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 Soon after it was released, to unprecedented acclaim, the film was withdrawn from circulation upon the signing of the German-Soviet pact of 1939.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.
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!
Crusaders: A foreigner, I expected my feet to be shod in cymbals.
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.
Crusaders: A foreigner, I expected my feet to be shod in cymbals. May the arms of the cross-bearers conquer! Let the enemy perish!
Program note by Steven Ledbetter
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Previn;
Chirstine Cairns, Mezzo-soprano;
Los Angeles Master Choral, John Currie, Director
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