Cantata from Alexander Nevsky, op. 78

Composer: 

        Prokofiev and Dimitry Shostakovich are the two composers who stood above the rest of those who labored during the years of the Soviet Union.  Unlike, Shostakovich, however, Prokofiev enjoyed part of his career living and composing in the West, returning to the USSR in 1936 voluntarily.  Like his compatriot, he must be counted as one of the great composers of the twentieth century, although unlike Shostakovich, his direct influence on composers outside of the Soviet sphere was minimal.  He was a virtuoso pianist, but who composed from the beginning, graduating from the St. Petersburg shortly before World War I.  His musical style was based in the Russian romantic tradition, but he established early on a personal idiom that was characterized by pungent dissonance, soaring lyrical melodies, a facile manipulation of motoric rhythms, and kaleidoscopic harmonic changes.  Part and parcel of his musical personality was an acerbic appreciation of satire, parody, and even the grotesque.

        With the advent of the Revolution he left Russia, and spent most of the next two decades in America and Europe, moving frequently, trying to establish himself in a number of countries—including the USA during a portion of the war.  During this time he adapted his style somewhat to accommodate his audiences.  All the while he returned to the Soviet Union from time to time for extensive concertizing; his works were performed frequently there, and he always kept his Soviet passport.  He was never a political naïf regarding the life of artists under that political system, and it must be surmised that his eventual removal to the USSR was made with open eyes.   His musical language had been gradually moving to a simpler, more accessible style—a necessary condition for artists who wished to serve a collectivist state and appeal to the masses.  So, when he and his family arrived in Russia in 1936, he adapted readily to the political requirements by composing works that addressed the necessary content of  “socialist realism.”   This primarily meant patriotic subjects, in a traditional musical style, that served political ends.  An exception such as the ballet, Romeo and Juliet, was clearly acceptable, owing to its style and content. 

        He had already written music for films --Lieutenant Kije (1933) is the best known—when in 1938 he collaborated with the great Russian filmmaker, Sergey Eisenstein, on the film, Alexander Nevsky.  It is the epic story of the defeat of the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century by the people of Novgorod, led by Alexander Nevsky.  The climax of the film is the famous battle on the frozen Lake Chudskoe.  The film was made at the specific request of Stalin to rally the Russian people against the looming German threat.  So, the whole affair must be understood as thinly disguised propagandistic art.  It is a great film, nevertheless, and well worth watching.  The Teutonic knights are clad in grotesque helmets (originally it was planned to put swastikas on them) that appear to be a combination of Samurai, Science Fiction, and trashcan costuming—you never see their faces.   The Russians, on the other hand, are human individuals, with very folkish, Viking-like costumes.   The music is appropriately differentiated, with the Germans accompanied by dissonant, percussive—almost oppressive--music, and the Russians by a sympathetic musical style with traditional folkish elements.

        Unfortunately, just as the film was about to be released, Stalin signed the infamous pact with Hitler, and the film was not shown in the theatres until after the war with Germany had begun in 1941.   The film was a rousing success, even though Prokofiev’s score suffered from a terrible soundtrack quality.   Some scenes in the film were incorporated into Frank Capra’s American propaganda film, The Battle of Russia.  In 1939, Prokofiev salvaged his work by turning the film score into a cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra.   Subsequently, it has become one of the composer’s best-known works, and one of the century’s important cantatas.  Fundamentally, notwithstanding its origin as Soviet propaganda, the genius of filmmaker, Eisenstein, and Prokofiev’s vivid score, have made both the film and the extracted cantata important artifacts of the times.

        The seven movements of the cantata depict the most important scenes in the film, beginning with the oppression wrought by the Mongols, accompanied by dark, slow musical imagery, followed by a celebration of the victory over the Swedes at the Battle of the Neva in 1240—Alexander was given his surname, “Nevsky,” thereby.  The cruelty of the Teutonic Knights is depicted in the next movement; the music is perfect for the startling atrocities shown in the film.  Notice that “Arise Ye Russian Peoples” is set with some allusions to folk music.  “The Battle on the Ice” is by far the most well known portion of the score and is simply stunning in its progression from the serene daybreak to the tumult and violence of the battle.  The mezzo-soprano of the penultimate movement laments the loss of her lover, and refers to kissing the eyes of the dead, followed by the last section’s celebration of the great victory of the Russian people.  Ironically, Prokofiev’s service of state in this and other compositions during the rest of his career did not save his skin, and he was ultimately destroyed, physically and musically by the oppressive regime.  He had the misfortune to die the same day as had Stalin—so his funeral was without music or flowers.  They had been appropriated for other purposes.

        Many may have noted the extensive, and informed use of the film in the opening of Tom Clancy’s novel, Red Storm Rising. Other cultural references these days are frequent, and a viewing of the film is highly recommended; it is available for sale.   The film and the cantata are important works of art, even if they were tools of Stalinist propaganda—which fact suggests their inherent moral ambiguities.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William. E. Runyan