Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drums, chimes, cymbals, legno, maracas, orchestral bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), harp, strings, alto, and chorus (SATB). First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 14, 1966 with mezzo-soprano Gwendolyn Killebrew and the Roger Wagner Chorale, Thomas Schippers conducting.
The non-aggression treaty between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union in August of 1939 was preceded by months of ferocious saber-rattling on both sides and succeeded, after only a month, by Germany’s invasion of Poland, triggering all-out war. So much for non-aggression.
The German-Soviet mock detente prior to the signing of the treaty did, however, produce a splendid, multifaceted work of Soviet art, which satisfied at once the USSR’s propaganda needs while providing posterity with a powerful piece of cinematic and musical art: Sergei Eisenstein’s spectacular film Alexander Nevsky, with score to match by Sergei Prokofiev. It would be the director’s first successful film in many years -- including a brief, abortive stint in Hollywood -- and the composer’s first large-scale nationalistic work after returning permanently to Russia following years of wandering in the West.
The film deals with the exploits of the near-legendary Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263), Prince of Novgorod, who defeated an invading army of Catholic Teutonic Knights on the frozen Lake Peipus in 1242. Viewed today, the Nevsky film is a brilliant cartoon -- although without that particular sort of animation. Nevsky himself, played by Nicolai Cherkassov, is impossibly noble and improbably handsome, as are most of those among his retinue who aren’t just adorable "good ol’ boys." The Germans, on the other hand, are all brutish looking: either blond beasts or horror-movie grotesques (think Marty Feldman’s Igor in Young Frankenstein). Visually, however, it remains one of the most strikingly beautiful films ever made, and few films have ever been blessed with such stunningly apt music. Eisenstein thought so highly of his friend’s effort that he let the music dictate the pace and visual aspects of several of the film’s scenes, most notably its longest and most memorable episode, "The Battle on the Ice."
The film was first shown not in a movie house but before an audience of political and artistic bigwigs in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre on November 23, 1938. It was a smash hit -- as art and as propaganda. Some months later, for the occasion of Stalin’s 60th birthday, Prokofiev arranged the bulk of the score as a cantata: the concert work heard at this performance.
Eisenstein and Prokofiev proved to be a superbly compatible team, finishing the entire film in about five months -- half the projected time. Eisenstein wittily described the collaboration as follows:
"‘At noon you’ll have the music,’ Prokofiev says as we are coming out of a small projection room. And although it’s now midnight, I’m quite calm. At exactly 11:55 AM a small, dark blue car drives through the studio gates. Sergei Prokofiev will get out of that small, dark blue car. In his hands will be the next number for Alexander Nevsky. We look at a new piece of film at night. In the morning, a new piece of music will be ready for it…"
The cantata is divided into seven sections. The first, "Russia under the Mongol Yoke," accompanied the opening credits of the film. In No. 2, "Song about Alexander Nevsky," the chorus exhorts the young prince to don armor again, to expel the invading Teutonic Knights. Part 3, "The Crusaders in Pskov," depicts the havoc wrought on the city by the pillaging, plundering invaders (the choral text is in Latin, the accompanying strains a caricature of church music). "Arise, ye Russian People," No. 4, is a heroic hymn, a bright, noble contrast to the dark ponderousness with which the Germans are characterized in the preceding movement.
No. 5, "The Battle on the Ice," is a virtuoso evocation (visually and musically) of a battle between the forces of darkness and light -- the invaders, riding richly caparisoned horses, appear dimly through the morning mist, and then Prokofiev creates aural magic: as the armies approach each other from different sides of the musical spectrum, with the Teutonic Knights’ strains dark, growling, earthbound, with special emphasis on the low brass, the Russians’, brightly animated, with chattering upper strings and woodwinds. At the climax of the battle, the ice begins to crack; the Teutonic Knights are unable to flee as the weight of their armor on the already heavily burdened horses causes the ice to crack. Horses and riders sink beneath the water.
The ensuing "Field of the Dead" is the score’s single vocal solo, a profoundly affecting lament for the Russian heroes fallen in the battle. The finale, No. 7, depicts "Alexander’s Entry into Pskov," the chorus exulting in his victory, with the sternest of warnings to potential invaders that any and all will meet the same fate as befell the hapless Teutonic Knights.
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.