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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV, S.: Alexander Nevsky / Pushkiniana (Russian State Symphony, Yablonsky)
Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
From his first mature stage-work, the opera The Gambler
(1917), it was clear that Sergey Prokofiev had an innate feel for the
cinematic. On his last visit to the United States in 1938 he studied the
film-making techniques prevalent in Hollywood film studios, intending to adapt
them to Soviet films. Back in the Soviet Union, he was able to put his ideas
into practice when Sergey Eisenstein (1898-1948) asked him to collaborate on
Alexander Nevsky. Work proceeded apace, the creative affinity between composer
and director ensuring that the music for each sequence was written with a
minimum of pre-planning or the need for re-editing.
in late 1938 this dramatization of the thirteenth-century conflict between the
Russian people and Teutonic invaders struck a resounding chord in the Soviet
Union at a time when war with Hitler’s Germany seemed inevitable. The film
itself was acclaimed internationally as a masterpiece of cinema, and remains a
classic of the medium. In 1939, Prokofiev re-arranged the score as a cantata
for concert performance, in which form it was first performed in Moscow on 17th
May, soon establishing itself as one of the most popular choral works of the
cantata consists of seven sections, which follow the course of the film quite
I - Russia under the Mongol Yoke
The weight of oppression is vividly evoked by cutting
strings and plangent woodwind, intentional microphone distortion on the
original soundtrack ensuring a suitably harsh sound.
II - Song about Alexander Nevsky
Male voices recall the massacre of Swedish soldiers on the banks
of the River Neva, and the determination of the Russian people to defend their
homeland against foreign invaders.
III - The Crusaders in Pskov
The chanting of the Teutonic knights invokes their subjugation
of the Russian people, underlined by dissonant brass and, in the contrasting
central section, supplicating strings.
IV - Arise, ye Russian People
A defiant call-to-arms as the people prepare to defend the
Motherland, offset by the gentler, expressive central section of remembrance.
V - The Battle on the Ice
After the frozen wastes of the coming scene of battle have
been pointedly evoked by strings, a tramping motion in lower strings and brass
depicts approaching Teutonic hordes. The Latin chanting returns, as do a number
of motifs heard earlier in the cantata, as in the original film-score. Brass
fanfares from the preceding movement mark the Russian counter-attack, and a
scherzo-like section, skilfully amalgamated from disparate fragments of the
film-score, the mounting excitement of the battle. A pile-driving march episode
depicts the Russian victory and terrible loss of life, with a closing allusion
to the Nevsky Song as calm descends on the carnage.
VI - The Field of Death
The emotional heart of film and cantata, a solitary woman,
mezzo-soprano, wanders across the silent battlefield in search of her lover,
commemorating the dead and apostrophizing the living.
VII - Alexander’s Entry into Pskov
The Nevsky Song sounds out imperiously as the finale,
depicting the hero’s homecoming, ushers in a tableau of songs and dances, again
recalling earlier movements, in honour of Russia’s glorious victory. The crash
of tam-tams and peal of bells caps proceedings in appropriately triumphal
the year after Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union for good, also marked two
important anniversaries: the 30th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and
the centenary of the death of poet Alexander Pushkin. With the latter in mind,
Prokofiev became involved in three major projects - stage adaptations of Eugene
Onegin and Boris Godunov, and a film version of The Queen of Spades. In the
event, none of these projects was ever realized, but the composer - resourceful
as ever - re-used the music in a number of major compositions over the next
decade. In the 1960s, as part of the wider rehabilitation of Prokofiev's
output, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky assembled a suite of movements
from these aborted projects under the title Pushkiniana.
that the film was never shot, it would be impossible to recreate the score for
The Queen of Spades in the way intended by Prokofiev. The extracts chosen by
Rozhdestvensky demonstrate the composer's empathy for the two main characters,
Hermann and Liza - the one ominous and restless, the other elegant and wistful.
These are followed by a Polonaise depicting the Ball Scene towards the climax
of the drama.
Prokofiev recalled in his autobiography, it was the Eugene Onegin project that
most interested him, but the production at the Moscow Chamber Theatre fell
through by decree of the Committee for Artistic Affairs, the score remaining
unheard in its entirety until a BBC broadcast in 1980. The extracts selected
and orchestrated by Rozhdestvensky are from the divertissement depicting the
Grand Ball at the Larins: a gently-paced Menuet, a lively Polka with a moodier
central section, and a Mazurka alternately engaging and yearning in manner.
innovative music for Boris Godunov was shelved when the director, Vsevolod
Meyerhold, fell foul of the authorities, and remained unheard until a Moscow
production in 1957. The Polonaise depicts the scheming Imposter during the
fountain scene, in music which recalls similar set-pieces in the operas of
Glinka and Tchaikovsky.
better fate awaited Prokofiev’s incidental music to Radlov’s production of
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which opened in Leningrad on 15 May 1938. Of the ten
numbers which comprise the score, The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father evokes the
presence of the spirit in sombre, even wrathful terms.
comparison with the success of Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev and Eisenstein’s
collaboration on Ivan the Terrible was a failure. Part One of this historical
chronicle was released in January 1945, with Part Two following towards the end
of that year. However, Stalin’s growing paranoia as to the representation of
the Czar he himself identified with proved fatal to the project, Part Three
being left in fragments at Eisenstein’s death. Dance of the Oprichniks is a
vivid depiction of the ruthless body guard which carries out Ivan’s decrees to
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PROKOFIEV, S.: Alexander Nevsky / Pushkiniana (Rus...