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8.557725 - PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky / Lieutenant Kije Suite
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78 • Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60

 

Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents allowed him to enter the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a pianist and composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers, represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Even as a student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite, fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally commissioned by the impresario Diaghilev, the Classical Symphony and his first Violin Concerto.

Unlike Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with the idea of returning home sooner or later. By 1920, when life in America was proving less immediately rewarding, he moved to Paris, where he re-established contact with Diaghilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully staged in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.

In 1936 Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow in time for the first onslaught on music that did not suit the political and social aims of the government, falling, as Shostakovich is said to have remarked, 'like a chicken into the soup'. Twelve years later, after the difficult war years, his name was joined with that of Shostakovich and others in explicit official condemnation, now with particular reference to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace. He died in 1953 on the same day as Stalin and thus never benefited from the subsequent partial relaxation of official policy on the arts.

The cantata Alexander Nevsky is drawn from the music Prokofiev wrote in 1938 for Sergey Eisenstein's film dealing with the 13th-century conflict between Russia and the Teutonic crusaders, events which seemed to have a contemporary relevance, with the growing threat to Soviet Russia from Nazi Germany. Both Eisenstein and Prokofiev had had experience of Hollywood, the latter during a visit in 1938, and Prokofiev coupled an interest in the new technology with an enthusiasm for the medium, demonstrated in the eight film-scores that he wrote. These included a further productive collaboration with Eisenstein on which he embarked in 1942 in the film Ivan the Terrible. The two worked closely together on Alexander Nevsky, with scenes sometimes following music that had already been written, or at other times composed immediately after seeing the first rushes.

The cantata from the film-score for Alexander Nevsky, which broadly follows the cinematic narrative, opens with music that reflects, in its initial harshness, the suffering of Russia under Mongolian oppression, the cruelty of the oppressors contrasted with the more plaintive material suggesting the hardships endured by the people. 'Song about Alexander Nevsky' celebrates Alexander's defeat of the Swedish armies on the banks of the River Neva, in music that reflects the determination of the Russians against their enemies. In 'The Crusaders in Pskov' Prokofiev, as elsewhere, avoids recourse to anything suggesting music contemporary with the events depicted in the film. The Teutonic crusaders, however, are given a brief Latin text, their music, with its harsh brass chords and hymn-like implications, in contrast to the supplication of the people. There follows a patriotic call to battle in the stirring 'Arise, ye Russian people'. 'The Battle on the Ice', an extended scene in the film, is depicted first by music that suggests the cold of Russian winter. The approach of the Teutonic knights is heard, with their chant 'Peregrinus, expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis', as they ride forward. The Russians, with a motif from 'Arise, ye Russian people', charge against their enemy, and the rival forces clash in mortal struggle. Final Russian victory, in spite of heavy losses, is celebrated in a triumphant march, with a concluding reference to the Alexander Nevsky Song. 'The Field of Death' has a woman searching for her lover, ready to kiss the one who has died for Russia, and praising the brave rather than the handsome. The cantata ends with Alexander Nevsky's entry into Pskov. The song in his praise is heard, with other earlier elements of the score recalled before the final triumph.

The well-known music for Lieutenant Kijé was written in 1933 for a film, the first of the highly successful film-scores that Prokofiev was to write during the next ten years. Directed by Alexander Feinzimmer and based on a story by Yuri Tynyanov, the film is a satire on official stupidity and subservience, set in the time of Tsar Paul, son of Catherine the Great. A clerical error adds a non-existent officer to a list presented to the Tsar, who then singles out this man, Lieutenant Kijé, for special notice. The officials are too afraid to reveal the true state of affairs, and the fictitious lieutenant goes on from honour to honour, interrupted only by temporary disgrace and exile to Siberia, subsequent pardon and promotion to the rank of general. He is finally buried in an empty coffin. Prokofiev arranged the Suite, Op. 60, from Lieutenant Kijé in 1934. For this he had to make considerable adjustments to the original music, but the suite retains its allusive melodic appeal, notably in the final funeral of Kijé, and, particularly in its orchestration, the irony that was at the heart of the story and the film.

Keith Anderson


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