Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > ALEXANDER NEVSKY – Sergei Prokofiev

ALEXANDER NEVSKY – Sergei Prokofiev

November 9, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

alexandernevsky100 GREATEST SCORES OF ALL TIME

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Film director Sergei Eisenstein had secured the favor of Soviet dictator Stalin with two films, which extolled the revolution and Communist party; The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days That Shook The World (1928). Unfortunately, a misguided foray to the West to make films unrestrained by the demands of Soviet Realism caused him to fall out of favor. Upon returning to the Soviet Union in 1932 he was slowly rehabilitated and fortune smiled upon him when Stalin approved production of a film about Alexander Nevsky. Dimitri Vasilyev was assigned by the Ministry of Culture to keep Eisenstein on schedule and budget. The screenplay would be written by Eisenstein and Pyotyr Pavlenko. The telegenic Nikolay Cherkasov would play the titular role and be supported by Nikolay Okhlopkov as Vasili Buslaev and Andrei Abrikosov as Gavrilo Oleksich. Sergei Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky during the dark pall of the Stalinist era. The film offers an obvious allegory on the historic Germanic-Russian animus, as well as the escalating distrust and tension felt with the Nazi regime. The story celebrates Prince Alexander Nevsky, who achieves an apotheosis, passing unto legend after he leads the armies of Holy Mother Russia to victory over the crusading Catholic Teutonic Knights.

The film is set in Russia circa 1242 C.E. The Teutonic Knights, a Germanic Catholic military order of the Holy Roman Empire has launched a new Crusade against pagans and believers of Russian Orthodoxy, a faith they believe to be apostate. They invade Russia, sack the city of Pskov and brutally massacre its inhabitants. Prince Alexander Nevsky ruler of the Republic of Novgorod sounds the call to arms and assembles a great army. He then rallies the common people to join him in defending Holy Mother Russia, to retake Pskov and crush the Germanic invaders. The two armies face-off on the frozen Lake Peipus where Nevsky achieves a decisive victory, which routs the Germanic invaders. Nevsky is acclaimed a national hero and passes unto legend. The film’s initial release was truncated on orders of Stalin as he signed on 23 August 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact and did not wish to sow distrust with the Germans. However, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 an enraged Stalin ordered the film redistributed to inspire and rouse the people for war. There is no information regarding the budget of the film. It was however awarded the State Prize of the Soviet Union – Stalinskaya Premia in 1941. Alexander Nevsky stands today as one of the greatest examples of a nationalistic propaganda film.

Sergei Eisenstein had long admired the music of Sergei Prokofiev, believing him to be a kindred spirit who would understand his creative vision. Prokofiev had recently returned to Russia after an 18-year estrangement was eager for work and welcomed Eisenstein’s invitation to take up the project. The score was written unconventionally in that he composed music based upon a rough cut of the images before Eisenstein had shot the film. Also interesting is that Eisenstein at times adapted his filming to match the musical sketch Prokofiev had composed. Prokofiev understood that this was at its core a patriotic film, which would require the full weight of his classical training. It is therefore not surprising that his music abounds with patriotic nationalist fervor. Prokofiev is both forthright and unabashed in his portrayals of the combatants; the invading Catholic Teutonic Knights are supported by two themes; the Teutonic Knights Theme abounds with cruelty and brutality, emoting as a repeating four-note construct by menacing, dissonant horns barbaro. Its articulation is slow, and deliberate. The Crusader Theme is simple in construct, offering a repeating Latin chant of “Pereginus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis”. The phrase is gibberish; “As a foreigner, I expect my feet to be shod in cymbals”. I discern that Prokofiev was either poorly advised or chose the words for their sound. In any event, the theme is effective in contrasting the scourge of the Latin church of Rome.

For the Russians we have two themes, the Russian Theme’s A Phrase emotes solemnly as an anthem, while it’s B Phrase graces us with a stirring lyricism so full of warmth. The second theme is the Song of Alexander Nevsky, which offers a classic ABA construct. The A Phrase emotes as a solemn anthem, while the B Phrase offers a patriotic call to arms. On a personal level the song serves as Alexander Nevsky’s identity, while on a transpersonal level it represents the Russian people. Prokofiev instilled his soundscape with patriotic anthems and his evocative music brought grandness, drama, and an inspiring resonating power, which is universal in its appeal. The human voice is featured prominently throughout this score, and presented either as a gorgeous solo for mezzo-soprano by Evgenia Gorohovskaya, or chorale by men’s or mixed voice chorus. I must say that the choral writing is stirring and often achieves a wondrous communion with the orchestra, serving to elevate the film’s heroic narrative to the realm of the sublime. Composer André Previn once remarked that Prokofiev’s music for Alexander Nevsky was “the greatest film score ever written, trapped inside the worst soundtrack ever recorded.” Fortunately for us, the score has been restored to all its original grandeur and breath-taking brilliance.

“Prelude” was conceived by executive producer John Goberman and score reconstructionist and orchestrator William Brohn to serve as an overture designed to set the film’s tone and reel in the audience. It is taken from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Cantata and is musically kindred to the actual film score. It’s trailing half was used to support the film’s opening credits, which originally consisted of white Cyrillic letters set against a black background, supported by silence. I believe Eisenstein’s original conception of the opening credits was an artistic mistake and the importing of dramatic music used by the creative team vastly superior. We open dramatically upon declarations of horns bellicoso and bold orchestral ascents, which usher in pounding timpani from which is born the dissonant horns barbaro of the Teutonic Theme. The theme sows menace and cruelty, the grotesque dissonance of dread of the invader knights. A diminuendo usher in a bleak soundscape of desolation, which supports the roll of the opening credits. We close upon violins di Speranza, which speak of brighter days to come.

Following the opening credits is “The 13th Century”. White script against a black background states that it was the 13th century and Teutonic knights were advancing to Russia’s western border. Russia lies bleeding and in chaos in the aftermath of the Mongol scourge, her lands lay wasted from years of the carnage of war. Russia is forced to pay annual tribute to the Khan and Alexander Nevsky who was offered years ago as a hostage has grown to manhood with them. Prokofiev sows a grim pall of devastation that supports the script. We enter the film proper with views of the steppe strewn with the skeletal remains and weapons. A solo oboe affanato speaks to the grim sight, soon joined by kindred woodwinds full of mourning and strings of desolation, which play aloft a dark bass sustain. The confluence of cinematography and music is perfectly conceived and executed. “Plescheyevo Lake” offers a stirring score choral highlight. Nevsky has been summoned by the people of Novgorod to defend them from the invading Swedes. He leads an audacious attack, which catches the Swedes off guard and delivers a stunning victory. The following song offers a stirring paean by full men’s chorus. It abounds with reverential nobility, pride and patriotism, finishing with a glorious flourish.

“It happened by the river Neva, by the great waters. There we cut down the enemy warriors of the Swedish army. Oh, how we fought, how we cut them down! How we cut their ships to pieces! We swung an axe and a street appeared ,we thrust our spears and a lane opened up. We cut down the Swedish invaders like grass on parched soil. We shall never yield our Russian land. Those who attack Russia will meet their death. Arise, Russia, against the enemy, arise to arms, glorious Novgorod!”

In “Pskov In Flames” the white caped Teutonic knights stand over the burned and sacked city, where most of the inhabitants lay slaughtered on the streets. Repeating horns barbaro declarations of the Teutonic Theme resound with cruelty and brutality. Religioso auras imparted by organ joins in unholy communion as we see bound survivors awaiting their fate as a bishop declares that they must accept the rule of Rome, or die. At 1:48 strings affanato support the people’s grief as the prisoners are ordered executed for defiantly voicing support of Russia.“Death To The Blasphemer!” opens with a grieving B Phrase of the Russian Theme as Olga rushes to her father, who has been condemned to death. At 0:46 diegetic horns resound to mark the sentence of death. At 1:09 the knights move forward with monstrous purpose and begin the slaughter carried by the dire horns of their theme, now reinforced with the repeating Latin chants of the Crusader Theme “Pereginus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis”. A truly evil synergy is achieved as we see the innocents being slayed brutally without mercy. We close as we began with a grieving rendering of the Russian Theme as we see the Grandmaster tossing young children into a fire pit.

In “Arise, People Of Russia” we are provided another magnificent score highlight. The boyars of Novgorod enlist the aid of Prince Alexander to defend the city from the Germans. He accepts the mantle of leadership and declares that victory will require the army ranks be swelled by recruiting the peasants. Prokofiev offers a rousing exposition of the Russian Theme for choir and orchestra that abounds in patriotic fervor as we see a montage of scenes of the peasants answering Alexander’s call to join him in defending Holy Mother Russia from the German invaders. Behold;

“Arise to arms, ye Russian people, in battle just, the fight to death; arise ye, people free and brave defend our fair native land! To living warriors high esteem, immortal fame to warriors slain! For native home, for Russian Soil, arise ye people, Russian folk! In our great Russia, in our native Russia no foe shall live: Rise to arms, arise, native mother Russia! No foe shall march across Russian land, no foreign troops shall raid Russia; unseen are the ways to Russia, no foe will ravage Russian fields.”

At 3:19 we change scenes to Novgorod atop celebratory bells as Alexander marches into the city at the head of his army carried by a noble rendering of the Russian Theme. The marriage of Eisenstein’s narrative and Prokofiev’s music is magnificent. “The Teutonic Camp” reveals the bishop blessing the knights who have assembled for mass. Prokofiev supports the scene with the Latin chanting of the Crusader Theme joined by religioso organ. When word comes that Prince Alexander has brought his army to the battlefield, the Grandmaster revels with the news and rouses his men to prepare for battle. “Nevsky’s Camp: Night Before The Battle” reveals Prince Alexander contemplating tomorrows battle. A dark and twisted rendering of the Teutonic Theme speaks to his thoughts, and we close with a pensive statement of the Russian Theme.

The next six cues comprise a grand score highlight, which centers on the great battle. “The Battle On The Ice: April 5, 1242” opens ominously as dawn brings light, which reveals the two armies facing each other across a frozen Lake. Prokofiev sows tension and unease with eerie violin figures and the specter of the Teutonic Theme, countered by the tentative horns of the Russian Theme. The Latin chanting of the Crusader Theme enters at 1:51 as we see the bishop blessing the knights. At 2:12 a martial rendering of the Teutonic Theme begins a sinister crescendo as they Germans charge the Russian lines. As we close in on the charging knights an accelerando commences and is strengthened by the Crusader Theme at 4:19, which is now fortified with additional words; “Pereginus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis. Signiferos ut crucis arma vincunt; Hoste perivimus”. (May the arms of the cross-bearers conquer! Let the enemy perish!”) The score goes silent as the two armies collide. In “The Battle On The Ice: Fight For Russia!” Prince Alexander orders his right and left flanks to charge and envelop the Germans. They are carried in a galloping rendering of the Russian Theme propelled by horns bravura. Trumpets eroica resound at 0:57 as the Russians flanks drive into the German forces. The powerful and driving Russian Theme is now ascendant as we see the tide of battle turning.

“The Battle On The Ice: Spears And Arrows” reveals the Russians pummeling the Germans propelled rapidly by a torrent of strings furioso and trilling woodwinds. At 0:26 the Germans withdraw and form a defensive phalanx that repel repeated charges by the Russian. The Teutonic Theme is joined in powerful interplay with the choral declared Crusader Theme, and now gains ascendency as the tide of battle shifts back to the Germans. At 2:15 a series of horn propelled string figures and percussion support volleys of arrows shot at the fleeing Russians. We close darkly as the Germans again go on the offensive and charge the Russian lines. In “The Battle On The Ice: The Duel With The Grand Master” the death of one of Prince Alexander’s sons enrages him and he leads an assault, which drives back the Germans. As the Russians gain the initiative, Prince Alexander rides through the lines and challenges the Grand Master to a duel. The battle is not scored, and music only enters as the two commanders duel on horseback. As the two men battle their themes contest replete with anvil strikes, but the Russian Theme gains ascendency atop horns bravura, which crest as the Grandmaster is pummeled and taken prisoner.

“The Battle On The Ice: The Battle Is Won” reveals the route of the Germans who break ranks after their leader falls and is taken prisoner. We see the German camp overrun, its priests put to the sword and their troops fleeing with Russian forces in relentless pursuit. The Russian Theme is triumphant and celebratory, embellished with a playful piccolo, and drives ever forward for a magnificent bravado performance. At 1:56 dire horns declare the Teutonic Theme, which supports the capture of the traitor Tverdilo. Slowly, as the Germans manage to reassemble their ranks their grim theme reemerges and resumes its battle with the Russian Theme. We segue seamlessly into “The Battle On The Ice: The Ice Breaks” where the Germans have concentrated their ranks in a defensive posture. Their combined weight causes the ice to break and they fall to their doom into the icy waters. Prokofiev supports their demise with a storm of percussion including thunderous timpani, cymbal and gong strikes and deafening anvil strikes. A now beleaguered Teutonic Theme resounds one last time, but dissolves into a grotesque trombone glissando as the last knight disappears into the watery depths.

“The Field Of The Dead” offers a very moving cue and supreme score highlight. We bear witness to the devastation and carnage of war, the fallen, the wounded struggling to live, and women searching for their sons and husbands. Prokofiev supports the grim landscape with a threnody from which ascends the pristine vocals of mezzo-soprano Evgenia Gorohovskay aching lamentation;

“I will go across the snow-clad field, I will fly above the field of death. I will search for valiant warriors, my betrothed, my stalwart youths, Here lies one felled by a wild saber; there lies one impaled by an arrow. From their wounds blood fell like rain on our native soil, on Russian fields. He who fell for Russia in noble death shall be blessed by my kiss on his eyes and to brave lad who remained alive, I will be a true wife and loving friend. I’ll not be wed to a handsome man; earthly charm and beauty fade fast and die. I’ll be wed to the man who’s brave. Give heed to this, brave warriors!”

In “Pskov: Procession Of The Fallen And Judgment Of The Prisoners” a triumphant Prince Alexander enters Pskov. Tolling bells usher in a reprise of Prokofiev’s aching threnody as the crowds bow their heads to the fallen who have been brought home to rest. At 1:21 repeating string agitato figures support the entry of German prisoners and the Grand Master. At 1:44 we have Prince Alexander’s grand entry through the city gates the crowd cheering a hero of the motherland. Prokofiev supports his ride with a triumphant reprise of the Alexander song melody. As he rides through the street, mothers hand him their children, which he hoists to ride on his lap. A heartwarming exposition of the Russian Theme unfolds with exquisite beauty. At 3:11 the string agitato figures reprise as Teutonic knights and the traitor Tverdilo are harnessed and seen pulling a sled. We conclude with a noble rendering of the Russian Theme replete with celebratory bells as Prince Alexander reaches the cathedral and dismounts. The album cue ends here, but there is additional music. Prince Alexander gives a speech abounding in patriotic fervor, exhorting the people to commemorate this victory and be ever vigilant. He then displays mercy and frees the German foot soldiers. The string agitato figures returns as he ransoms off the knights. As he contemplates Tverdilo’s fate the threnody returns as the camera pans over the fallen. He leaves it for the people to decide and the crowd falls upon Tverdilo, the Grandmaster and monk with a terrible vengeance.

In “And Now Let’s Celebrate!” Gavrilo wins the hand of Olga and Vasilim, the warrior maiden Vasilisa. With that Prince Alexander orders a celebration and Prokofiev supports with a reprise of the torrent of strings furioso and trilling woodwinds used in the “Spears and Arrow” cue. In “Final Chorus” the film closes with these words by Prince Alexander;

“Go tell everyone in foreign lands that Russia lives! Those who come to us as guests, let them come with no fear. But those who come to us with a sword, will die by the sword. On that Russia stands and forever will stand!”

Prokofiev concludes in grandeur with a final proud reprise of Song About Alexander Nevsky by full choir, which ends in a flourish.

I would like to thank John Goderman and RCA Victor Records for this long-sought re-recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s masterpiece “Alexander Nevsky”. The score’s reconstruction and orchestration by William Brohn was outstanding, and the audio quality is superb, providing an excellent listening experience. Prokofiev wrote his score without ever seeing a reel of film, inspired by Eisenstein’s pre-film images and script. The score begins darkly with Russia bleeding and in chaos during the aftermath of the Mongol scourge. We hear a Russian resurgence with the inspired choral call to arms of “Arise, People Of Russia!” It is however with the epic “Battle On The Ice” cues (9-14) that the score culminates in a stunning parade of outstanding action cues, where Prokofiev whips his orchestra into patriotic fervor with stunning interplay of the German and Russian Themes. Russia at last triumphs when the lake ice breaks and Lake Peipus’ icy waters consume the Teutonic Knights. In my judgement Prokofiev demonstrated mastery of his craft in laying bare the brutality, tragedy and heroism of this epic clash of civilizations. During the battle’s aftermath, mezzo-soprano Evgenia Gorohovskaya stirs our hearts when she sings an aching lament in “Field Of The Dead”. The score achieves its emotional zenith when Alexander Nevsky, and his heroic Russian troops return triumphant to Pskov, which Prokofiev supports gloriously with celebratory renderings of Alexander’s and the Russian Themes. Folks, this score achieved a sublime confluence with Eisenstein’s cinematography and narrative. I consider it one of the finest in Prokofiev’s canon and a masterpiece of the Golden Age. I highly recommend you purchase this quality album for your collection.

I have attached a Youtube link for those of you unfamiliar to enjoy the score:

Buy the Alexander Nevsky soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (3:47)
  • The 13th Century (1:29)
  • Plescheyevo Lake (2:28)
  • Pskov in Flames (2:27)
  • Death to the Blasphemer! (3:16)
  • Arise, People of Russia (4:13)
  • The Teutonic Camp (2:35)
  • Nevsky’s Camp: Night Before the Battle (0:52)
  • Battle on the Ice: April 5, 1242 (6:08)
  • Battle on the Ice: Fight For Russia! (1:51)
  • Battle on the Ice: Spears and Arrows (2:55)
  • Battle on the Ice: The Duel With the Grand Master (1:22)
  • Battle on the Ice: The Battle is Won (3:33)
  • Battle on the Ice: The Ice Breaks (1:43)
  • The Field of the Dead (5:37)
  • Pskov – Procession of the Fallen and Judgement of the Prisoners (4:10)
  • And Now Let’s Celebrate! (1:02)
  • Final Chorus (0:49)

Running Time: 50 minutes 17 seconds

RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68642-2 (1938/1993)

Music composed by Sergei Prokofiev. Conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. Performed by The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. Orchestrations by Sergei Prokofiev. Album produced by John Goberman.

  1. November 18, 2015 at 5:37 am

    Craig, you might consider listening to the Reiner/Chicago recording on the RCA Living Stereo series. The brass really have the right idea.

  2. December 2, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Craig, your link is no longer valid for youtube, someone has removed that video. Here is a link to a remastered playlist of the full score: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI1pQaFBxqs&list=PLX97np_xRgWHzacfwQ6ig0aU-4S-7bnjM&index=16

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: