Home > 100 Greatest Scores, Reviews > IVAN THE TERRIBLE – Sergei Prokofiev

IVAN THE TERRIBLE – Sergei Prokofiev

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Original Review by Craig Lysy

Josef Stalin had always admired Tsar Ivan IV, AKA Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible), for his brilliance, decisiveness, and success as a powerful and resolute leader of the Russian people. Stalin saw himself as the incarnation of Ivan and when he became aware that filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was also interested in the man, he ordered him to make a film with himself as author and director. Eisenstein understood his task and sought to create a narrative that extolled Ivan as a national icon and hero. The story would offer a trilogy of films, which covered the three stages of his life; part 1 would portray his childhood, coronation and early reign. Part 2 would focus on the Boyar plot, and Part 3 would cover his final days. The right cast was needed to realize his vision, so he brought in Nikolay Cherkasov to play the titular role. Joining him would be Serafima Birman as Efrosinia Staritska, Pavel Kadochnikov as Vladimir Staritsky, Mikhail Zharov as Malyuta Skuratov, Amvrosi Buchma as Alexei Basamanov, Mikhail Kuznetsov as Fyodor Basamanov and Lyudmilia Tselikovskaya as Tsarina Anastasia.

The storyline of the film is set in the years 1533 to 1565. Ivan has led a very difficult life and suffered the murder of his mother and great cruelty. Yet within him burned an unquenchable and fervent desire to unite the Russian people and lead them to greatness. At the age of eight he assumed the title of Grand Prince of Moscow with his father’s death. Through sheer determination and force of will he secured the title of Tsar and was crowned in 1547 at the age of 16. His early reign was enlightened and Russian culture advanced as never before. Yet the Boyar nobility opposed the concentration of power under one man and so began an insidious undermining of his rule. In 1552 Ivan broke the yoke of Tartar power in the south by conquering the key city of Kazan. He had the great cathedral of St. Basil’s in Moscow built to thank God for his victory. Yet despite this victory his beloved wife Anastasia suffered death from Boyar poisoning, which forever altered Ivan’s destiny. He descended into a tormenting paranoiac rage, a sadistic madness exacerbated by defections from a number of Boyars. He responded with cruel retribution, unleashing a reign of terror, which led to the murdering of thousands, the destruction of whole cities, thus earning his infamous epithet. His personal guard the Oprichniki ensured his power and safety, yet he resigned when the scandal of embezzlement by the clergy and Boyars brought him dishonor. When the Boyar council failed to effectively rule and the country began to descend in chaos, they asked Ivan to take back the crown. He consented with one condition, autocracy – he alone would wield unconditional power. The film debuted in Moscow in December 1944 and received instant critical acclaim from the ministry of Arts and Culture, securing the Stalin Prize for both Eisenstein and Prokofiev. No Academy Award recognition however was achieved. Today critics recognize Ivan Groznyy as a stunning achievement for Eisenstein and a Russian cinematic classic.

Eisenstein had enjoyed his first collaboration with Prokofiev on the film 1938 Alexander Nevsky, so he was the natural choice for this new endeavor. He admired and valued Prokofiev’s work ethic, instincts, as well as his reliable and meticulous precision. Indeed so respectful was Eisenstein that on occasion he would adapt his filming to preserve the integrity of the musical passage. The two men reviewed the screenplay, spotted the music, and discussed the emotional drivers. Prokofiev understood that the film needed to be operatic, and so wrote for chorus and again brought in Lyricist Vladimir Lugovskoy who had earlier assisted with Alexander Nevsky to assist with the score’s songs. He also understood that for authenticity he would have to infuse his score with Russian Orthodox liturgical chants and hymns as well as traditional Russian folk songs.

Prokofiev provided a number of themes, with the theme for Ivan underpinning his score. It has a binary construct, embodying the two distinct aspects of Ivan’s personality – Ivan the regal all-powerful Tsar and Ivan the man. Eisenstein had asked Prokofiev for a titular theme with the Slavic power, gravitus and complexity necessary to bring Ivan to life. In its primary form, the theme embodies Ivan’s regal power and strength often manifesting to inform us of his political and military victories. It is muscular, heroic and empowered as a militaristic march by bold low register horn declarations, which inform us of Ivan’s kingship and power. The theme’s secondary form of expression offers a fine juxtaposition to the primary, providing a more lyrical and intimate expression. Film score collectors will immediately discern tHorner’s interpolation of the theme, almost note by note in his Glory score. For our adversaries, the Tartars, exotic auras are provided where unison oboe and piccolo clarinet play against a kettle drum ostinato. For Ivan’s devoted Oprichniki Prokofiev utilized a humming male chorus, which informs us of their fealty, devotion and fierce commitment to Ivan. A note to the reader, the album offers a compilation of the highlight tracks from both films. I will review them in film sequence.

“Overture” offers brilliant score highlight where Prokofiev unleashes Ivan’s Theme in all its heroic glory. Horn declarations exemplify his supreme power and majesty. At 0:34 chorus sets the storyline: “A black cloud is forming, a bloody dawn approaching, the boyars have hatched a treacherous plot against the Tsar’s authority, which they are now unleashing.” At 1:19 dissonant woodwinds dance over a string ostinato in an extended bridge. His theme returns in all its glory, and the cue closes gloriously atop chorus! This is magnificent! “March of the Young Ivan” is a fascinating cue rich in juxtaposition. We see Ivan who is supported by a plodding march where playful woodwinds dance against militaristic accents. I must say I have never in my life encountered a march such as this. Prokofiev’s conception and execution is brilliant. “The Broad Expanse of the Sea” features the splendid vocals of Ljubov Sokolova. Her evocative lyrics, which are supported by chorus, speak to us of Russia’s yearning to open Baltic trade routes and find her day in the sun.

The next four cues flow seamlessly and support Ivan’s coronation. “I Shall Be Tsar!” supports Ivan’s majestic declaration with an inspired rendering of his theme, alight with refulgent bells. “The Uspensky Cathedral” offers Russian liturgical splendor as Ivan is crowned Tsar, supreme autocrat of all the Russians. Prokofiev offers a traditional Kyrie Eleison and a 19th-century monastic song, “Sofrony’s Cherubic Song,” to support the Patriarch’s crowning and blessing of the newly crowned Tsar. In “Many Years” a joyous chorus sings, “May the Lord save him and keep him,” as two attendants pour gold coins as rain upon Ivan’s crowned head as we end with declarations of “Long life to the Tsar!” “The Simpelton” provides another score highlight, which offers a remarkable frenetic piece, which abounds with richness, energy and complexity. The scene features the evil and plotting Yefrosiniya who is determined to destroy Ivan so her dim-witted son Vladimir can ascend to the throne. Frantic strings propel the music forward with a dark and malevolent purpose. When the woodwinds, drums and a full array of percussive accents join we bear witness to an astounding two minutes of music, which perfectly capture Yefrosinya’s ugliness and sinister intent.

“The Swan” returns us to Ivan and Anastasiya’s wedding which Prokofiev supports with two traditional Russian wedding songs: “Song of Praise” greeting the bridegroom and “The Swan” greeting the bride. The music is refulgent and perfectly supports the wedding bliss of Ivan and Anastasiya. “Glorification” continues the ambiance of the wedding feast, and the music is drawn from the bridegroom’s song. Prokofiev supports the scene with reverence, solemnity in the form of a grand hymn for chorus. Regretfully the album omits the following scene where two of Ivan’s closest friends Andrei Kurbsky and Fyodor Kolychev reveal that they are troubled. Kolychev is concerned with the power, which Ivan has amassed. While Kurbsky, is pained to see Anastasiya, whom he loves, marry his best friend. They flank Ivan and Kolychev asks permission to take up the monastic life, while Kurbsky glances with longing at Anastasiya. Prokofiev supports the scene with both renderings of Ivan’s Theme, with one speaking to temporal power, and the isolation such power brings, and the other revealing Ivan’s humanity. He embraces Kolychev, grants his permission, and says, “Pray for us sinners.” The regal and humanistic renderings of the Ivan Theme present the two sides of Ivan portrayed in the film: Ivan the man, friend and husband, and Ivan the all-powerful autocrat destined to restore Russia to greatness.

“On The Bones Of Our Enemies” shatters the wedding feast as riotous crowds storm the palace demanding Ivan renounce Anastasiya, who’s House is viewed as oppressors. Ominous low register horns and dark chorus declare doom as the crowd enters the hall, yet Ivan rises to the occasion and wins their hearts with an inspired oratory, which is crowned by a horn declared statement of his theme. “The Tartars” reveals an arrogant Tartar ambassador’s entry to court. He boldly declares that they will smite Russia, and that Ivan should save them the trouble by slitting his own throat. The audacity of this is not last on the court, but Ivan boldly rejects the offer and instead declares war! Prokofiev introduces his Tartar theme, an exotic horn and drum-propelled powerhouse with colorful oboes and E-flat clarinets dancing atop the drums. The music offers a perfect juxtaposition of the Asian eyed Tartars and the white skinned Russians. In “The Cannon Founders”, chorus support a determined, nationalist and militaristic piece, which carries Russia’s war preparations. At 1:03 reverential chorus offers a stirring paean to Russia pride, which concludes with Ivan’s Theme.

“Forward To Kazan!” brings us the longest cue of the album and a stunning score highlight. We open grimly with the sight of the Russian troops marching on Kazan, while pulling their massive canons. Prokofiev supports them with a very heavy and low register marcia brutale. At 2:37 we see Ivan leave his hill summit tent to view Kazan in the distance. He gazes on his men and reverential chorus supports each man placing a coin in a large dish – the unclaimed coins after the battle reveal the death count. The gor geous and stirring melody is familiar in that James Horner interpolated it almost note for note it in his Glory score. At 5:40 a tour de force is unleashed as trumpets sound the charge after subterranean explosions shatter the Kazan defenses. Rapid-fire horns and percussive strikes propel the onslaught as Ivan’s forces breech the Kazan defenses. Prokofiev whips his orchestra into frenzy and we ride a stunning crescendo, which culminates with a flourish! In “Ivan Entreats the Boyars” we are offered another stunning score highlight. Ivan has taken ill following his victory and lies on his deathbed. He wishes to ensure the succession of his son Dimitri. He entreats the Boyars to affirm the succession by kissing Dimitri’s cross. We see Yefrosiniya entreating Kurbsky to betray Ivan for he son Vladimir and the other Boyars are resistant. Prokofiev scores the scene with a terrible pathos of despair, an elegy of hopelessness, which reaches a powerful crescendo of pain atop his theme as he feels betrayed by all. Yet hope emerges at 5:02 as we conclude on the second variant of his theme, now expressed by ethereal chorus, imbued with hope, with all its sumptuous beauty.

In “Yefrosiniya and Anastasiya”, Yefrosiniya commits to the Boyar revolt and her ambitions for her son Vladimir by poisoning Anastasiya. We bear witness to Prokofiev’s genius and a score highlight as he juxtaposes the savage and rending low register string ostinato of Yefrosiniya’s menace and treachery against the pure and sumptuous beauty of Anastasiya, which is carried by three voices – violins and a viola supported by an oboe and two clarinets. The contrast of light and darkness, of good and evil, and of beauty and ugliness are perfectly captured in the notes, and achieve a sublime confluence of music and film narrative. In “Ivan at the Grave of Anastasiya” Ivan is both heart-broken and full of rage. His regal theme resounds in the film to open the scene, however the album cue only presents the three liturgical chants from the Orthodox requiem service. In “The Oath of the Oprichniks” Ivan has created his defense against the Boyars, his version of a personal guard, the “iron ring” of fanatical young men who have pledged their lives to serve, defend, and if necessary, to die for their Tsar. We are treated to a choral piece, where Prokofiev sows dark auras and grim purpose with a song, which instills fear and deadly purpose. How this piece culminates is amazing. Slowly Prokofiev begins to build a dramatic and glorious crescendo with contrapuntal statements of Ivan’s Theme. The two themes contest and elevate this cue to the sublime. This ends the score for the first film.

“At The Polish Court” is a cue attached to the second film. Prince Kubsky has surrendered the Russian army and defected to the services of King Sigmund of Poland. It is an album highlight. We open gloriously atop heraldic fanfare, which perfectly captures the pageantry of the Polish court as the traitor Kurbsky enters and kneels in homage to Sigmund. After an amazing 28 seconds we launch into a wondrous Polonaise, whose elega nt dance rhythms just sweeps us away. The music supports Sigmund’s and Kursky’s plotting to place the dim-witted Vladimir on the throne, a puppet that Sigmund would control. I believe it a masterstroke that Prokofiev conceived a dance to support the plot. At 2:13 we transition atop intimate strings with saxophone accents, to conclude the scene as Sigmund’s exits with the pomp of the Polonaise!

“Song of the Beaver” offers Yefrosiniya’s Lullaby for here simpleton son Vladimir. She revels in her diabolical murder of Anastasiya and her evil is perfectly captured by Ljubov Sokolova’s vocals. We bear witness to a truly macabre lullaby song sung to Vladimir. Sul ponticello strings and Sokolova’s contralto timbre join and achieve a repugnant synergy of evil. Worth noting is that Prokofiev requested that Sokolova mutate her vocals as though singing through cigarette paper or a comb. In “The Dance of the Oprichniki” Ivan is hosting a festive banquet and we bear witness to the frenzied dancing of his Oprichniki. Eisenstein tinted this scene with crimson to allude to their blood lust. Prokofiev supports the Oprichniki by whipping his orchestra into a frenzied, unsettling and dissonant danza macabre as they sing “We have been to visit the boyars in the courts! Our axes have been busy among the boyars!”

In “Song of Fyodor Basamov and the Oprichniks” Ivan tricks a drunk Vladimir into revealing the plot to dispose him as Tsar and placing himself on the throne. Ivan orders him dressed in the Tsar’s robes and crowned. Prokofiev supports his circumstances with the fine vocals of Nicolai Putilin as well as the Oprichniki chorus. In “Chorus of the Oprichniks” Ivan sees that Vladimir enjoys his new status, declares the farce is over, and sends him away to his fate as the Oprichniki dressed in hooded monk garb follow in procession. Prokofiev supports Vladimir’s progress with a truly dark funereal passage.

Slowly from out the notes arises the menacing and dire humming of the Oprichniki, which portend Vladimir’s doom. An assassin strikes him down and Yefrosinya comes out of the shadows celebrating Ivan’s death only to discover Vladimir’s corpse. “Finale” offers a magnificent score highlight as Ivan affirms his role a supreme ruler and protector of the Russian People. After a somber prelude, Prokofiev provides a powerful and truly grandiose statement to support Ivan’s on screen declarations. Chorus joins and we bear witness atop Ivan’s theme to a dramatic and glorious apotheosis, crowned with a flourish of bells and refulgent choral splendor!

I would like to thank Anna Barry for a superb rendering of this classic film score. The rerecording under the baton of Valery Gergiev with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of the Kirov Opera is superb. There are other re-recordings out there, some of the complete score, but I believe this recording of Abram Stasevich 1961 Oratorio arrangement to be qualitatively the best. Prokofiev’s talent and accomplishments in the concert hall is well known, yet his films scores for Alexander Nevsky and Ivan Grozny offer testimony to his compositional skills in scoring a film. For this score he was provided a massive tapestry, one in which he wove the rich liturgical auras of Russian Orthodoxy, traditional Russian folk songs, the ethnic oriental colors of the Tartars, a binary theme for Ivan and wondrous solo vocals and chorus. This score excels and from my perspective truly enhanced and elevated Eisenstein’s flawed film. I consider this score a classic and highly recommend you add it to your collection.

I have embedded a YouTube link to a concert piece of the score for those of you unfamiliar; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkNdmbn6ZHU

Buy the Ivan the Terrible soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture (3:23)
  • March of the Young Ivan (1:46)
  • The Broad Expanse of the Sea (2:06)
  • I Shall Be Tsar! (0:45)
  • The Uspensky Cathedral (0:52)
  • Many Years (0:21)
  • The Simpelton (2:09)
  • The Swan (1:05)
  • Glorification (2:47)
  • On the Bones of our Enemies (1:01)
  • The Tartars (0:51)
  • The Cannon Founders (2:21)
  • Forward to Kazan! (9:29)
  • At the Polish Court (5:07)
  • Ivan Intreats the Boyars (6:52)
  • Yefrosiniya and Anasatasiya (4:03)
  • Song of the Beaver (Yefrosiniya’s Lullaby) (3:00)
  • Ivan at the Grave of Anastasiya (1:36)
  • Chorus of the Oprichniks (1:42)
  • The Oath of the Oprichniks (4:46)
  • Song of Fyodor Basamov and the Oprichniks (2:13)
  • The Dance of the Oprichniks (2:07)
  • Final (4:18)

Running Time: 64 minutes 50 seconds

Philips 456-645-2 (1944/1997)

Music composed by Sergei Prokofiev. Conducted by Valery Gergiev. Performed by The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chorus of the Kirov Opera. Original orchestrations by Sergei Prokofiev. Special vocal performances by Liubov Sokolova and Nikolai Putilin. Score produced by Sergei Prokofiev. Album produced by Anna Barry.

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