Maria Korchinska: A Sketch (Part I)

by Nick (Kolia) Lampert

PREFACE
Celebrated harpist Maria Korchinska (1895-1979) began her career in Russia before the First World War. She started her studies at the Moscow Conservatoire at the age of ten, after getting through a fiercely competitive entrance exam. She was taught by Xenia Erdeli and then by Alexander Slepushkin, and graduated in 1911 with a gold medal, the first ever awarded to a harpist. By the time she was fourteen, she was busy performing, both within the Conservatoire and outside. It was a golden time, and she played under the baton of such luminaries as Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Glazunov, Ippolitov-Ivanov and also Debussy, who visited Russia and impressed her hugely. In addition, she played in Koussevitsky’s Moscow orchestra from its foundation in 1909 until the revolution of 1917. She survived the rigours of the revolutionary years, and, during that period, famously accompanied Chaliapin in performances for prisoners at the Cheka (security police) jail. A few years later, in January 1924, she played with the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra at Lenin’s funeral.

Her teacher Alexander Slepushkin died in 1918, and she was appointed to replace him as professor of harp at the Conservatoire, also taking over as principal harpist at the Bolshoi Theatre. She was only twenty-two at the time of her appointment, yet in the course of a few years made a big impression as a pedagogue as well as a performer, thus influencing the next generation of Russian harpists.

In 1922, she became a founder member of Persimfans (First Symphonic Ensemble), the world’s first conductor-less symphony orchestra. It was during Persimfans rehearsals that she met Count Constantine Benckendorff (1880-1959). He was a keen amateur flute player who had joined the Persimfans board. They were married later that year, and a daughter Nathalie was born in September 1923. In 1924, Maria left for England on a concert tour, together with her husband and daughter, and never returned to Russia. The family settled in England, where a son, Alexander, was born in 1925. Maria went on to make a career in England and in the international arena. She established a strong reputation as a soloist, as a chamber player, as an adjudicator at international harp events, and as an inspiring, if daunting teacher.

Constantine Benckendorff was my great uncle (brother of my maternal grandmother). Both he and Maria Korchinska were colourful figures of my youth, and Cony (as he was known to family and friends) inspired me to take up the flute nearly sixty years ago.

I was prompted to draw up this sketch after seeing some material relating to Maria Korchinska’s life and work in her daughter Nathalie Brooke’s family papers. The papers revived memories and encouraged me to set the material down in a form that would be accessible to descendants, to younger generations of harpists, and, perhaps, to a wider audience. My account is based on Korchinska’s reminiscence about her early years, a concert scrapbook that was kept during the 1920s, some information in published sources and on the internet, photos from a variety of sources, and the oral testimony of ex-pupils and fellow-musicians. I would like especially to thank my cousin Nathalie, and the former pupils and fellow musicians who spoke so eloquently about their memories of Korchinska and helped in other ways to realise this project: in particular Karen Vaughan, Hilary Wilson, Sian Morgan Thomas, Brian Davis, Hannah Francis, William Bennett and Rhuna Martin. I have incorporated part of the text of a previously published piece about Cony’s musical activities, mainly drawn from his memoir Half a Life. [1]

Early Life
Maria Korchinska found it difficult, she said, to speak about her own life, and she did not publish a memoir. She did, however, begin to record some reminiscences, getting as far as the “first chapter of an autobiography.” This was set down in 1975 by Brian Davis, one of her pupils, and the following are some extracts:

As a professional harpist, I had the pleasure of making [a] long-playing record of harp music [in 1962]; now when I think about my life, it seems like a very busy, very varied LP.

I was born in Moscow [in 1895] to a family of landed gentry who had never taken part in the artistic world. We were Polish by blood, but settled in Russia for four generations, and as a result completely Russified in upbringing and outlook. My early life was dominated by my father, who was a quite exceptional person. He had the strongest of wills, and held extremely avant-garde ideas for his time. He felt it was time people of his class should work professionally, so he gave away his inherited estate to his half-brother and took a post as lecturer in Mathematics and Engineering at Moscow University.  Later on, he combined this with a senior Civil Service post.

His first wife gave him a son, but she died prematurely, leaving him broken hearted. When he was forty-two, he remarried; my future mother was twenty-five and came from the part of Moldavia then in southern Russia, now in Romania. She was a typical late Victorian lady, with a genteel education. Her devotion to the Roman Catholic Church contrasted with my father’s atheism and liberal ideas, but he was the force that moulded us children. He conceived a rigorous discipline for the six of us (the son he longed for arriving fifth) and being the eldest I bore the brunt of all my father’s ideas and experiments.

We were stretched mentally and gymnastically from the start according to strict routines. As a result I could read and write before I was three, but I dreaded the lessons because they were so demanding. Cold baths and exercises took care of the physical side, designed to develop strength and courage. But life was not wholly uncomfortable; my father now being in charge of the Civil Service department responsible for the roads and rivers of a vast area, we lived in an official residence which had a huge garden. There we children played with others from the surrounding big houses with great enjoyment. My mother was concerned about our health, doubting that we could stand the strain of my father’s regime, but since her life seemed to be confined to producing babies, her influence did not extend beyond the nursery and its army of wet-nurses, whom I loathed.
When I was six, my two nearest sisters died of scarlet fever, so my surviving sister and I were sent to my grandmother’s estate in Moldavia. My father’s parting words to the nurse who accompanied us were, “Now you have Maria and Helen in your charge, report on them to me every three weeks.”

We spent eight splendid months in Moldavia, freed from the iron discipline of Moscow. My grandmother had always sent us melons, corncobs, nuts and wine from her estates, but now to see her magnificent kitchen garden was a joy. My mother’s sister (a very beautiful woman) and her son (an extremely difficult boy) were staying with us. My aunt always wanted me to look “nice,” in particular expecting me to comb my hair twice a day, so … I cut it off. Of course I was punished, but soon after I exacted my revenge. I disappeared for a whole day into one of the several huge baskets kept for storing the flour from the corncobs in winter. Everyone became most concerned, even casting anxious looks into the pond, which was very gratifying. When evening came I emerged, and was punished; but I did not mind—I had had my revenge.

….. My father came to visit us in Moldavia; I remember it was the first time I had seen him on horseback. He was not so demanding at this stage, in fact quite kindly, but we had orders to return soon to Moscow. So back we went, my sister and I ...

At our return, my mother had twins, which meant two more wet-nurses, many more screams and much more harassment. Meanwhile, the next stage in my father’s educational scheme began. I have been asked, “Why are you a professional player?” The answer is, in my father’s words, “One has to be professional now.” He was convinced that after the next war that Russia lost, we would all have to earn our living. So, in my seventh year, I embarked on a demanding routine that included geography, drawing, sculpture, anatomy, and the piano, as well as the usual subjects. As for languages, we spoke Polish as well as Russian, in view of our ancestry. My father considered that we needed to know not the languages of our friends, French and English, but those of our potential enemies; so I was set to learn German, and my sister was tutored in Japanese. Again my father’s forecasts proved correct. The Japanese war of 1905 gave us our first taste of insecurity, and in 1914 we knew we had to work.

From the age of six until I was ten, I studied for two hours every morning with my father, whose particular aim was to discover where the talents of his children lay. He decided I was best at music, so my work at the piano intensified, and I hated it. (The harp did not make an appearance until I was nine). As you can see, my education was of a quite unusual kind—a mixture of Tolstoy and the Barretts of Wimpole Street. [2]

I don’t remember ever being a child. From an early age, one was a person full of duties and responsibilities. We were not allowed to ring for servants to attend us; we had to learn to do everything ourselves. Freedom and fun were very occasional happenings, when we might run away and play with other children in the garden or go skating, although we had hardly any friends. For the most part, life consisted of rigorous drilling.

    
Xenia Erdeli c. 1900.   Serge Koussevitsky (1874–1951).
 
Alexander Slepushkin (1870–1918).   Wilhelm Posse (1852–1925).
 
1911 Graduates of Moscow Conservatoire. Maria Korchinska is fourth from left back row. Ippolitov-Ivanov is seated second
from right.
  Moscow Conservatoire Facade.
 
Lenin’s lying in state in the Pillar Hall, House of Unions,
(formerly Assembly of the Nobility) January 1924.
  Maria Korchinska (center front) with her Moscow Conservatoire
pupils, including Vera Dulova (front right) who became the most
celebrated Soviet harpist of her generation. Signed by
her pupils and inscribed “To our dear friend and teacher, with
love” c. 1924.
   
Moscow Conservatoire Concert Hall.    

 

The Moscow Conservatoire
At the age of ten, Maria was sent to the Moscow Conservatoire. This, she said, was a “‘wonderful release into freedom” from an austere family life.

The Conservatoire was then at its height. Competition to enter was severe, and we were examined in piano and given aural and general intelligence tests. On that occasion 360 candidates applied, and I was the youngest of forty accepted … I began by taking harp and piano both as first subjects. The great musicians of the day were there to teach us. We had to play once a month in front of all the other pupils; if we played well, then we had to perform in one of the public recitals held three or four times a year. The theoretical side was thoroughly taught, with classes in harmony, instrumentation, form, composition, and solfeggio. On the other hand, ordinary academic lessons seemed poor, and were taken very lightly, although I continued to be taught at home by an endless series of tutors whom I loathed. I suppose really the Conservatoire course was not so bad in this respect now I look back. It was at least quite wide-ranging; I can remember having to write an essay on Lady Macbeth in my final literature exams.

My parents used to take me to the opera at the Bolshoi Theatre, to improve my education. We saw and heard many famous artists, but I dreaded the performances because of the inevitable murders and ghosts that occurred. I was fundamentally not devoted to music; I was interested in everything, particularly people.

I studied the harp with Madame Erdeli [1878-1971], an elegant dilettante, who was first harp at the Bolshoi.

After three years Erdeli married a Guards officer and had to resign her position as “theatre people” were not socially acceptable to the regiment. [3]

At about that time, my piano professor insisted that I should devote myself entirely to that instrument. I dreaded my parents’ decision, but luckily for me they insisted on the harp, as my father realised that there were far fewer harpists than pianists.

Released to the harp alone, I was pressed very hard. I continued my studies with Alexander Slepushkin [1870-1918], who had been a Guards officer, the son of a banker. The bank had failed; out of a sense of honour the father had shot himself, and the son had to resign from his regiment. He took his harp to Berlin, and studied eight hours a day for six years with Posse (1852-1925).

On his return to Moscow, Slepushkin was appointed first harp at the Bolshoi and professor at the Conservatoire. He was an extremely kind person. He taught me twice a week, and every other lesson I had to present two new studies and a new piece. It certainly gave me an extended repertoire!

I loved life at that time. Although at first I had to travel to the Conservatoire with my governess, who delivered and collected me, the hours unsupervised by her were marvellous. Later on, of course, I travelled alone, and, by then, I had made many friends, all considered quite unsuitable by my family. Particular friends were another harpist and her elder brother and sister, whose father, a singer, had cut his throat in front of his wife, tormented by the thought that he was losing his voice.

I was the youngest pupil at the Conservatoire, and as so many of the singers asked me to play piano accompaniments for them before their lessons, I knew all the boys!

By the time I was fourteen, I was kept fully occupied with performing, both within the Conservatoire, and with permission, outside. At that period Koussevitzky formed his own orchestra. He had been a double-bass player in the Bolshoi, married to a ballerina of the corps de ballet. He taught at the Royal Philharmonic School (a private institution as opposed to the “‘state” Conservatoire) where he met the daughter of the financial backer of the Kuznetsov tea merchants. She was determined to marry Koussevitzky, so arranged matters by giving his wife ten thousand rubles. More of her fortune was used for Koussevitzky’s training abroad as a conductor. When he returned, he was acclaimed, though he still submitted to constant coaching and advice. He drew great people such as Debussy to Moscow, and I played for him all the time until the Revolution …

In a BBC broadcast in 1965 [4], in which she reminisced about her musical life, Maria Korchinska  recalled: 

Koussevitzky was a good musician, but he became a good conductor while training his orchestra. Everyone was with him, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Glazunov and many stars from abroad … Koussevitzky’s orchestra played all the first performances of Scriabin’s works—sometimes with as many as twenty rehearsals—Scriabin himself was always standing by, which we called inspiring Koussevitzky. The results were wonderful and then I really did enjoy music. This orchestra played all during the war, and I also gave many concerts as a soloist during that period.

On one occasion when [Koussevitzky] was conducting a strange thing occurred. I can see him now as he approached the platform with his slow walk, his rather pompous manner, and his glittering eyes. The first piece was Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. He took up his baton, glared at each section in turn, then gave his imperative beat. At one point he gave me a very emphatic one, but I, quite sure of myself, gestured “No!,” then came in at the right place. In the interval, I was summoned to his room. He looked me slowly up and down, then suddenly took my shoulder and said, “My friend, you were right!” I have never been overawed by people (by events, yes, but not people), so I replied simply, “I knew I was right.” After that there was no more to be said. But nowadays, if for instance Boulez were to give me as definite a cue, I would play!

I can remember Nikisch coming to conduct the Conservatoire orchestra when I was fourteen or fifteen. I was not very impressed, but then we were used to the talents of people like Ippolitov-Ivanov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Glazunov, who indeed made it a golden age for the Conservatoire. One visitor who did make a great impression on me, however, was Debussy. He arrived at about the time when I was coming to like music more deeply, and I can never forget his hands, beautiful, and so very calm and great.

Another visitor was the Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye, and I was asked to play in the concert at the Hall of the Nobility (now the Lenin Hall) where he was to perform a concerto—was it Bruckner? [5] Anyway the slow movement was scored just for violin, harp and organ. The rehearsal went without incident, and I felt confident of the five pages of arpeggios that I had to do. At the performance all went smoothly until, suddenly, at the second page of those arpeggios, all the lights in the building failed. If it were to happen now I would not be able go on, but then it was a challenge, and I knew the passage by heart. Ysaye continued, and so did the organist and I. At the last chord all the lights miraculously came on, and there was pandemonium! The Russian audience, usually so staid and undemonstrative, all stood up and howled for a repeat.
Later, when my Fräulein was waiting to take me home, I understood an agent was making me some kind of offer. (In fact it was of a concert tour with Ysaye). I declined and hurried home, not telling my father, who would merely have assumed that I must have made an exhibition of myself.

Behaviour on my part that was actually scandalous by Conservatoire standards occurred when a German conductor came to conduct some of Wagner’s music. The rehearsal passed off well enough, and I was told that the piece that involved me would be first in the second half of the concert. During the first part of the evening, I was sitting among the audience happily talking to my friends—not listening at all, as at that time I was not interested in music. Suddenly one of them said, “Maria, aren’t you in this?” I replied, “What are they playing?” The order had been changed and it was my piece! So I rushed out of the hall, round the back, onto the platform, sat down and, two bars later, came in with the harp entry. No one noticed in the orchestra, and the conductor did not look up, but in the interval I was summoned to the office of the Directrice, Mme Goubert. “Are you mad?” she began. “I don’t know,” I replied unabashed. “What were you doing? Why were you not there?” she continued. I explained. “‘Did you not listen to the announcement?” she went on. “No,” I answered. She said she was now giving me the lowest mark for my behaviour, minus three. I realised that was supposed to mean expulsion, but she said they would give me just one more chance. I knew the threat was not real, but even so did not report the matter at home. It was never mentioned again, but it was a scandal nonetheless.
In 1911, I took my final exams at the Conservatoire and was awarded the first gold medal ever given to a harpist. So ended a very happy six years.

The Revolution
Maria Korchinska survived the rigours of the Russian revolution of 1917 and its aftermath, making resourceful use of her musical talents. She recalled in her 1965 BBC broadcast:

“Belonging to the Arts” was a trump card in Soviet Russia and one had a right to exist. Apart from my Bolshoi and Conservatoire work I performed in endless cultural—so-called—places and even in a Red Army club, which was very profitable, as one was paid in rations. The food situation at that time in Russia was meagre to say the least and to get the week’s ration of a Red soldier was a fantastic fee. As we were many in our family, this helped us a great deal to survive.

The Red Army club was not without adventure. To begin with, I had to go for an interview with a Cultural Commissar who asked what I did—I replied that I played the harp. He looked at me very severely and said: “Can you play drama?” to which my reaction was to giggle but as I knew what it involved—sugar, salt, bread, and even a pound of meat—I said, also very seriously: “Yes, I can play drama and, if necessary, even comedy.” I got the job and a week later dragged my harp on a sleigh five miles out into the suburbs of Moscow to the Red Army Club to play at their concert.
My next appearance at the Red Army Club began with another interview with another Commissar. I was marched off to the office and given a warning that I must explain what I was up to. The object that I’d left behind exploded and was dangerous. So I undressed the harp and showed him that nineteen strings had gone—there was no heat of any kind in Moscow at that time—and I broke the twentieth to show him how harmless the noise was.

I survived in that club for two months. During that time many friends were arrested, so when I was ordered to play in the Cheka [state security] prison with Chaliapin (1873-1938), I was delighted, hoping to see someone I knew, and to be able to bring and receive messages. I went to play solos, and actually had to accompany Chaliapin because a piano could not be moved around the prison. We performed in eleven corridors from 10AM to 7PM, and I did manage to see a few friends. But the result was again an interview with a Commissar saying that if I talked to the prisoners again, I might well remain amongst them.

I also played at Lenin’s funeral [in January 1924]. The whole orchestra of the Bolshoi was commanded to appear at 6AM on the day, our faces smeared with fat against the frost of 30 degrees. We stood for three hours until we were marched into the large hall, once called the “Hall of the Nobility,” where Lenin was lying in state. There we played the new National Anthem for hours. We were not paid for this performance, and as all musicians all over the world, thought this was not a good show. As a matter of fact, the next statesman who died also had a state funeral with the Bolshoi orchestra, and they were paid that time. Unfortunately I missed it.

Professor of Harp at the Conservatoire and Principal Harp at the Bolshoi Theatre
In 1918, Maria Korchinska’s teacher from the Conservatoire, Alexander Slepushkin, died and she was then appointed to his job as professor and head of harp, and also to his position as principal harpist with the Bolshoi Theatre orchestra. She clearly made a big impression as a teacher. Among her pupils was Vera Dulova (1910-2000), who was to be the most celebrated Soviet harpist of her generation.  After an interval of forty momentous years, she was to meet Dulova once more at the International Harp Weeks in Holland, and “I found, to my amazement, that they have not forgotten me.”

Persimfans

Early in 1922, Lev Moiseevich Zeitlin (1881-1952), a noted violinist, inspired the formation of a cooperative called Persimfans (abbreviation of Pervyi Simfonicheskii Ansambl (First Symphonic Ensemble). This was a radical experiment, the world’s first conductor-less symphony orchestra. Persimfans was democratic in spirit not just because it performed without a conductor, but also in reaching out to a wide audience, performing in factories and community centres as well as conventional concert halls. [6]

Maria Korchinska was a founding member of this orchestra, and it was during one of the early  rehearsals, in 1922, that she met Count Constantine Benckendorff (1880-1959), who was to become her husband. He was a keen amateur flute player who acquired professional status during this period

In January 1927, Sergei Prokofiev appeared with Persimfans in a program that included his Piano Concerto No. 3, as well as his orchestral suites from Chout and The Love for Three Oranges. He was rarely quick to praise but commented: “The conductorless orchestra coped splendidly with difficult programs and accompanied soloists as competently as any conducted orchestra.” “Their main difficulty,” he said later, “lay in changing tempo, for here the whole ensemble had to feel the music in exactly the same way. On the other hand, the difficult passages were easily overcome, for each individual musician felt himself a soloist and played with perfect precision.” [7]

Count Constantine Benckendorff
Count Constantine Benckendorff (“Cony” [pronounced “Connie”] as he was known to relations and friends) was the scion of a well-known family of Imperial Russia. The Benckendorffs were Germans who had settled in Baltic territories (now Estonia and Latvia) in the Middle Ages. When these territories were absorbed into the Russian empire at the end of the eighteenth century, the family adapted to the new situation, became servants of the Russian state, and, during the century that followed, occupied high positions in the military and in the diplomatic corps. Cony’s father, Count Alexander Benckendorff, was Russian ambassador in London from 1903 until his death in 1917.

Cony joined the Russian Navy in 1899 and fought in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–5, in the course of which he was taken prisoner. After his release, he managed the family estate for several years, and then once more served in the navy during the First World War. These events, the impact of the Russian revolution on his life, and his devotion to flute, are described in his very engaging memoir (Half a Life. London: The Richards Press 1954). Cony was progressive in outlook, and, after the Revolution, wanted to be of service to the new regime, and found employment with the Red Navy. But his aristocratic origins were against him, and working within the Soviet government eventually proved impossible. At this point, in 1921, he started to explore a life in music, and this led to his involvement with Persimfans.

Cony was a member of the Persimfans board and a player, though in his memoir he is duly modest about the latter role. He had no previous experience of orchestral work and was, he says, “permitted to take the part of third flute in those rare works where composers have included that number in their score, unmindful of W.A. Mozart’s opinion of the depressing effect such a prodigality of flutes has on the ears of the listener.” He gained further experience in chamber music. He was delighted to be asked to understudy for Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp, and performed it without upset in front of  “one of the most exacting audiences imaginable, including not only almost the entire staff of the Conservatoire, but every composer and writer on music then present in Moscow.” Cony met Maria Korchinska at one of the early Persimfans rehearsals in 1922. It was indeed she who had invited him to understudy for the Debussy sonata. They married in 1922, and a daughter Nathalie was born in September 1923. [8]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Lampert is Maria Korchinska’s great nephew-inlaw. She and her husband Constantine Benckendorff, Nick’s great uncle, were vivid figures of his youth. He was prompted to write a sketch about Korchinska after seeing material relating to her life and work in her daughter Nathalie Brooke’s family papers. This piece is part of that sketch.


Endnotes

[1] Nick Lampert: “Flute-playing: a Family Inheritance,” Flute, June 2010. 

[2] The reference is to The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1930) by Rudolph Besier (1878-1942), a play about the love of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning which leads to their elopement to escape Barrett’s controlling father.

[3] This circumstance did not however prevent Erdeli from continuing her career as performer elsewhere, and as teacher, arranger and composer.

[4] Studio Portrait, BBC Broadcast 14 May 1965.

[5] Not Bruckner since he did not write a violin concerto. The identity of the work that Korchinska refers to is yet to be established.

[6] A history of Persimfans can be found in S.P. Ponyatovsky, Persimfans. Moscow 2003 (in Russian).

[7] David Wallechinsky & Irving Wallace: The People's Almanac series 1975 – 1981, cited in Trivia-Library.com.

[8] Count Constantine Benckendorff, Half a Life (London 1954).