Moussia proudly showing her new poncho, Buenos Aires, 1923.

Picture from her photo collection

Moussia and Alexander Borovsky sailed from Genoa to South America in April 1923 on the brand new Italian liner ‘Giulio Cesare’, the flagship of the Navigazione Generale Italiana (NGI) which had made its maiden voyage in May 1922. In Buenos Aires, the winter season had just started. Winters and summers in the Southern Hemisphere occur at opposite times of the year from those in the north, with July being the coldest month. Many European orchestras, musicians and singers flocked to Buenos Aires when the European theatre season was over. As we shall see, I had good reasons, as I was preparing to write this article, to reconstruct the 1923 opera season (with the help of a magnificent website of the Teatro Colon).

On board, with the Borovskys, was the Wiener Staatsoper (The Viennese State Opera), whose Directors  at that time were Franz Schalk and  Richard Strauss. The Staatsoper was on its way to Buenos Aires to perform under the direction of Franz Schalk,  two operas by Richard Wagner: Tristan and Isolde (five performances between May 22 and June 9) and  The Valkyrie  (five performances between May 31 and July 2). Borovsky writes in his Memoirs:

Maria soon won the admiration of the opera company on board and even got friendly with Maestro Franz Schalk,who invited us frequently to his table.” 

Richard Strauss and Franz Schalk in the 1920s

It took three weeks to cross the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where the ship had a stopover and where the Borovskys disembarked. Alexander had to give a few concerts in Rio, before resuming the trip to Buenos Aires on the next boat, the ‘Principessa Mafalda’. It was a short stay, it being very hot in Brazil.  After only a few concerts and a bit of sightseeing, they boarded the NGI’s former flagship, the Principessa Mafalda. It had Richard Strauss and the Vienna Philharmonic on board who would perform in Buenos Aires Richard Strauss’ operas Salome (seven performances between June 26 and July 20) and Elektra (six performances between July 6 and August 9). Mousia and Alexander, first class passengers like Richard Strauss, soon discovered that he was there. Borovsky writes that he and Maria strolled four times round the deck seeing Strauss, without exhanging a single word with him.

“Finally, on our fifth encounter, Strauss stopped me and asked me to present him to my wife! I did, and Maria had a long talk with the composer in the ship’s lounge, finally persuading him to listen to my playing. I began with the Waldstein Sonata. When I finished, Strauss astounded me by asking what it was! I couldn’t believe he did not know, so I said, half-jokingly, ‘of course you know !’ ‘Schubert?’ he asked. So I told him it was Beethoven. But he did not appear at all confused or embarrassed; he simply explained that he had thought it was Schubert because there are places in that third movement where phrases in a major key are repeated immediately in a minor key — a device typical of Schubert. Then I played the Adagio and Great Fugue from Bach’s Organ Toccata in the Busoni transcription. I am sure that he did not know this either, but he was so impressed with it that he jumped out of his chair and announced emphatically, ‘with such music, the German nation will not perish.’ Later on, we met often… Maria and I arrived in Buenos Aires in June. ”

The couple stayed in Buenos Aires more than two months, until the beginning of September, no doubt in a good hotel and I wonder if their money started to run low because I found in Moussia’s photo album a picture which suggests she did a modeling job for the fur department at Harrods. In the righthand bottom corner of the picture  are the words: Harrods Buenos Aires. I found the following information about that store in Wikipedia:

“Harrods Buenos Aires, established in 1914 on 877 Florida Street as the only overseas branch of the renowned Harrods of London. The department store was expanded in 1920, and grew to occupy almost an entire Retiro-area city block. Following its expansion, the 47,000 m² (500,000 ft²) landmark was crowned by an eight-story cupola overlooking Cordoba Avenue and featured marble steps and cedar flooring throughout, as well as wrought-iron elevators with a riding capacity for twenty, valet service, and a jazz orchestra.”

Or would Moussia have bought the fur coat there and received the picture as a courtesy? It was certainly the type of store where Moussia felt at home!

The Borovskys left Buenos Aires by SS Southern Cross and arrived in New York on October 2, 1923. They probably still travelled on Nansen passports so they had to pass through Ellis Island. Their entry data are on the Ellis Island website. In the column “Ethnicity” the official has written for both: ‘Russia, Hebrew’ (Borovsky’s father was a Jew who had converted to the Orthodox Christian faith).

Alexander wanted to arrive in good time before his debut at Carnegie Hall on October 17, he wanted to practice hard. His debut in Carnegie Hall was a great success and he was asked to perform once more, on November 14. Then after an absence of eight months, they went back to France.

“We boarded the SS Berengaria for France. And at this point, when I was least expecting it, Maria decided the time was right to inform me that she was expecting a child.”

Maria could not have told him any earlier… Their baby, Natasha, was born on August 5, 1924 and counting backwards the child was conceived on or about the date of Borovsky’s debut in Carnegie Hall. The very moment she missed a period, she told him that he would also make his debut as a father. They were back in Paris around Christmas 1923.

The luxury liner SS Giulio Cesare

 (to be continued)

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