This beautiful woman was introduced to Sergey Prokofiev in Los Angeles on December 29, 1920 in the house of a mutual friend, Ariadna Rumanova née Nikolskaya, an accomplished pianist and composer. He noted in his diary: “and then a new face appeared, Baranovskaya, a former student of Meyerhold, a beautiful woman who suffered not at all by comparison with Ariadna… Baranovskaya I very much took to.”
Baranovskaya was no other than Maria Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki, in a later stage of her life the mother of Natasha Borovsky. On the top right-hand corner in Russian: In memory of Moscow.
In 2002, Sviatoslav Prokofiev sent Natasha his transcription of his father’s hand-written diaries, which added much to her knowledge of her mother’s early years. However, a series of strokes prevented her from making an English translation of the comments therein concerning her mother. Therefore, from time to time, I will follow the excellent English translation by Anthony Phillips of Prokofiev’s Diaries 1907-1933, published by Faber and Faber in the United Kingdom by permission of the Sergey Prokofiev Estate.
Prokofiev saw a lot of Baranovskaya during the three weeks that followed, almost always in the company of others, and writes about her in his diaries in a witty, literary style. There were many parties around the New Year so there were many opportunities to meet her, most of which were arranged by Baranovskaya herself.
“Rumanova and Baranovskaya, glamourous and décolletées, were looking extremely beautiful, and did their best to stay near me”…
At another party, that same evening, there was dancing: “I had never danced myself, and although I had never danced in America and did not know any of the American dances, I asked Baranovskaya to teach me, which she did very willingly and very successfully. “Is that all I have to do?” I asked, having easily mastered the steps. “Yes, but you need to be a bit more immoral,” she said. “You have to press your legs right up against your partner, as high and as hard as you can.”
During the following days he found out more information about her in the form of gossip by others and from her own accounts. He was quite impressed by her beauty, her composure and knowledge of the theatre (she has studied with Meyerhold in St. Petersburg). One evening he sat in on a lecture she gave in impeccable French on Molière, and on another occasion they sat à deux at table with the Rumanovs when “she showed herself to have more depths than I had previously realised. A terrible disease, kidney tuberculosis, had befallen her a year or two ago, and yet her whole attitude to the illness and her serene indifference to its outcome had the effect both of astonishing me and increasing the tenderness of my regard for her.”
In the afternoon of her 26th birthday [Russian calendar], Baranovskaya came to see Prokofiev, “to look at Three Oranges. Some of the text of the libretto I read to her, for some of it I explained the context, and played the music. As someone familiar with commedia dell’arte and the ideas of Gozzi and Meyerhold, Baranovskaya identified strongly with the opera and was terribly excited by it. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks flushed. She was reluctant to leave, but I was obliged to go …[to another appointment].”
On January 16: “Baranovskaya came to see me in the afternoon and I played and narrated to her the third and fourth acts of Three Oranges, as well as some excerpts from Fiery Angel. This sent her once again into ecstasies, as did my photograph, which I presented to her with some verses. “These verses will stay with me until my dying day,” she said”
Prokofiev left by train to Chicago and writes to Baranovskaya, who he now calls Frou-Frou and he gets letters back in a refined style but ever more with a touch of love.
He then leaves for France and is back in October, where he meets Frou-Frou in New York. She has put on some weight but “is still the sensitive and vital person she has always been”. On October 28, he leaves for Chicago where the rehearsals for the premier of Three Oranges are in full swing. Frou-Frou arrives on December 17. She sits next to him during rehearsals and gives good advice. She is again unwell with kidney trouble and has to stay in bed. She recovers in time for attending the general rehearsal on the 29th and the premiere on the 30th December 1921.
A few weeks later he meets her in New York, she is so ill that she has to check into a clinic for a week. He visits Baranovskaya.
“Frou-frou’s conversations gradually took an increasingly candid and specific direction. Our intercourse was conducted urbanely, with taste and a surface veneer of half-joking irony, but the underlying meaning was undoubtedly serious. Her idea was that I should marry her. Apparently the husband from whom she had separated two years ago had died in Mexico and she had the documents to prove it. ‘I am good-looking, quite presentable, why should I not be your wife?’ And certainly, if one was looking for one it would be a hard task to find a better wife than Baranovskaya, but those very qualities of refinement and delicacy and aesthetic discrimination I so valued in her seemed to have suppressed the woman in her. As such she aroused no feelings in me whatsoever… Accordingly, I imparted to Frou-frou in the bantering tone we habitually adopted just how misconceived such a step would prove to be, and the subject was not raised again even though I continued to see her every day.”
On 25 January 1922, Prokoviev left for France by the Dutch ship Noordam. Baranovskaya was taken back to California and the sunshine, to recover.
(to be continued)