About this work
Prokofiev and the celebrated film director, Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), managed to survive the purges that decimated Russian intellectual life under Stalin. Together, they made two historically significant films: Alexander Nevsky in 1938, and Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2 (No. 3 never got beyond preproduction). Worsening relations between Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. decided Stalin to sponsor a film about Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth century prince of Novgorod, who routed Swedish invaders in 1240 at the river Neva (hence his name) and two years later defeated a horde of Teutonic Knights at Lake Chud (aka Peipus), on what is today the Estonian border. Eisenstein offered to direct and persuaded Prokofiev to score the film. Ironically, because Stalin and Hitler signed a nonaggression treaty before Nevsky was ready for release, it was deep-sixed in the Soviet Union, although not elsewhere. Only after Hitler attacked the U.S.S.R. was the film repatriated as a propaganda tool, by which time Prokofiev had reworked sections of his soundtrack score into a "dramatic cantata" with texts by himself and V. Lugovskoy. Prokofiev conducted the Moscow premiere on May 17, 1939.
In "Russia under the Mongolian yoke," high and low registers of the orchestra accompanied Eisenstein's stark panoramas of bones, skulls, discarded weapons, wasted fields, and sacked villages in the wake of marauding tartars; music at once eerie, archaic and despairing.
The "Song about Alexander Nevsky" is an uncomplicated telling of Prince Alexander's defeat of invading Swedes "on the wide waters of the River Neva" in 1240, abetted by local peasants armed with axes and improvised weapons. A quicker middle section (Più mosso) effectively recreates the sounds of battle.
In "The Crusaders in Psko" swaggering, scornful Teuton invaders sing Latin words not easy to translate, perhaps because Prokofiev intended them to be onomatopoeic rather than narrative. An A minor middle section for legato strings, which are asked to play "expressively and sadly," hardens before the Crusaders quell a spirit of insurrection.
"Arise, Russian people" exhorts them to defend, in the populist style mastered by Prokofiev, plainly tuneful but nonetheless perfervid, with a new melody in the middle section that returns triumphantly in the fifth and seventh movements.
"The battle on the ice" is the longest of the movements and stunningly graphic without needing film to be effective. The Crusaders, shouting their Latin battle cry, ride wildly against Nevsky's force, who sing "In our great native Russia no foe shall live...." The breakup of the ice is a terrifying sound, far surpassing a small studio orchestra and constricted mono sound on the original soundtrack.
In "The field of the dead" the mezzo-soprano soloist becomes a Russian girl, looking for the body of her lover slain in battle. She vows to kiss the eyelids of all who died, and to wed a "brave" survivor rather than a "handsome man."
A recapitulation of Russian themes celebrates "Alexander's entry into Pskov" and rejoices in Nevsky's victory, as appropriate in World War II and after as Stalin meant the film to be in 1937.