In the year of the 50th anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev’s death, a new encounter with one of the composer’s compositions amounted to a new discovery. On October 16, 2003 a spectacular new performance of Prokofiev’s 1938 film music to Alexander Nevsky was presented in the Konzerthaus am Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin as a film-concert, which featured the performers who appear on this CD. For the first time in sixty-five years, Prokofiev’s original score was made available to the public again (1), and following comprehensive reconstruction work, this was also the first time it was possible to hear the score for orchestra, choir, and vocalist as live accompaniment to the film.

Numerous attempts had already been made to stage a live performance with orchestra of this sound film, whose production style would have it function like a silent movie—with lengthy, independent music passages as well as individual, self-contained dialogue sequences largely inserted in the music and barely mixed with the sounds. At the same time, however, one was forced to accept a “played by ear” score, because the original score was not available. Much of what the score intended to express was impossible to reconstruct from the recorded sound, and there was also the fact that Prokofiev further adapted the music and compiled from it the well-known Nevsky Cantata, for which he condensed the score’s circa fifty-five minutes to a circa thirty-five-minute suite consisting of seven movements. Later this cantata served as the basis for many other arrangements (such as those for the film and television synchronization). Today, thanks to the new recording, what can be heard again is the ‘original Prokofiev’.

Appearing in conjunction with this first performance was a new recording of the complete film music (2), presented on this CD as a purely acoustic recording, but also as the film’s newly adapted production sound and heard in the arte network’s 2003 television broadcast of Alexander Nevsky at the close of Prokofiev Year.

This grandly structured and highly responsible experiment acknowledges the full spectrum of Prokofiev’s inspired success and fosters the awareness that the history of Russian film always references the history of music. In this realm, the most prominent of composers and film directors had worked together, and unlike in the motion picture industry in the West, they succeeded in granting film music a thoroughly different development and value—Alexander Nevsky is an excellent example of this.

 

The Story of a Legendary Collaboration 
In 1932, Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev showed a strong interest in each other’s work when they first met in Paris. Yet their first chance to collaborate presented itself in 1938: following Eisenstein’s lengthy disputes with the film authorities, he was once again given permission to complete a film project—a patriotic film about the Russian people defending themselves from enemy invasions. This was ideal subject matter considering the pressing, foreign policy threat to the Soviet Union through Hitler’s regime: Alexander Nevsky was the historical figure who had managed to unite the quarreling Russian clans and lead them to war against the Teutonic Knights, who they defeated on April 5, 1242 in the legendary Battle of Lake Peipus also known as the ‘Battle on the Ice’. 

Eisenstein worked with great enthusiasm on this film, and he conceived it from the start as containing a great deal of music. His goal was to have it released by the end of the year. But Prokofiev would first be available in May, after returning from a trip to the United States, where he had methodically studied the sound recording procedures used in American film studios. So the filming of Alexander Nevsky began on June 5, 1938, and its premiere took place on December 1, 1938. Stalin’s reported first reaction was: “Sergei Mikhailovich, you’re basically a good Bolshevik.” (3)

The director and the composer quickly developed a highly effective procedure for their collaboration. During the first phase of filming, Prokofiev made music sketches based on what had been previously discussed, performed them on the piano, and finally pre-produced them as recorded tapes. Using these tapes, Eisenstein shot the film, as it were, from the sketches. In a sense, the sketched-out music directed the film. After the summer holidays, the procedure was then reversed: Eisenstein provided Prokofiev with raw footage from which film music—often overnight—had to be composed and presented by the following afternoon.

The two artists were made for each other. Considering his sense for vivid and rhythmic movements in imagery, his unique ability to couple contrasting sound material, and his concrete and likewise theatrical musical imagery (4), Prokofiev was predestined to collaborate with Eisenstein. The results emerged from a self-contained sense of expression indebted to musical and visual elements. Because Eisenstein consistently sought emotionality in his films, music would invariably play a dominating role for him: “The movement of the music makes the movement of the image perceivable—not only the obvious and kinetic aspect, but also the ‘hidden’ one. It enables us to grasp the visual structure of images; it doesn’t exist in order to enhance the image’s representative qualities, but rather to intensify the reception of form.” (5)

 

The Music
Prokofiev composed an explicitly Russian music nevertheless in keeping with the times. In his own words, it “...could offer the listeners’ imagination enough intellectual stimulation. So therefore it seemed considerably more advantageous not to structure it in the way that music really sounded during the period of the ‘Battle on the Ice,’ but rather to give it a form we can imagine hearing today.” (6)

With its echoes of Russian folk music, the music radiates the necessary local color. Also, it aptly demonstrates how “...for the first time Prokofiev discloses the full depth of national sources as they would later unfold in the ‘heroic’ Fifth Symphonyor in the score to Ivan the Terrible before reaching their height in the opera War and Peace. Yet everything began with the ‘Russian’ music that he composed forAlexander Nevsky—music so clearly oriented toward authentic folk melodies, and so deeply impressive because it welcomed the vocalizing of its melodic lines and had such transparent orchestration. (7) It corresponds with the film’s tectonics by adhering to a dramatic principle based on a confrontation between two dominating realms of motifs: the Russian and the Teutonic. Its visual input exists in complete correspondence with the musical means of expression: visual caricatures of the invading forces follow powerfully aggressive and mechanically monotonous rhythms, with “coarse, polytonal chords and the presence of forced outbursts from brass wind players assuming a dominant position in the orchestra.” (8)

The film’s spectacular highlight is the “Battle on the Ice” sequence, which lasts nearly thirty-five minutes. On the scale of a symphony, it combines all the musical themes developed so far to a unified sound complex. The battle is structured like a ballet, and the scenes’ pictures and sounds are spliced together with hard cuts: “The logic of two dominating forces is conveyed through an alternating Russian and German melody. But no sooner the symmetrical, music passages exhaust their tonal development, they become abruptly replaced by quasi-naturalistic battle sounds. Near the end of the battle, during the pursuit, where the melodies overlap, blend together, and become thoroughly interwoven, the ‘German’ melody transforms to the sound of air bubbles and ‘sinks’ into the sea like the last knight.” (9)

 

Original Sound – Original Score
Alexander Nevsky is without doubt one of the key works of international film music of the 1930s. Yet its popularity has less to do with the film than it does with the cantata Prokofiev arranged shortly afterwards (premiered May of 1939 in Moscow) as a work for concert performances—and just as much to do with Eisenstein’s essay,Vertical Montage, which uses Prokofiev’s music to illustrate a series of observations focused on explaining how film scores function. In the area of theoretical film studies, these observations have hardly been articulated any better or more precisely up to the present.

All this makes the circumstances surrounding Alexander Nevsky doubly remarkable: that the music of this epochal work should only be available in a technically lacking form, and that the handed down production sound, inundated with crackling noises, failed to adequately convey Prokofiev’s sophisticated music concept—especially when compared to the original film score made available to the public again for the first time in sixty-five years. By way of this reedited score, Prokofiev’s informative comments and corrections allow us to comprehend the orchestration’s original form for the first time as well. Moreover, despite the fact that Eisenstein and Prokofiev praised the success of the recording and the sound mix (10), as handed down to us, the production sound in no way conceals the difficulties faced by recording and reproduction technology of that time. The extremely limited, picture frequency of photographic sound recording, for example, never allowed for a flawless playback of symphonic orchestral sound, and the older production sound of the film could never appropriately convey the size of the orchestral apparatus or the range of music’s coloration. Due to aging, the sound that we hear sounds scratchy and seems to drone now; individual groups of instruments vanish altogether and remain missing from the balance of the orchestral sound; and hardly any changes in volume occur. Precisely in the highly dramatic passages, where the orchestra mixes with the choir and spoken-word passages, the sound seems over-modulated and distorted to the point where the music quality is barely recognizable.

This is made more dramatic by knowing Prokofiev created the unique tonal coloration himself. He experimented with the possibilities the recording technology of that period had to offer, and he tried to create expressive qualities with technical effects. Handed down to us, for example, are attempts in which he positioned individual wind instruments extremely close to the microphone in order to achieve specific emotional effects through the jarring tones this invariably produced. Another technique was to practice ‘reversed orchestration’ in the recording hall. This entailed making quieter instruments more present, and to subtly push the domineering instruments into the background by placing them at a greater distance from the microphone. Also, while recording the music for the battle sequence, Prokofiev placed the choir and individual groups of instruments in different spaces, but recorded all the parts at once. Depending on the close-up in the film, this allowed him to dynamically accentuate one or the other group when necessary. Still, the sound produced using such detail work delivered insufficient results. Put more simply: the adequate technology for Prokofiev’s sound concept was not yet available.

Such deficits are generally well-known and have led to different attempts to record this music. There was, for example, the 1993 recording by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra with Yuri Temirkanov conducting. But since the original film score was not available, it was necessary to accept a “played by ear” score. Other factors had to be taken into consideration as well: how not everything the film score intended to express could be reconstructed from the recorded sound, and Prokofiev’s aforementioned condensing of the original fifty-five minutes of music to a shorter cantata.  

 

The Reconstruction
After sixty-five years and thanks to generous arrangements handled by the ZGALIMuseum and GlinkaMuseum in Moscow, Prokofiev’s original manuscript, various pages of a short score, and some thirty pages of sketches were made available again. Since all the handwritten material was forwarded in a disordered and incomplete state, it was necessary to begin by carefully arranging the material in a sequence of movements which corresponded with the film’s development. Yet comparisons with the historical, production sound made evident that not all the music parts of the original manuscript were to be found, and that the missing parts could only be reconstructed with the help of the sketches, short score, cantata (meaning, of course, in their altered orchestration), and—in two takes—careful listening. But the notes for a large portion of the music were complete, and this allowed us to recognize Prokofiev’s music in its original orchestration, articulation, and dynamic for the first time.

Alongside the many comments and notes which shed light on Prokofiev’s intentions, there were also the irritating corrections and additions which served no purpose while recording the historical score. Yet after comparing them to the instrumentation of the famous cantata, we concluded that they most likely referred to the cantata, which Prokofiev created for concert hall performances a year after recording the film music. What also speaks in favor of this conclusion is the fact that the additions in question were all written with a different pen, thus allowing Prokofiev to keep a dependable distance from the notes of the original version. These additional entries by Prokofiev could be extracted like a layer of a painted-over canvas.

A series of questions and incongruities, which arose while transcribing the manuscript and arranging the material to a performable score, were clarified during the process of creating the film music, and while working under the well-known pressure of a recording deadline. Many dynamic and articulation-related indications in the original manuscript were only roughly established, and the obvious written errors were frequently left uncorrected or only partially corrected. These sections were completed and corrected now.

What still had to be clarified were details regarding the transposition, meaning, for example, the bell passages which appeared throughout in different forms. At first these seemed to belong to the original production sound. After carefully studying the original recording, however, it became clear to us that at least a few of these bell passages would have to be composed; none were, after all, written down. This was how the bells came to be transcribed in the film score and treated as an integral part of the music in the score’s reedited version.

In individual passages, comparisons with the recording as handed down to us revealed key-related discrepancies between the manuscript and the production sound: a few takes were obviously recorded in a key other than the one indicated in the manuscript, or adapted to the film, perhaps, for synchronization purposes via speed alterations which also lead to shifts of orchestral mood. Since the reasons for doing this could not be conclusively reconstructed, the decision was made to use the manuscript’s original key on principle.

The reconstruction work always focused on coordinating the manuscript and the production sound with one another, and on creating an interpretative unity of the two: the sound not only helped to correctly arrange the corresponding sections of the score, but also to complete the missing music notation. In turn, the historical handwritten material offered a unique glimpse into Prokofiev’s intentions, which were insufficiently conveyed by the production sound as handed down to us. The sound and the handwritten material, which reciprocally illuminated one another, enabled a comprehensive revision of the music notation and the recording of the film music.

 

Originality and Reevaluation

After having only the frequently performed cantata published until now, and the film music exist as only a work whose sound quality was lacking, the new and reedited material of the original score gives us the opportunity to authentically reconstruct Prokofiev’s film-related and musical intentions. This carefully edited first edition of the original film score builds the basis for a new recording and new performance of the film with its epochal score, which, in many instances, greatly differs from the famous cantata. Also, it takes into account that the characteristic style of the original film score is free of excessive emotionality for the most part, and that it demonstrates a transparent orchestration. Unusually telling (as regards the cantata) is the fact that the closing chorale, frequently criticized for being fraught with over-dramatization, is missing from the film. By doing without this large choral passage, and through the refined instrumentation of the orchestra, the film’s final act presents itself as being everything else but monumental and, in doing so, dictates the film’s overall message. So the just-released original form of the Alexander Nevskymusic offers the chance to have an in-depth confrontation with Prokofiev’s epochal achievement, and it revises certain fixed ideas about the Nevsky music, especially those firmly established under the influence of the popular cantata.

(1) initiated and reedited by the music publishers Sikorski-Musikverlag Hamburg, with the kind support of the Glinka Museum, Moscow
(2) Co-production of Deutschlandradio, European Film Philharmonic, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the ZDF network, in collaboration with the arte network
(3) Maria Biesold: Sergej Prokofjew, Ein Komponist im Schatten Stalins, Weinheim / Berlin, 1996, p. 239 
(4) Elena Jegerowa: Zur Filmmusik Sergej Prokofjews, in: Internationales Musikfestival, Sergej Prokofjew und zeitgenössische Musik aus der Sowjetunion, Duisburg, 1990, p. 303
(5) Oksana Bulgakowa: Sergej Eisenstein – drei Utopien, Architekturentwürfe zur Filmtheorie, Berlin, 1998, p. 147
(6) Sergej Prokofjew: Die Musik zu ‚Alexander Newski‘, in: Schliefstein, S.I. (eds.):Sergei Prokofjew – Dokumente, Briefe, Erinnerungen, Leipzig, 1961, p. 212 
(7) Jegerowa, p. 306
(8) Jegerowa, p. 305 
(9) Bulgakowa, p. 146 (10); cf. Schliefstein, p. 212f, (Prokofjew), S. 455ff (Eisenstein) also see p. 496ff (Boris Wolski)