev

The life of Lina Prokofiev – dumped by Serge and sent to Siberia – is a poignant tale of endurance

The Love And Wars Of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison

Harvill Secker, 336pp, £17.99

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When Serge Prokofiev was working on his second opera, The Love For Three Oranges, in 1919, barely a year after he had met his future wife, the singer Lina (Carolina) Codina, he made what seems like a romantic gesture: he renamed the first princess in the rambunctious, satirical opera Princess Linette. Lina’s mother, Olga, cautioned against her reading too much into this, though the name-change survived to the 1921 Chicago premiere and thereafter. But it turned out to be a more ambiguous and fearfully ironic alteration in the long run; since Linette does not marry the Prince – she expires of thirst having been “hatched” from her orange in Act III.

Although Lina did marry Serge, their relationship, never the easiest, came to an end once they returned to the Soviet Union, and, in 1948 she was arrested by the Ministry of State Security (MGB in Russian), imprisoned in Lubyanka and then Lefortovo, and spent until 1956 as a zek in a Siberian gulag. Morrison’s biography of Lina is as much a story of personal tragedy and disappointment as it is a compelling study of how art and tyranny interact.

Lina was an aspiring singer, the daughter of two singers, Spanish tenor Juan Codina and Ukrainian soprano Olga Nemïsskaya. Their careers imposed an itinerant, polyglot and erratic childhood on her, from Spain to Russia to Switzerland to America. She was evidently charming – Rachmaninoff was enchanted by her, as was the Slavophile socialite Vera Johnston – and it was this sophisticated internationalism that would eventually bring about her arrest.

Prokofiev was touring in the States when they met: although she later wrote to him saying “But I love S.P. man and not S.P. composer”, S.P.’s first love was his music. They returned to Europe and had a strangely disconnected relationship, seeing each other between his touring schedule and her singing lessons and performances. But it was clear that her career would be subordinate to his (she had a mild success as Gilda in Rigoletto, though she lost her place: he did not attend any performances). They married in 1923, in Ettal in the Bavarian Alps, when Lina was four months pregnant. Crucially, for later developments, the marriage was in a foreign country, between foreigners. The MGB would use their failure to declare their marriage to Soviet authorities as the spurious justification to declare it null and void.

Prokofiev had been being assiduously wooed by Soviet authorities, for whom the cultural cachet of such a high-profile return was a propaganda coup. They were promised both artistic and personal freedoms, and travelled back to Moscow in 1936. One can understand why Prokofiev did so, over and above his sentimental attachment to his native country. Prokofiev combined staggering self-belief with something of an inferiority complex. In America, his dissonant, chromatic music was less preferable to audience than the easier melodies of Rachmaninoff. In Paris, his dissonant, chromatic music was less fully avant-garde than that of Stravinsky. In Moscow, his only rival, Dmitri Shostakovitch, was denounced in 1936 for “ideological deficiencies” in Lady Macbeth Of The Mtsensk District and The Limpid Stream. In the USSR, he could be the maestro, working with Eisenstein on Alexander Nevsky, writing pieces for the centennial of Pushkin, and adapting Tolstoy’s War And Peace as an opera. Many of his most popular works derive from this period: Peter and the Wolf, the film music from Lieutenant Kijé and the ballet music from Romeo and Juliet. Lina attempted to broadcast on Soviet radio, but the experience was humiliating and technically limited. Worse, Prokofiev fell in love with a 25-year-old, Mira Mendelson, and left his wife and both children. For a while, being the wife of an eminent composer protected her; but not permanently.

Why Lina agreed to go to Russia is less certain. Partly, it was duty to the man she loved. Partly it was naivety. But, given that her first job, in America, was as secretary to the anti-Bolshevik but pro-Socialist Yekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, the “Grandmother of the Revolution”; given her friendship with Aleksey Stahl, who had been a member of the provisional government; given she knew Prokofiev’s cousin was imprisoned and his mother had retreated with the White Army, her innocence seems wilful whereas his was tinged with expediency.

Morrison writes excellently about her wartime deprivations and courage. But her friendship with diplomats and foreigners brought her under suspicion, and without her connection to Prokofiev, she was caught up in the post-war purges. Again, Morrison’s description of her life in the gulag is penetrating, and not without moments of terrible pathos: despite everything, one of her few requests was for a copy of Prokofiev’s song “Ya poidu po polyu” from the film Alexander Nevsky.

Prokofiev died the day that Stalin’s death was announced. His relationship with the state’s musical arbiters had not been as easy as he had convinced himself it might be – the Cantata For The Twentieth Anniversary Of The October Revolution went unperformed in his lifetime, and although there are stand-out late pieces, most notably the Seventh Symphony, there is a lot of formulaic and listless work. Lina was released, in part through the generous intercession of Shostakovitch, and died in 1988. Before she died, she recorded the narration for Neeme Järvi and Scottish National Opera’s anniversary performance of Peter And The Wolf. But, in the chilling epilogue, Morrison writes that no recordings of her singing have survived. Furthermore, with the exception of few songs, she rarely sang her husband’s work and he certainly never composed an operatic piece with her in mind.

Prokofiev comes across as caddish and arrogant, an impression his diaries might serve to ameliorate (for example, his anxieties at the cosmopolitanism of works like the Fifth Piano Concerto, on the eve of their return to Russia, shows him more ambivalent about his capacities to conform to Soviet musical dogma). On one of their first meetings Lina said she found him rude, and he replied that insolence was his preferred mode: that insolence, whether in the neoclassical cheekiness of the First Symphony, the zaniness of The Love For Three Oranges or the brass eructations of the Fifth Piano Concerto, show a more human, and loveable composer, than his scandalous coldness to his wife. He once upbraided Lina saying she just wanted to be seen on a composer’s arm; but it was when she was brushed off that arm that she showed remarkable, poignant dignity.