Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > LIEUTENANT KIJÉ – Sergei Prokofiev

LIEUTENANT KIJÉ – Sergei Prokofiev


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1932 the People’s Commissariat for Education approved director Aleksandr Faintsimmer’s latest request to proceed with a film based on screenwriter Yuri Tynyanov’s story of Lieutenant Kijé. The Commissariat believed that its barbed, sardonic humor of Russia’s former Tsar Paul I would denigrate the idiocy and incompetence of the Tsars, while reinforcing the superiority of the new socialist order. The Belgoskino production company located in Belarus would produce the film, and Arkadi Koltsaty was hired to manage the cinematography. A fine cast was assembled which included Mikhail Yanshin as Tsar Pavel I, Boris Gorin-Goryainov as Count von Pahlen, Nina Shaternikova as Princess Gagagrina, and Erast Garin as Adjudant Kobulov.

Set in St. Petersburg Russia in 1800, the story offers a classic farce, an absurd tale based on a clerical error. An adjutant is preparing a list of officers to be promoted by the Tsar. He makes a transcription error and rather than rewrite the entire list he shapes the error into the name of Lieutenant Kijé. Well, the Tsar notices the unusual name and singles him out as one of his favorites. This requires the Adjutant to manufacture an entire career, which takes on a life of its own including a promotion for his exploits, marriage, exile to Siberia, an Imperial pardon and finally a burial using an empty coffin! Well, the farce was popular with the people and the film helped to advance the careers of both Faintsimmer and Prokofiev. Films from the Soviet Union were not considered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The great Russian classical composer Sergei Prokofiev was commission to compose the score. He was fascinated by the barbed humor and irony of author Yuri Tynyanov’s story and was most happy to take on the assignment. He composed about fifteen minutes of music for the film, scored for a small ensemble chamber orchestra. He understood that the film was a farce and decided to play against its narrative with his music and not parrot its ludicrous absurdity. As was his practice, he drew inspiration from a rich history of Russian folk songs in fashioning his score, maintaining the traditions of composer legends Glinka, Balakirev, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Prokofiev underpins his soundscape with three primary themes; Kijé’s Theme serves as the score’s primary theme and it permeates the entire film. In its pure form it emotes lyrically as a free-flowing line by solo instruments, including oboe coronet and bassoon. Yet Prokofiev militarizes it with horns as Kijé’s military career advances, further expanding and enriching its sound with violins and violas as he gains prominence at court. The Love Theme is derived from the melody of the Russian folk song “The Little Grey Dove is Cooing”, and how Prokofiev expresses it is unique in film score art. He chose to use a bass as the theme’s primary instrument, playing in its highest register, something that is rarely done and from my perspective, is appreciated and to be commended. The Martinet Theme offers a marcia del’ossessione carried by a shrill solo piccolo animato and field drums militare, countered by contrapuntal timpani. Prokofiev often expands it with kindred woodwinds and horns joining to empower its statement. The theme speaks to the obsessive demands of the tyrannical and disciplinary Tsar for order, cleanliness and precision. The single Mourning Motif offers a solitary cornet sounding from a distance, which offers a sad commentary for this tale. There are a number of wonderful set pieces associated with the wedding, sleigh ride and funeral, which offer a testament to Prokofiev’s mastery of his craft. Today there are no published recordings of the actual sixteen cue soundtrack. All that remains is a wonderful suite in five movements that Prokofiev created, and which became one of his favorite concert pieces.

Since I lacked soundtrack album cues, I chose to use film time indices instead. Upon watching the film, I must say that the only this worse than the acting and film itself was the terrible sound of the score. So poor is the audio quality that one cannot fully appreciate the beauty of Prokofiev’s creation. As such, I will also explore the concert suite for this review.

“00:00 Main Title” displays as turning pages of Cyrillic script, which is not supported by music. We enter the film proper carried by the Mourning Motif emoted by a distant cornet. On screen script reads; “This is the story of a spelling mistake…” “02:14 Paul I” reveals onscreen script that denigrates Paul I as a despot, martinet and eccentric. The Martinet Theme expressed as a primary line of field drums militare countered by contrapuntal timpani sounds as we view a statue with him on horseback. The themes forceful piccolo joins at 2:45 as we see a montage of images of bayonet bearing soldiers in forced unison practicing thrusts. The music slowing fills in with kindred woodwinds and then horns joining to empower the music as we see the soldiers parading in precision formations. We change scenes to the palace where we see the endless toil of servants polishing, dusting and scrubbing in precise synchronized and mechanized movements demanded by the Tsar. When an aid exits and announces the Tsar is asleep, the music stops, as does the motion of all the servants and soldiers in mid motion. Tolling bells enter at 00:49 and continue ringing as we see the Tsar asleep in his chair with a silk handkerchief draped over his face. Shots of Princess Gagarina and her lady attendant sleeping are also seen. Later the Adjutant accidentally shouts “Guard” when he is pinched by his paramour, which wakes and enrages the Tsar. He demands the culprit be found and punished.

“13:20 Kijé’s Birth” reveals the military adjutant discovering he has made a transcription error with the document of officers to be promoted including a fictitious man called Kijé. Prokofiev supports his ‘birth’ by introducing Kijé’s Theme on solo oboe gentile. The decision is made to present the document to the Tsar as is, as there is insufficient time to rewrite it. The Tsar reads it and orders that Lieutenant Kijé be presented to him tomorrow morning. To avoid disaster the Tsar is advised that it was Lieutenant Kijé who shouted and woke him. The Tsar orders him flogged and then sent to Siberia. “21:10 The Flogging” reveals soldiers assembled for punishment of Lieutenant Kijé, but he does not exist, so the Commander declares he is a ‘confidential’ officer and therefore has the men whip the whipping post in absentia. A field drum ostinato with wailing woodwinds and distressed horns supports the farce. Afterwards the Commander declares that the confidential prisoner has no shape, and then orders a drummer and two guards to escort him to Siberia. The monotonous drumbeat of the Martinet Theme is played diegetically by the lone drummer to support their departure, dimming as they walk farther and farther away.

“23:01 The Tsar’s Shave” reveals the Tsar being shaved supported by an extended rendering of the piccolo animato and drums of the Martinet Theme. Princess Gagarina enters and asks the Tsar who yelled “Guard!” to which he declares Lieutenant Kijé, who I have punished by sending him to Siberia. When she informs him that he only yelled after her lady attendant pinched him, he begins to laugh. “26:56 The Tsar’s Letter” reveals him writing a letter to the military Commander in Siberia stating that Lieutenant Kijé was incorrectly punished and that he is to be returned forthwith as he has been promoted to Colonel in the Palace Guard. Prokofiev supports diegetically with the monotonous drum line of the Martinet Theme as we see the hapless three soldiers escorting the ‘imaginary’ Lieutenant Kijé to Siberia. When the Tsar presents his letter to Count von Pahlen, he gasps as he finds himself again back to square one of this deception that will not die. “28:42 The Tsar Sings” reveals him singing a Russian folk song a Capella to Princess Gagarina, much to their mutual amusement. As the count departs to relay the imperial order at 29:55, the folk song melody shifts to the orchestra for a proud iteration.

“30:28 Lieutenant Kijé’s Arrival” reveals the base commander greeting the three hapless soldiers escorting the ‘imaginary Lieutenant Kijé, again supported diegetically by the monotonous drum line of the Martinet Theme. The commander reads the letter, and is incredulous at the absurdity of the situation as there is no prisoner. When he asks who is their prisoner, they answer they do not know. Now flummoxed, the commander orders them to keep the prisoner under close guard as he must not escape. The guards then say that he asks for vodka and food, to which the commander consents. “35:56 The Palace” opens with the Mourning Motif, which sounds as we gaze at an exterior view of the palace. Soon celebratory fanfare resounds in a grand jubilation when we see the Imperial flag raised as the camera pans across the courtyard to reveal thousands of cheering soldiers standing in formation as the Tsar arrives on horseback. He orders them to march and Prokofiev unleashes a magnificent marcia grandiosa for one of the score’s finest moments.

“39:59 Imperial Decree” reveals the Adjutant arriving with orders for Colonel Kijé to be released so he may return to the palace. Shimmering sleighbells support the arrival of the three-horse troika. When the orders are presented to the commander, he advises that Colonel Kijé cannot leave immediately as he is eating supper, which causes the Adjutant to faint in disbelief. In “41:53 The Tsar’s Guard” tremolo strings quiver as we see Tsar Paul wandering the palace halls at night as though spooked by something. He talks to himself in a mirror, still fixated on the anonymous letter he received declaring him a fraud with a snubbed-nose. He declares he needs a devoted guard, and calls out Lieutenant Kijé name, which is supported by his theme carried by woodwinds. He declares that he will make Colonel Kijé his personal guard. Squeaking woodwinds chirp and join Kijé’s Theme on horns as we see phantom guards, which have no faces. “45:47 Kijé Returns” offers a wonderful score highlight as we see the now drunk Adjutant taking the ‘imaginary’ Colonel Kijé back to the palace. Celebratory travel music supports their progress with the prancing melody carried by strings of happiness and bubbling woodwinds, replete with twinkling sleigh bells. Ingenious is how Prokofiev subtly weaves Kijé’s Theme into the fabric of the music on pizzicato strings.

“47:21 Palace Arrival” reveals their arrival at the palace supported by a regal rendering of Kijé’s Theme full of pomp and pageantry. The Count advises the Adjutant to inform the Tsar that Colonel Kijé is worn out from the journey and will present himself later. “48:48 The Tsar Awaits Kijé” reveals Princess Gagarina singing a Russian folk song as she plays a harp diegetically for the Tsar. The Tsar sees the beauty of the princess’ companion and decides that it is time for her to take a husband, deciding that she will wed Colonel Kijé. Later the wedding ceremony begins without the groom in attendance. When the bride asks why Colonel Kijé is not here, the count replies that it is due to the Tsar’s orders. He adds, “the bridegroom is confidential and has no shape.” “52:43 The Wedding” reveals the Count ordering the incredulous bishop to begin the ceremony. As the Bishop sings a hymn a Capella, answered by chorus, the drum line of the Martinet Theme supports, enforcing the Tsar’s order. This scene drives home the extent to which this farce has evolved as we see the church now complicit. The hymn becomes celebratory offering faux pageantry as the bride is congratulated, and then fakes a kiss to the groom, as well as taking his escorting arm as she leaves.

“55:23 Wedding Reception” offers a wonderful score highlight with excellent contrapuntal writing. It reveals the Tsar’s wedding present; promoting Kijé to Major General and bestowing him with a massive estate with surrounding farmland. Solemn pageantry supports the reception with Kijé’s Theme borne by a sardonic solo coronet playing in counterpoint. When an incredulous guest asks where is the groom, the Count replies that he is very modest, quiet, and that the Tsar is pleased with him. At 57:27 the melodic line is transferred to violins and violas for a warmer and more sumptuous exposition with the contrapuntal Kijé’s Theme taken up by a French horn. At 58:03 the bride gives an imaginary kiss to her groom as we see her former suitor the Adjutant distressed and imbibing one shot of vodka after another as a new folk song melody emoted by mocking balalaika’s moves to the forefront supported by diegetic singing.

“59:11 Kijé’s Honor” offer another score highlight where Prokofiev introduces his heartfelt Love Theme. It reveals the positioning of an empty chair crowned with the hat of a major general place in a position of honor supported by a regal marcia solenne. As the drunken, stumbling bride enters, Kijé’s Theme joins, once again borne by a sardonic solo coronet. The melody transfers to strings and woodwinds, which yield at 1:00:01 to strings romantico offering the Love Theme as she repeatedly kisses her imaginary husband. She knocks his hat off the chair and dons it herself. In a scene change we see the drunk Adjutant crawling up the stairs with interplay of the Love Theme and a mocking Kijé’s Theme. His theme moves to the forefront, joined and expanded by woodwinds and strings as the Adjutant drinks away his sorrows and the bride prepares to lay in her empty wedding bed. At 1:00:57 the Love Theme returns on celli as two porters bring in a chest filled with 10,000 rubles a wedding gift from the Tsar. The bride passes out and the mocking Kijé’s Theme on solo coronet returns ascendent, expanding with orchestral support as the Adjutant stumbles over the chest and reads the Tsar’s note. He then steals the money, joins his girlfriend in her wedding bed, and tells her it is time to thank Kijé as they kiss passionately.

The next day the Tsar promotes Kijé to the post of Commander of all Russian armies and orders him to appear before him to receive the honor. The Count knocks on the door as the bride frantically tries to wake the Adjutant. They enter to find only the bride as the Adjutant had ducked under the bed. The Count departs, informs the Tsar who personally comes to see himself, discovering the Adjutant under the bed. He dupes the Tsar that he was searching for the General, and then the Count advises that Kijé had taken ill and been taken to hospital. The Tsar departs, ordering that he must be cured. Later the Count drapes a cot with a set of boots and orders General Kijé be taken to hospital to be cured. At hospital the Count explains to the physician that by the Tsar’s orders, “the patient is confidential and has no shape.” The incredulous physician proceeds to treat the imaginary Kijé, but is stopped and instructed by the Count to declare him dead, wishing to at last rid himself of this farce. The Count goes to court and advises the Tsar that General Kijé has passed away by the will of God, which causes great grief by the Tsar. This extended scene was unscored.

“1:11:51 Kijé’s Funeral” offers a score highlight, which opens with salutary canon fire from the palace, followed by a state procession with Kijé’s coffin being taken through the streets. A steady funereal cadence pulses underneath as Prokofiev renders his primary themes, opening with a mournful and elegiac rendering of Kijé’s Theme led by French horn with orchestra. At 1:12:39 the aching Love Theme joins on strings doloroso as the Tsar watches the procession from a palace window. The theme then shifts to forlorn woodwinds as the Tsar grieves his passing. “1:15:11 The Treasure Chest” reveals the Tsar ordering the Adjutant to return to him the chest with 10,000 rubles he gifted to Kijé. The Adjutant is anxious and departs frantic to retrieve the chest he emptied. As he enters the room Kijé’s Theme rises from the grave to mock him. A fleeting statement of the Love Theme enters as he finds a single coin, tosses it in and writes a note, which says the money was spent on meals. The theme is sustained as we shift back to the funeral procession.

The Tsar is outraged that Kijé squandered his gift, strips him of his rank, and confers the rank of general to the Adjutant. In a rage, the Tsar orders that Kijé be demoted to private and his state funeral stopped immediately. At “1:18:07 Kijé Dishonor” strings irato and dire horns reveal preparations to stop the funeral procession, supported by a mournful rendering of the Love Theme carried by distressed woodwinds and aggrieved strings as the widow walks sadly behind the casket. The Adjutant orders the procession stopped as Kijé has been disgraced and demoted to the rank of private. He then grabs his girl and informs her that he is now a general, kissing her with joy. We close with the Tsar expressing sadness at his betrayal by his most loyal servant, and of the heavy weight placed upon him to rule. Tolling bells of regret join as an exterior camera shot of the palace ascends slowly up its massive central steeple into the heavens above. The film closes as we see soldiers at their posts, who repeatedly call out “The Tsar is asleep”, crowned with a solitary elegiac trumpet.

In my judgement, having suffered the very poor archival sound of the actual film score, I believe an exploration of the concert suite offers the best means of experiencing the brilliance of Prokofiev’s music.

“Movement I: Kijé’s Birth” commences with the Mourning Motif by a distant coronet. At 0:28 field drums introduce the Martinet Theme, a marcia dell’ossessione soon joined by solitary shrill piccolo and contrapuntal timpani. At 0:43 the piccolo is countered by flute soon joined at 0:51 by Kijé Theme borne by contrapuntal horns. We bear witness to a magnificent duel between the two themes with Kijé’s undergoing expansive development at 1:30 on an astoundingly rich crescendo magnifico with virtuoso trumpeting. A diminuendo at 2:16 offers a nascent reference to the Love Theme, which never coalesces into a formal statement. The piccolo driven Martinet Theme rejoins at 3:20, leading to a conclusion of the piece with a reprise of the forlorn coronet of the Mourning Motif.

“Movement II: Romance” offers a Suite highlight and what I believe offers some of the finest music ever written by Prokofiev. He showcases expansive development of the exquisite Love Theme, which is derived from the Russian folk song “The Little Grey Dove is Cooing”. A solo bass romantico playing in its highest register opens the piece. Prokofiev later enriches the theme’s development by contrasting the solo bass in duets with celeste and later flute. At 1:55 a solo tenor saxophone joins, adding a new development of the theme, which achieves exquisite and expansive development. Prokofiev graces us with compositional eloquence of the highest order as woodwinds and strings join for achingly beautiful romantic expression. This segment of the suite is a masterpiece!

“Movement III: Kijé’s Wedding” opens boldly with grand pageantry, which ushers in at 0:21 a confident Kijé’s Theme on solo coronet dancing over a steady tuba pulse. Extensive development which is both celebratory and pompous features contrapuntal interplay with a fluttering flute. A transfer of the melodic line at 0:52 to a tenor saxophone offers a passage, which abounds with humor and happiness. At 1:29 a grand orchestral statement ushers in a return of the theme to its natural instrument, a confident coronet, attended to by strings animato. We close the piece with a final grand statement fitting for the marriage of such a great personage as General Kijé!

“Movement IV: Troika” opens with a formal prelude maestoso, which culminates with a solemn declaration by low register horns. At 0:28 Prokofiev ignites a wondrous traveling motif conceived to express the windswept joy of a troika sleigh traveling over snow. Strings animato and pizzicato strings propel the sleigh with unbridled happiness replete with twinkling sleighbells filling us with exhilaration and delight. What is so amazing is how Prokofiev masterfully migrates the melody from one instrument to another, continually altering its flavor while maintaining its vibrancy. We close grandly with a formal and stately final statement of the theme.

“Movement V: The Burial of Kijé” offers a testimonial to the life of our dear Kijé as Prokofiev provides a parade of his themes from his birth, love affair, wedding, burial and fall from grace. We open with an elegiac coronet sound from a distance. At 0:29 we usher in Kijé’s Theme, which is expressed by a bassoon with swirling strings energico. At 1:06 we flow into a plaintive rendering of the Love Theme with violins playing in counterpoint. A transfer of the melody to horns with bubbling woodwind adornment follows, with a subsequent transfer to oboe delicato and strings. At 2:04 the now aching melodic line is transferred to strings doloroso. Yet at 2:26 confidence returns as an exuberant coronet renders Kijé’s Theme, now attended by sumptuous strings. At 2:44 Kijé’s Theme and the Love Theme entwine in exquisite interplay, only for the irrepressible Kijé’s Theme to solely emerge on playful if not comic woodwinds, shifting to and fro with strings. At 3:28 the two themes again entwine with inspired contrapuntal writing for woodwinds and strings. We close at 5:16 with a final sad reprise of the Love Theme, which dissipates into nothingness.

Prokofiev’s score for Lieutenant Kijé was well-conceived and executed, however the experience of it in the film was disappointing as the very poor monaural archival sound did not allow its brilliance to shine through. Although only fifteen minutes of score was written, it was in my judgement impactful. Prokofiev underpinned his soundscape with three primary themes; Kijé’s Theme permeated the entire film and is emoted by a multiplicity of instruments including; oboe, coronet, bassoon and strings. It is irrepressible yet also sardonic, embodying a phantom character who rose to fame from obscurity, married, became the Tsar’s favorite, only to be buried in ignominy. The Love Theme was interpolated from the romantic melody of the Russian folk song “The Little Grey Dove is Cooing” and actually grounded the score and story by making the phantom Kijé more accessible, and how Prokofiev expresses it is unique in film score art. The use of a solo bass as the theme’s primary instrument, playing in its highest register, was a masterstroke, something that is rarely done and from my perspective, is appreciated and to be commended. The Martinet Theme was also brilliantly conceived, carried by a shrill solo piccolo animato and field drums militare, countered by contrapuntal timpani. Prokofiev understood that Tsar Paul I was a petty, tyrannical and vain man with an obsessed-compulsive insistence of order, cleanliness and precision. The conception of the Martinet Theme brilliantly captured the Tsar’s essence and effect on all around him. There are a number of wonderful set pieces associated with the wedding, sleigh ride and funeral, which offer a testament to Prokofiev’s mastery of his craft. Folks’ this was a film intended by the Commissariat for Education to denigrate the former Tsarist regime by revealing its incompetence, by use of a farce. By artfully playing against this absurd narrative, Prokofiev actually succeeded in making the actions of the Tsar and his court seem even more ridiculous. In my judgement his score transcends its film, and offers what may be Prokofiev’s most accessible compositions, one that abounds with beautiful themes and brilliant contrapuntal writing, which took me multiple listens to fully appreciate. After listening to the concert suite, I must say that this is one of the finest film scores of the early Golden Age, a masterpiece that I highly recommend you purchase.

Editor’s note: While Prokofiev’s original recording of the score for Lieutenant Kijé’s has never been released, there are numerous recordings of the concert suite, performed by some of the world’s greatest orchestras under some of the world’s greatest conductors. Common consensus appears to be that Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon is the best; it was released on a 2-for-1-album in 1992 along with selections from the score for Alexander Nevsky. The details of this album are given below.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a performance by the Boston Civic Symphony conducted by Konstantin Dobroykov: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbaY7p5ahZo

Track Listing:

  • Movement I: Kijé’s Birth (4:09)
  • Movement II: Romance (4:08)
  • Movement III: Kijé’s Wedding (2:36)
  • Movement IV: Troika (2:42)
  • Movement V: The Burial of Kijé (5:53)

Deutsche Grammophon 419-603-2 (1934/1992)

Music composed by Sergei Prokofiev. Conducted by Claudio Abbado. Performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Sergei Prokofiev. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Sergei Prokofiev. Album produced by Rainer Brock.

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