Alexander Nevsky Cantata, Op. 78 (1939)

  1. Russia Beneath the Yoke of the Mongols
  2. Song about Alexander Nevsky
  3. The Crusaders in Pskov
  4. "Arise, People of Russia"
  5. The Battle on the Ice
  6. The Field of the Dead
  7. Alexander's Entry into Pskov

The great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein marveled at Prokofiev's genius for film music. In the evening he would watch a series of edited takes a few times, note down the number of seconds that certain events lasted, then go off to his studio and return the next day at noon with the score of that scene perfectly attuned to the screen action. To Eisenstein, Prokofiev was capturing the inner rhythm of the film in his music. Indeed, Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky is one of those very rare occasions when a great film is accompanied by a superb score.

Alexander Nevsky is a serious film made late in the 1930s with an overt propaganda purpose: to raise the morale of the Russia populace in the likely event of a war with Germany. Eisenstein wrote a screenplay about a medieval hero, Grand Duke Alexander of Novgorod, who in 1240 (at the age of 20) had defeated a Swedish army in a battle on the River Neva (for which feat he was dubbed "Alexander of the Neva" or "Alexander Nevsky"). Two years later he defeated a large force of invading German knights in a battle on the frozen surface of Lake Chudskoye.

Though the film was motivated purely by the propaganda needs of the Soviet state, it is nonetheless one of the great achievements in the history of film, an astonishing fusion of image, dialogue, sound effects, and music. Hardly any later scene of armies in hand-to-hand combat could exist without the example of Eisenstein's great battle on the ice.

Alexander Nevsky was so urgently needed in 1938 that entire units of the Russia army were drafted to serve as extras, and the climactic battle scenes were shot during a July heat wave on a vast leveled field covered with sodium silicate to give it the appearance of ice. Soon after it was released, to unprecedented acclaim, the film was withdrawn from circulation upon the signing of the German-Soviet pact of 1939. Possibly this fact motivated Prokofiev to salvage his excellent score by turning it into a cantata for concert use. We are fortunate that he did so, for the resulting score is one of the composer's most satisfying works. Every musical cue in the film is substantially rewritten for the cantata to provide greater continuity and a clearer musical shape. Still, the sections of the cantata follow the sequence of events in Eisenstein's film. The music therefore provides a "mind's eye" illustration of the story.

1. Russia Beneath the Yoke of the Mongols

The film opens on a scene of desolate empty steppes litered with the signs of past battle. Prokofiev's musical equivalent of this desolation is a keening melody played in unison, four octaves apart, with nothing but emptiness in between. The oboes' lamenting tune suggest poignant loss, while the rapid turn figure in the muted violas and violins is an image of the feather-grass blowing on the hillside - the only thing moving.

2. Song about Alexander Nevsky

A tranquil lake scene; Alexander and his comrades are fishing with extended nets. The chorus celebrates Alexander's victory over the Swedes two years earlier.
	Chorus of Russians:
	It happened on the Neva River, 
	On the Neva, the great water.
	There was slaughtered in the evil army, 
	the evil army of the Swedes.

	Oh, how we fought, how we slashed!
	Oh, we chopped our boats into kinding.
	We did not spare our golden blood
	in defense of our great Russia land.

	Where the axe passed, there was a street,
	where the spear flew, an alley.
	We mowed down our Swedish enemies
	like feather-grass on dry soil.

	We shall not yield up the Russia land.
	Whoever invades Russia shall be killed.
	Russia has arisen against the foe;
	arise for battle, glorious Novgorod!

3. The Crusaders in Pskov

The town of Pskov has fallen to the invading Germans. The conquerers, representatives of the Roman form of Christianity, prepare a pyre on which they threaten to burn any citizen of Pskov who fails to convert to their religion. In their heavy metal helmets, the German soldiers look more like robots than human beings. They execute the priests accompanying them, chant in Latin while this gruesome activity is going on. Prokofiev created his own plainsong melody and evidently assembled the Latin sentence, too, with scant attention to sense or grammatical correctness.
	A foreigner, I expected my feet to be shod in cymbals.

4. "Arise, People of Russia"

Another choral movement accompanies the enthusiastic preparations of the citizens of Novgorod to defend the Motherland. The melody of the contrasting middle section - almost folk-like in directness - becomes the single most important theme of the film score.

5. The Battle on the ice

The longest movement in the cantata, and one of Prokofiev's finest achievements, this is a virtuosic musical depiction of the course of battle. Though it is April, Lake Chudskoye is still frozen solid; the Russian peasants and townspeople await the Germans in the bitter cold. From the distance the crusaders' battle chant can be heard softly on the trombone. Immediately after this, we hear the hoofbeats of the German horses trotting implacably forward. A tuba theme hints at the brutal power of the attacking forces. The two armies meet (with slashing musical gestures in trumpets and violins). Though the Germans have the advantage of weight and armor, the Russians hold their ground more bravely than expected. Eventually Alexander challenges the leader of the German band to single combat and defeats him. Now the course of battle changes, and the peasants' folk-like marching song begins to dominate the action.

Suddenly in the spring sunshine the ice of the lake cracks under the heavy armor of the mounted Germans, and most of the invading army sinks to its death in the icy waters. The battle ends with unexpected suddenness; the astonished peasants look out at what little remains of the enemy force, as the orchestra plays a poignant phrase from the fourth movement.

	A foreigner, I expected my feet to be shod in cymbals.

	May the arms of the cross-bearers conquer!
	Let the enemy perish!

6. The Field of the Dead

Night is falling. Many Russians lie dead or wounded where they have fallen. A young woman is heard, singing of her search for her brave lovers. She has vowed to marry whichever of two men has proven the bravest in battle. Both men are injured but alive; she helps them off the field.

7. Alexander's Entry into Pskov

The victory has been complete. Alexander's troops return to Pskov in triumph, brining their captives with them. Weddings are arranged, the dead are mourned, and traitors are punished. But most of all, everyone celebrates the end of the fighting in a choral paean.

Program note by Steven Ledbetter

Telarc (CD-80143): Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Previn; Chirstine Cairns, Mezzo-soprano; Los Angeles Master Choral, John Currie, Director

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Created: August 13, 1997