Refugee in Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey)

Bortkiewicz and his wife spent 10 days on the Konstantin, before they got the permission to go on land. Bortkiewicz had to search for a place to stay. This proved to be very complicated: “A cousin of my wife offered us the most wretched shelter. We slept on the floor, next to each other. Russian emigrants were given refuge by the Allies in the islands of Constantinople (Prinkipo, Antigona, Khalki) but we came too late: everything was overfull. I went to the Italians, but learnt from the commander that there was no place for us.” On his search he almost fell unconscious on the Galata Bridge because of agitation and exhaustion: “I went through the busy streets of the European quarter, the beautiful large Grande rue de Pera, I went past the luxurious hotels and restaurants, past the large shops in whose windows the most tempting things were displayed in such quantity that I remained standing in astonishment and asked myself: is this possible? I went on further and felt that the ground beneath me was swaying, I brushed against a passerby, raised my head. What a surprise! My marine lieutenant T.W.G. Settle stood before me and smiled. Now, this meeting after Yalta in a large strange city! He invited me to a café, treated me to the most delicious cakes I have ever eaten and asked me how I was doing. I told him the story of our flight.” They ate, drank, talked to each other and after that “I took leave from my American marine lieutenant with sincere feeling and gratitude. He had the goodness to loan me a few gold coins.”

T.W.G. Settle (1895-1980)

T.W.G. Settle (1895-1980)

Bortkiewicz started visiting music shops in Constantinople and introduced himself to the owners: “my name was known. Some of my compositions were in stock.” At D’andria’s music house he played the grand piano where he met a Greek violinist, who was listening to him for a long time, and advised him to visit Geza de Hegey, court pianist to the Sultan. Hegey seemed to be delighted with Bortkiewicz’ compositions. He promised him to let him teach music theory to his students and took him to a Greek music dealer by the name of Christidis. Christidis “offered me a room in his house. The rent of the room and piano were high, but I could not find anything better in the city, overflowing with Russian emigrants. […] Now the problem was to earn money as soon as possible with my music. Instead of this I fell ill with some kind of malaria with high fever. A kind Russian doctor performed wonders and soon cured me.”

In the meantime Elisabeth Bortkiewicz visited the American Robert College in Bebek, a historic neighbourhood in Constantinople. “Professor Estes, organist and music teacher and the institute, invited me immediately, gathered his colleagues so that the could hear me. After that I gave a piano recital for the students and received my first honorarium in Constantinople.” Eugenia (Sproul-)Bumgardner (1879-1948), a Red Cross relief worker in Constantinople in 1920-1921, describes in her book Undaunted Exiles (1925, p. 133-135) the concert Bortkiewicz gave at Robert College and later on in the American Sailor’s Club in Constantinople in compliment to Admiral Albert Parker Niblack (1859-1929), Commander of the U.S. Naval Forces in European waters: “At Robert College, the American Institution, which occupies such a commanding position high up on the green hill above the Bosphorus, Russian artists were encouraged. In its chapel Serge Bortkiewicz gave an interesting recital of his own compositions, written during his exile – work destined to rank high in musical literature. […] I have always regretted that my French was not sufficiently fluent for me to explain to Bortkiewicz the tempest in a teapot that once raged about him: The American Sailors’ Club was giving a reception to Admiral Niblack, then Commander of our fleet in European waters. It was desired, of course, to put off a “big one.” The social secretary of the Club by the exercise of great diplomacy had secured Bortkiewicz’s consent to play. There were some disagreements and arrangements for the reception were taken out of the hands of the social secretary and placed in those of a former “gob”, who played the kettle drum in a jazz orchestra. He consulted with another American worker and, together, they scratched the name of Bortkiewicz from the program. The social secretary protested: “What difference does it make if you have invited him. He’s nothing but a refugee. Tell him we don’t want him,” she was told. Although all authority had been taken from the social secretary, she knew perfectly well the success of the reception would depend on her; that neither the “gob,” nor his assistant, would know what to do when the hour arrived. She said nothing further about Bortkiewicz, but she did not recall her invitation to him. My heart beat fast when into the crowded room I saw the commanding figure of Bortkiewicz enter. The social secretary went instantly forward; introduced him to the Admiral and his Staff, and then lifting her hand for silence, said: “Monsieur Bortkiewicz, the well-known Russian composer, will now play some of his own compositions in compliment to Admiral Niblack.” The Admiral and his Staff came immediately to attention; and others perforce did likewise. Bortkiewicz seated himself at the piano, threw back his head, in his characteristic way, and played a beautiful mazurka. Whether a musician or not, one recognized that here was a master. There was great applause and again and again Bortkiewicz played. The Admiral was charmed; the reception was a huge success. At the close of the evening the “gob’s” assistant said: “I’d no idea the Admiral would care for classical music.” To which the secretary grimply replied: “That was what I supposed when you scratched Bortkiewicz’s name from my program.” ”

Bortkiewicz started teaching as well: “My first pupil was the daughter of the Turkish court conductor, Zeki-Bey, my second the daughter of the Belgium ambassador Michotte de Welle, who got my address from d’Andria […] Even Miss Rumbold, the daughter of the British ambassador became my pupil.” Together with the pianist Barschansky from Odessa he founded a Greek-Russian Conservatory in Constantinople. He had Armenian, Greek, Turkish and European pupils.

Bortkiewicz became well known throughout a number of embassies and made an acquaintance with the wife of the Yugoslavian ambassador Natalie Chaponitsch, to whom he dedicated his Trois morceaux opus 24 pour piano. Natalie Chaponitsch was a former piano pupil of Paul de Conne.

Paul de Conne (1915)

Paul de Conne (1915)

She organized musical gatherings for Bortkiewicz within the embassy. The good reception of his concerts gave him the opportunity to rent rooms at the Grand Rue the Pera in Constantinople. Bortkiewicz and his wife were often invited to receptions in Embassies and Consulates in Constantinople: “On one occasion I was invited to a small dinner at the French embassy. I sat next to our commander-in-chief, the general Baron Wrangel.

General Peter and Olga Wrangel

Peter and Olga Wrangel

He was an unusually tall and thin man in a picturesque Caucasian uniform. I have never seen such a thin waist in a man. I was happy to know our heroic leader personally and was also glad to know that my piano playing seemed to please him very much.”

Despite the good living conditions in Constantinople, Bortkiewicz longed to live in Europe. To Hugo van Dalen he wrote on 18 August 1921: “Naturally I long for Europe, music, culture, art with my whole heart. Over here things are very pitiful in this respect. Only the place and the climate are beautiful. I have engagements for Vienna and Budapest for the 1st September, but for the time being I will remain here till I have accumulated plenty of foreign exchange with concerts and lessons. I then hope to move to Vienna or Budapest to recover and finally to compose. Here I do not have the time nor the mood to write even a few notes.” With the help of ambassador Chaponitsch the composer and his wife, who held Nansen passports, were able to obtain a visa for Yugoslavia. Bortkiewicz and his wife arrived in Sofia via Belgrade, where they had to wait for some time before obtaining an Austrian visa.

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