Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus:
Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky up next at Severance Hall
by Daniel Hathaway
Early in the 20th century — before the movie industry developed its own set of dedicated composers — producers and directors of the nascent art form went calling at the doors of classical composers for musical scores to complement their creations.
Music by Louis F. Gottschalk, Victor Herbert and Camille Saint-Saëns played along with films of the silent era, and once talkies came into prominence, the list of composers who provided orchestral tracks on celluloid grew to include Aaron Copland, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. And Sergei Prokofiev.
Prokofiev, who had already written film scores for Lieutenant Kijé (1934) and Pique Dame, (1936) was approached to provide an hour-long score for orchestra and chorus to accompany Sergei Eisenstein's first sound film, Alexander Nevsky, which came to the screen in Russia in 1938. An overtly political piece, the film marked the political tensions of the moment between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany and underlined the Russian dictator's anti-clerical feelings.
Alexander Nevsky celebrates the victory of that medieval prince of Novgorod's hastily assembled foot soldiers (rallied from the common people of the region) over the heavily armored Teutonic cavalry of the Holy Roman Empire in the famous battle on ice on Lake Peipus on April 5 of 1242. Ironically, the half-hour long battle, which became the model for epic movie battles, was filmed during the blazing heat of summer near Moscow and required clever simulations of winter effects.
Prokofiev worked closely with Eisenstein on the project and frequently scenes were shot to coincide with the musical score. In addition to the Stalinist jibes directed at the Germans, Prokofiev allegedly got his own in at the expense of one of his fellow composers: garbled Latin sung by the Crusaders was probably randomly selected from the texts of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.
After the dramatic success of the film, Prokofiev extracted a cantata from the score which is what Severance Hall audiences will hear this weekend as part of an all-Russian program conducted by Pinchas Steinberg, with Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano, and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.
Those who have never seen the Eisenstein film with Prokofiev's score can view the original version online here (in Russian with English subtitles). The classic film was reissued in 1995 with a new digital soundtrack recorded two years earlier by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.
Prokofiev's suite reduces the film's eighteen musical items to seven: Russia under the Mongolian Yoke, Song about Alexander Nevsky, The Crusaders in Pskov, Arise, Men of Russia, The Battle on Ice, The Field of the Dead (mezzo-soprano solo), and Alexander's Entry into Pskov. First performed in Moscow on May 17, 1939 under the composer's baton, the suite received its US debut in 1943 under Leopold Stokowski.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 16, 2012
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