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5.110015 - PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky / Pushkiniana / Hamlet
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Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Alexander Nevsky


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.


Released 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 century.


The cantata consists of seven sections, which follow the course of the film quite closely:


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 manner.


1937, the year after Prokofiev returned to the Soviet Union for good, also marked two important anniversaries: the 20th 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.


Given 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.


As 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.


The 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.


A 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.


In 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 the letter.


Richard Whitehouse

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