Although I had major internet and technical issues, we held the second salon!
Tonight we will be listening to the cantata Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Prokofiev. This cantata actually began as a movie score, arguably one of the most influential movie scores ever, influencing the scores of movies throughout the years, including Jaws, The Wrath of Khan and Lord of the Rings.
The 1938 movie by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (who invented the montage shots so familiar today). For the score he turned to the classical composer Sergei Prokofiev, famous for works such as Peter and the Wolf. What resulted was perhaps the world’s first manifestation of a true Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), with music and film completely synthesized into one entity. Eisenstein edited his work around much of the music, realizing the power of the film and music together.
The story is based on the historical invasion of Russia by the Teutonic Knights. This was written as a propaganda piece, with the Knights as stand-ins for the Nazis and the West. However, with the signing of the Non Aggression Pact between the two countries it was soon shelved.
However, Prokofiev realized what he had in the score and took many of the major themes and arranged the score into a classical cantata, a work for choir and orchestra. Some of the technical tricks he used in the score, such as distorted brass set up too close to the mic, he did not use, but the power of the original score is very present.
Prokofiev uses many ideas still used in modern film scores, such as independent themes for the various ‘characters’ that are repeated throughout the seven movements. The Russian people are generally represented by strings and woodwinds in lyrical folk-like melodies, while the Teutonic invaders are represented by menacing low brass in themes that were designed to suggest Gregorian chants. In addition, the choral parts for the Knights are sung in Latin, while the others are in Russian.
Alexander Nevsky is set in Russia, in 1242, as the nation is under the grip of the Mongol hordes; with the threat of an impending attack from the Teutonic Knights. The victor over the Swedes at the Battle of the River Neva in 1240, Prince Alexander Nevsky is chosen to form an army, then defeats the German invaders in the decisive “ice battle” on frozen Lake Peipus.
As mentioned before, this is a cantata in seven parts.
Russia under the Mongolian Yoke(Orchestra)- The opening movement begins slowly, and in c minor. This portrays the desolation of the country under the Mogolian invaders.
Song about Alexander Nevsky (Chorus and Orchestra)- This movement in B-flat represents Prince Alexander Yaroslavich’s victory over the Swedish army at the Battle of the Neva in 1240. Alexander received the name ‘Nevsky’ (a form of Neva) in tribute. Listen here for the major Russian folk like themes, including the beautiful Nevsky melody the chorus starts with. And I love the tenor note on the last chord!
The Crusaders in Pskov (Chorus and Orchestra) – For this movementin c-sharp minor Prokofiev’s planned to use genuine 13th century church music but he abandoned the idea and instead composed an original theme “better suited to our modern conception” to evoke the brutality of the Teutonic Knights. The idea is that the Knights are singing Catholic psalms in Latin, as they invade Orthodox Russia. The film depicts brutal treatment of the Russian peasants, including the throwing of babies into fires.
Arise, ye Russian People (Chorus and Orchestra) – This movement in E-flat is a rallying cry for the everyday people to rise up and defend Mother Russia, once again in folk-like themes.
The Battle on the Ice (Chorus and Orchestra) – The fifth (and longest) movement is arguably the climax of the cantata and is to my mind possibly the best musical description of battle ever written. It represents the final clash between Nevsky’s forces and the Teutonic Knights on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus in 1242. The beginning is quiet, dawn rising with mists over the frozen lake, where the Russians await the coming Knights. The Knights are soon seen (anyone recognize what famous movie theme this influenced?) and as they charge, the battlelines clash. The battle swings back and forth – please note Prokofiev’s use of the different themes overlying each other in contrasting metres and keys until finally the ice on the lake begins to crack under the heavier Knights and they are destroyed, sinking into the abyss. The piece ends on a quiet note, not celebratory, as even the victors suffered much loss.
The Field of the Dead (Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra) – Composed in c minor, this movement is a moving lament of a girl seeking her lost lover, as well as kissing the eyelids of all the dead. The rest of the cantata is large, with masses of people, choirs and orchestra, think of this movement as person because indeed the losses are personal.
Alexander’s Entry into Pskov (Chorus and Orchestra)- The seventh and final movement (B flat) is Alexander’s triumphal return to Pskov. This echoes the second movement and as I listen, I think Prokofiev threw everything but the kitchen sink into the finale.