Mercury Orchestra


Notes on the composers and the pieces

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky Cantata

Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) was arguably the leading film director of his generation in the Soviet Union. Even so, he was criticized at home for his radical techniques of montage, camera angles, and others. In 1928, the director traveled first to Europe and then to the United States and Mexico for two directing projects. Both ran aground. In 1933, he returned home, an apparent failure, but he was given a chance to “rehabilitate” himself when the authorities allowed him to choose one of two subjects for a new film.

Eisenstein selected the Grand Duke Alexander Yaroslavich of Vladimir, later Prince of Novgorod (1220–1263), perhaps the greatest of Russian heroes. According to Russian sources, Alexander led an army that repelled a Swedish invasion near the Neva River in 1240, thereby earning the name Alexander Nevsky (“of Neva”). Alexander was subsequently exiled because the boyars objected to his treaty with another invader, the Mongols, even though it secured Russia’s eastern border. Two years later, the German Teutonic Knights (a group of Crusaders), captured the town of Pskov. Fearing they were next, the townspeople of Novgorod recalled Alexander from exile and asked him to raise an army. What would be Eisenstein’s first sound film covers Alexander’s victory over the Germans on the frozen Lake Priepus (Lake Chud). The advantages to Eisenstein of making a film about a Russian hero repelling Germans were obvious given the 1930s rise of Nazi Germany.

The choice of Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) to compose the score made it clear that Eisenstein took film music seriously. Prokofiev had begun his career as an enfant terrible whose music antagonized the Russian establishment to the point where he felt forced to leave Russia in 1918 for the United States and then Paris. During his time in the West, he moderated some of his modernism and established himself as one of the great composers of his century. He returned to his homeland in 1934 for reasons not entirely certain.

Scoring films was not new to Prokofiev. He had already composed a score for the successful Lieutenant Kije in 1933. Next was Queen of Spades, but that film was never completed. On his last trip to the West in 1938, Prokofiev visited Hollywood, where he was impressed by the advanced techniques with sound and music. After he returned home, he was eager to begin work on Alexander Nevsky.

Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked quickly and efficiently, almost as one. Eisenstein found Prokofiev to be a “man of the screen,” able to reveal the “special inner structure of objects...and to clothe them in tonal camera angles of instrumentation, compelling it to gleam with shifts in timbre [so] the whole inflexible structure blossoms into the emotional fullness of orchestration.” Eisenstein often drew ideas from Prokofiev’s music before constructing a scene, and he sometimes cut or added to sequences to maintain balance with the music. For his part, Prokofiev experimented with new recording techniques, such as using distortion to add menace to music or altering microphone placements.

Completed quickly in 1938, Alexander Nevsky demonstrated brilliant use of montage, teeming with masses of evil Germans in murderous-looking helmets and swaggering Russian heroes. The powerful battle scene influenced such scenes down to the present day. Nevertheless, Nevsky was classic propaganda and intentionally so. Characterizations were simple, and the dialogue was a combination of patriotic homilies, warnings to the West, and Russian proverbs. The film was a success until it was withdrawn after Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler. The film was rehabilitated after Hitler attacked the U.S.S.R. in 1939.

Prokofiev’s music to Alexander Nevsky harks back to his Scythian Suite, Fiery Angel, and the Second and Third Symphonies, and its use of a chorus fit well in the Soviet tradition. The score is one of those rare creations that works as propaganda and is great music, something of which Prokofiev was no doubt aware when he adapted the score into a seven-part cantata for mezzo soprano, chorus, and orchestra.

I. Russia under the Mongol Yoke. “Woeful traces of the ravages wrought on Russia by the Mongols—heaps of human bones, swords, rusty lances. Fields overgrown with weeds and ruins of burned villages” (Eisenstein). This is music of bleakness, devastation, and sadness, with dramatic string motifs and a lamenting oboe.

II. Song about Alexander Nevsky describes Nevsky’s defeat of the Swedes and the determination of the Russian people to defend their homeland against invaders. It is stirring with a tinge of sadness and fatigue.

III. The Crusaders in Pskov. Screaming dissonance, heavy low brass, and yearning strings depict the occupation of the Knights, their terror, and Novgorod’s determination to call on Nevsky. The chorus sings a Latin chant of the Teutonic Knights and is joined by the heavy, dissonant opening music to terrifying effect. Hopeful but painful strings underlie the desperate call to Nevsky, but the Knights’ defiant chant overcomes the plea. After another scream in the orchestra, the chant returns to close the movement.

IV. “Arise, Ye Russian People” is a call-to-arms followed by wistful recall of the past.

V. The Battle on the Ice. Troops amass in the morning mist on opposite sides of the lake, punctuated by threatening thrusts in the strings. The Knights chant to the grinding dissonance of the low brass, resounding horns, chugging strings, and motifs from the Pskov occupation music. Trumpets call in the Russians, and the opposing themes clash. With the chorus chanting at the top of its voice, it seems the Knights are winning, but a Russian charge to music bordering on the cartoonish takes on the nastiness of the Knights’ chant. A grinding passage in the brass ensues followed by what might be described as a “heavy requiem.” The tune from Song about Alexander Nevsky enters, now wistful and quietly triumphant.

VI. The Field of the Dead. Eerie strings demonstrate the desolation over the battlefield, which is strewn with bodies. A young Russian woman makes her way through the carnage while singing a richly scored lament for those who died.

VII. Alexander’s Entry into Pskov. The hero is welcomed into the liberated city with a swell of orchestral and choral jubilation. Earlier Russian themes return, mingling with festive new ideas. The hymn of victory is typical of grand Russian finales, turning dissonance into triumph.

—Roger Hecht

Roger Hecht plays trombone in the Mercury Orchestra, Lowell House Opera, and Bay Colony Brass (where he is the Operations/Personnel Manager). He is a former member of the Syracuse Symphony, Lake George Opera, New Bedford Symphony, and Cape Ann Symphony. He is a regular reviewer for American Record Guide, contributed to Classical Music: Listener’s Companion, and has written articles on music for the Elgar Society Journal and Positive Feedback magazine. His latest fiction collection, The Audition and Other Stories, includes a novella about a trombonist preparing for and taking a major orchestra audition (English Hill Press, 2013).

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