Sunday, March 22, 2015

Serguei Prokofiev - Alexandre Nevsky

In early 1938 Sergei Prokofiev traveled across the United States on a concert tour, spending several weeks in Hollywood. During his stay in the nation's movie capital he visited several studios, taking a keen interest in their recording techniques, especially at the Disney studios, where music for the animated shorts and features was pre-recorded and the images later synchronized to the music. A number of studio chiefs expressed interest in hiring the famous Russian composer to score their films and before leaving the United States Prokofiev would receive an offer of employment for the enormous sum of $2500 a week, but he had already decided to return to Moscow.
Back in the Soviet Union, Prokofiev was soon asked by director Sergei Eisenstein to provide the music for his newest film project: Alexander Nevsky, the story of a 13th century prince who successfully leads an Army of Russian peasants defending against an invading German army. The choice of Alexander's battle with the Germans as a cinematic subject was not a mere whim. Stalin himself had suggested Eisenstein for the project, intending the film to be used as anti-German propaganda. Both the director and the composer had suffered recent failures and needed a "hit" to win favor with the authorities, so they agreed to participate despite the limitations on their artistic freedom.
Ordinarily a composer does not score a film until quite late in the filmmaking process. Perhaps inspired by the Disney animators, Prokofiev took a much different tack on Alexander Nevsky, visiting the sets and viewing the daily rushes. In many cases he composed his score before the film was edited, allowing the director to match his images to the music, and in at least one instance Prokofiev wrote music for a scene before it was even filmed.
Soon after the film's release, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, rendering all anti-German propaganda unwelcome, so the film was shelved until 1941. Eventually Alexander Nevsky did prove successful at fanning the flames of anti-German sentiment, but in addition came to be regarded as one of the most important films of its era. The famous 30-minute battle sequence has influenced everything from Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944) to the Star Wars films. In particular, the white-caped, metal-helmeted Teutonic knights prefigure George Lucas' stormtroopers, while a particularly evil-looking monk is a dead ringer for the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.
Not long after the film's premiere, Prokofiev reworked much of his score into a choral cantata, combining cues to form longer movements but maintaining the chronology of the film. It has become one of the hallmark choral works of the 20th century and one of Prokofiev's most popular compositions.
"Russia Beneath the Yoke of the Mongols" serves as an instrumental overture, musically painting the picture of desolate landscape strewn with remnants from past battles. Mongols warriors have attempted to menace Alexander and his compatriots but the Russian prince fends them off, warning of more dangerous invaders from the west: the Germans.
Russian peasants sing a "Song about Alexander Nevsky," praising his slaughter of an invading Swedish army two years prior.
"The Crusaders in Pskov" opens with the city of Pskov falling to the invading German forces. They attempt to forcibly convert the Russian peasants to the Roman form of Christianity, singing a Gregorian chant of Prokofiev's own invention. (Neither the composer nor his librettist must have been well versed in Latin, as the chant's text is grammatically inept.) Town officials and small children alike are burned alive by the German soldiers.
The townspeople of Novgorod sing "Arise, People of Russia" as Alexander prepares his army for battle.
"The Battle on the Ice," the film's monumental set piece, is the longest and most dramatic movement of the cantata. Prokofiev combined several separate cues with newly composed material to musically depict the great confrontation. The movement opens quietly, the composer evoking the bitter cold on the frozen Lake Chudskoye. Quietly, as if from a distance, the battle chant of the German soldiers is heard. The Teutonic forces approach on horseback and engage the Russians in battle. Slashing gestures underscore the hand-to-hand swordplay. Eventually Alexander engages the German commander in a one-on-one confrontation. When the ice begins to crack under the weight of the heavily armed forces, most of the German army slides into the freezing lake. The Russian peasants stare in astonishment at the aftermath of the great battle.
In "The Field of the Dead" soldiers lay dead and dying on the battlefield. Earlier in the film a young woman had promised two warriors that she would marry the one who proves himself bravest in battle. As she wanders about searching for her suitors, a mezzo-soprano sings her heartbreaking lament. The young woman eventually finds the pair. Both are alive but wounded, one gravely so ; she helps them stagger away. Later, back in Pskov, the citizens kneel before a funeral procession.
Clanging bells and a joyous song greet "Alexander's Entry into Pskov." The townspeople dance to the playful music of the Russian musicians and sing in celebration of the great victory.
© 2002 Jeff Eldridge 

Source :

Serge Prokofiev


Alexandre Nevski,
Cantate op. 78
1 La Russie sous le joug Mongol  3:05
2 Chant sur Alexandre Nevski  3:04
3 Les Croisés dans Pskov  7:08
4 Aux armes, peuple russe !  2:20
5 La Bataille sur la glace  12:40
6 Le Champ des morts  5:45
7 L'Entrée d'Alexandre Nevski dans Pskov  4:00

8 Chant de joie, op. 85  13:45

Ils son Sept
9 Cantate pour tenor, choeur et Orchestre, op. 30  7:30


[# 1-7]
Larissa Avdeeva - mezzo soprano
Ensemble choral Youlov
Orchestre National d'URSS - Evgeni Svetlanov - dir.
[# 8]
Choeurs et Orchestre Symphonique de la Radio d'URSSS
Evgueni Svetlanov - dir
[# 9]
Iouri Elnikov - ténor
Choeurs et Orchestre Symphonique de la Radio d'URSSS
Guennadi Rojdestvenski - dir.

Recorded in URSS ; between 1962 & 1968


L.O.L. said...

Thanks Baruch.
Great post. I'm traveling with this fantastic music.

Classical Music Fan said...

Thank you! Is it possible to re-post this?

Melanchthon said...

Classical Music Fan said...

Thank you!! I owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude, Melanchthon. Absolutely wonderful.

Arewenotmen? said...

Moi qui m'intéresse à la Russie, j'ignorais l'existence de cette oeuvre chorale... donc, un grand merci pour la découverte !