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About this Piece

Composed: 1938

Length: c. 110 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (anvil, bass drum, bells, chimes, cymbals, gong, maracas, snare drum, steel plate, tambourine, tom-tom, triangle, woodblock, xylophone), harp, strings, chorus, and mezzo-soprano soloist

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 3, 1987 (with the film), André Previn conducting, with mezzo-soprano Christine Cairns and the Los Angeles Master Chorale

When, in 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) was offered the chance to make a film on a subject from Russian history, he seized the opportunity with alacrity. In the changed Soviet cultural landscape of the 1930s, the internationally renowned director of pioneering masterpieces of the 1920s - most notably Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1927) - had come to be regarded with suspicion at home as an inveterate "formalist." His most recent film project, a collective-farm story, Bezhin Meadow (with music composed by Gavriil Popov), had been terminated by official intervention after two years in production. The target of harsh criticism, he found himself in a desperate situation.

Alexander Nevsky would be the first film Eisenstein had completed in nine years. It was also his first completed sound film. From the outset, he envisaged music as a vital ingredient of this picture, integral to its effect. That must have been attractive to Sergei Prokofiev, whom Eisenstein approached in May 1938 with the invitation to collaborate. Since establishing his home and settling his family in Moscow in 1936, after having been based in the West since 1918, Prokofiev had not yet succeeded in demonstrating through his music his appreciation of - or commitment to - the prevailing dictates of Soviet aesthetic policy. While he may have been as yet unaware of the fact, his setting of texts by Lenin and Stalin in his monumental Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of October (1937) - to date his most ambitious stab at "assimilation" - had been a grave miscalculation. It would not be performed during his lifetime.

The successful collaboration of Eisenstein and Prokofiev on Alexander Nevsky rehabilitated both of their careers. They would go on to collaborate on the making of Ivan the Terrible and, after the release of Part 1 in 1944, they would be rewarded with Stalin Prizes. (Part 2 of Ivan the Terrible would incur Stalin's displeasure, however, and remain unreleased until after all three men were dead. Part 3 was not finished.)

The historical Alexander Nevsky was a 13th-century grand prince whose prowess as a military leader against Swedish and German invaders made him a national hero; he was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 16th century. What appealed to Eisenstein was that he was a historical figure about whom little was known, offering greater scope for his own creative vision. (Indeed, the portrayal of the character by Nikolai Cherkasov, the famous film actor who was cast in the title role, was influential in defining the modern image of Nevsky.) Eisenstein's film zeroes in on a pivotal moment in Alexander's career when - in the wake of the subjugation of Pskov by crusading Teutonic knights - he was summoned by the citizens of Novgorod to lead them against the invaders. The victory of the Russian forces over the Germans at the Battle on Lake Peipus (popularly known as the "Battle on the Ice") on April 5, 1242, is the central episode of the film.

Eisenstein's musical sensibilities were acute and his collaboration with Prokofiev was informed by deep mutual respect. In detailed discussions of his project - based on a scenario co-written by the director and Pyotr Pavlenko, a writer with impeccable Communist credentials - Eisenstein outlined his musical desiderata to the composer early in the summer of 1938. Prokofiev began sketching music before the filming got underway. Some of this music was recorded and served as the basis for the subsequent filming of individual scenes, where Eisenstein's imagery and rhythm followed the composer's musical design. Elsewhere, the method was reversed and Prokofiev scored music to footage that had already been shot. Sometimes they arrived at the desired solution fortuitously. "One such example," Eisenstein recalled, "occurs in the battle scene where pipes and drums are played for the victorious Russian soldiers. I couldn't find a way to explain to Prokofiev what precise effect should be 'seen' in his music for this joyful moment. Seeing that we were getting nowhere, I ordered some 'prop' instruments constructed, shot those being played (without sound) visually, and projected the results for Prokofiev - who almost immediately handed me an exact 'musical equivalent' to that visual image of pipers and drummers which I had shown him."

From the outset, composer and director ruled out using authentic music of the middle ages - quotations from folk songs or Gregorian chant - to evoke the two opposing elements that make up the film, the heroic Russians and the menacing Teutonic invaders. Prokofiev felt that period music "was far too remote and emotionally alien to us to be able to stimulate the imagination of the present-day film spectator. We therefore decided not to reproduce it as it sounded at the time of the Battle on the Ice seven centuries ago but to adapt it to the modern ear." His is music of a bygone era re-imagined for the 20th century.

The close interaction of composer and director resulted in a film in which music plays an unusually active role in conveying emotional intensity and epic sweep, rivaling the significance of the spoken dialog. Eisenstein was proud of the unity of sight and sound they had achieved in this film. He frequently referred to its "symphonic" construction.

Prokofiev participated actively in the recording of the sound track, creating unique effects by experimenting with the placement of microphones and with sound mixing. For all the importance both he and Eisenstein attached to its aural component, however, what anyone who has seen the finished film knows is how disappointingly poor it is in sound quality. In any event, after the film was released, Prokofiev decided to arrange from its music a cantata for concert performance, a process he described as more difficult than composing the original film score, in that it required re-conceiving the musical form and completely re-orchestrating it for full orchestra, chorus, and mezzo-soprano. (The film scoring had employed a relatively small studio orchestra.) In this concert version, the seven-movement cantata, Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78, received its premiere in Moscow in May 1939. It went on to become one of the composer's most popular works. And it is the symphonic scoring of this cantata that underpins the 1987 reconstruction by William D. Brohn of a score that is coordinated for live performance with the screening of the film.

- Laurel E. Fay is Scholar in Residence for Shadow of Stalin.