Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Knowing the Score

A week late to the party: April 23 birthdays for Vladimir Nabokov and for Sergei Prokofiev, who was closer to the former's cousin, the composer Nicolas*, though both VN and SP drew upon Gozzi's commedia dell'arte The Love for Three Oranges (Senderovich & Shvartz track the motif through VN's ouevre in Nabokov Studies #6, along with its carnivalistic aspects [but without any Bakhtin reference]). They also shared a common interest in chess, though Nabokov's was more problematic (like that of concert pianist and problem composer Rudolf Heinrich Willmers who, while playing Schumann's 'Carnaval' in a piano recital in Copenhagen, stopped suddenly, wrote on his cuff, and then continued, explaining afterwards that he had been struggling for a week to solve a difficult problem when the solution came to him in a flash. 'I had to jot it down to get it out of my head and let me concentrate entirely on my playing.' [source])

The latest NYRB reviews the translation of Prokofiev's diary (not online, alas), devoting a section to his enthusiasm for chess, something shared amongst St Petersburg Conservatory musicians, "where games were often played in the intervals between rehearsals and concerts. Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Lyadov, and Rimsky-Korsakov were all keen chess players." (A continuing tradition.) Prokofiev played world champions from Lasker (holding him to a draw in a 1909 simultaneous exhibition) to Botvinnik (in 1951), but developed a friendship with Capablanca after they met in simuls at the St Petersburg 1914 tourney, in which Prokofiev scored 1-2 against the up-and-coming Capa. (Tarrasch, Capa's spoiler and author of the tourney book [his piano playing praised in Prokofiev's tourney report in Dyen], still classic, later wrote that "Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy." The title Grand Master was first established here, bestowed by Tsar Nicolas II on the finalists.) Biographer David Nice: "After his triumph Prokofiev took tea with Capablanca. He was a little dismayed, when he played through the Liszt transcription of the Tannhauser Overture, that Capablanca displayed 'total ignorance, saying that he'd heard the piece somewhere but didn't know what is was' ..." The Sergei Prokofiev Foundation provides the relevant diary extracts; Prokofiev's victory can best be played here, while Ed Winter covers both St Pete '14 and, later, Botvinnik, who says of his first exposure to Prokofiev's music: "If I am not mistaken the name of the piece was Despair [which doubles as the title of a VN novel]. It made a deep impression on all of us. Unfortunately I have never heard it since; if I had I should recognize it at once."

* Among other things, Nicolas set one of Vladimir's Russian poems to music, and was instrumental in getting him to know Edmund Wilson.

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