Skip to main content

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)

Prokofiev

Alexander Nevsky
I. Russia under the Mongolian Yoke
2. Song about Alexander Nevsky
3. The crusaders at Pskov
4. "Arise, ye Russian people!"
5. The Battle on the Ice
6. The field of the dead
7. Alexander's entry into Pskov

As a young man, Prokofiev had left Russia to live and work in Paris, and made several visits to the United States. These visits included trips to Hollywood, where he learnt much about sound film production.

This stood him in good stead when, soon after his return to the Soviet Union in 1935, he was asked by Sergei Eisenstein whether he would be interested in writing music for Alexander Nevsky, a film he planned to direct. Eisenstein was already the most famous Soviet film director, having produced Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible, to international acclaim. "I was an old admirer of Eisenstein's films, and was delighted to accept his offer" Prokofiev said.

The subject of Alexander Nevsky belongs in the 13th century, and concerns the defeat of an invading force of Teutonic 'crusaders' by a Russian army under Alexander Nevsky, a prince of Novgorod - a city south of St.Petersburg. The invaders approached through what is now Estonia, and a battle was engaged on the frozen expanse of Lake Chudskoye, near the city of Pskov, on 5th April 1242. Nevsky and his army won the day and, as the crusaders retreated, it is reported that "the ice broke under the weight of their heavy armour and the invaders found their grave at the bottom of the lake".

The film was first shown on 1st December 1938, and within weeks Prokofiev had decided to make a cantata from the music for the film. Several sections had to be rewritten, and the whole was re-orchestrated to suit a symphonic performance. The cantata was first performed on 17th March 1939 in Moscow.

Both film and cantata were very popular, and the film played a real part in maintaining Soviet morale during the terrible siege of Leningrad by German forces during the war.

The orchestral prelude conjures up a bleak picture of a Russia devastated by years of Mongolian oppression: " - piles of human bones, swords and rusting lances. Fields overgrown with weeds and burned villages lying in ruins."

The following chorus speaks of the fortitude of the Russian people, and introduces the hero of the cantata as a valiant and inspiring military leader.

The heavy and sinister description of the Crusaders in Pskov leaves us in no doubt about their brutal barbarity. The central episode, a crusaders' Latin hymn, is made to sound peculiarly lifeless and ominous.

By contrast, the rousing chorus "A song about Alexander Nevsky" is positive and fresh. The central section "In our great Russia, our native Russia, no enemy shall come" is a clear and flowing melody.

The climax of the cantata is the great Battle on the Ice. A wintry sun rises through the freezing fog, and the Crusaders' horses soon appear at an accelerating gallop. Their aggressive chorale builds up strongly and is soon answered by the bold Russian trumpets. Full battle ensues: the sinister crusaders' music alternates with the brighter music for the Russian forces until, with a crash, the ice breaks and the knights go to the bottom. In the silence that follows the violins sing the tune of "In our great Russia ..", accompanied only by the ripples on the water.

After the noise of the conflict we are reminded of the human cost, in a beautiful lament sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist. A Russian girl searches for the body of her lover, sorrowful, yet swearing eternal fidelity to a valiant warrior.

The finale is a picture of popular rejoicing, combining many of the earlier themes in jubilant celebration.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
I. Andantino; Allegretto; Andantino
II. Scherzo; Vivace
III. Intermezzo; Allegro moderato
IV. Allegro tempestoso

In 1909 Prokofiev graduated from the St.Petersburg conservatoire aged just 18, and began several years of post-graduate study of piano and composition. He also became friends with a fellow student Maximillian Schmidthoff, known as Max. They were both very talented, highly intelligent, and keen to shock their colleagues and teachers. Max was probably the closest friend Prokofiev ever had, a real ‘soul-mate’.

Two years later Prokofiev wrote and first performed his first piano concerto, his earliest work to maintain its place in the regular repertoire today. In this year he also acquired a publisher for his music, and it began to look as if he might become really successful. His first concerto startled many critics by its modernism, so Prokofiev promptly began work on a second concerto to startle them even more. It was in April 1913, while working on this new concerto, that Prokofiev received a letter from Max “I’m writing to tell you the latest news — I have shot myself Don’t get too upset ... the reasons are unimportant. Farewell. Max.” The devastating effect of this stark suicide note from his best friend can hardly be imagined. As well as being full of grief at losing his best friend, he must have questioned whether he himself was in some way to blame. Prokofiev dedicated his 2nd and 4th piano sonatas to his friend’s memory, and the second piano concerto is also dedicated to Max. Prokofiev first performed it in August 1913, but the audience didn’t understand a note of it. Prokofiev didn’t risk any more performances just yet.

A few years later Prokofiev left Russia for America and then Paris, having left the score of the concerto in St. Petersburg for safe keeping. But then he learnt that the score had been destroyed in the upheaval of the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution, apparently as fuel for a cooking stove. So in 1923 Prokofiev completely rewrote the concerto from memory. and this re-composed version was first performed by Prokofiev in Paris in 1924.

How similar it is to the original version of the concerto we don’t know, but the re-writing of it suggests that it still meant a lot to Prokofiev — perhaps Max’s suicide still haunted him, and this concerto was his deeply personal response to that tragedy The structure of the concerto is unique, with a very simple opening movement and no real slow movement until part of the finale. The solo piano carries a huge amount of the musical content, with the orchestra silent for long passages in the outer movements while the piano develops the musical argument. And the piano part is staggeringly difficult to play, often covering three staves of music, and pushing the boundaries of what a pianist can do to the absolute limits. The first movement opens wth a short motto — fate? — plucked quietly in the strings. The piano replies with a thoughtful and expressive theme — Max? — which develops into a quicker and aunty variant of itself. The tempo then slackens, the orchestra fizzles out, and leaves the piano alone to develop the ideas. Gentle to start with, this section gets ever more powerful and stormy, until (to quote one pianist) the soloist is eventually rescued by the orchestra, which comes crashing in with the opening “fate” motto. The movement subsides into an uneasy quiet, the two themes still distinct and clearly un-reconciled.

The scherzo is a blisteringly fast race, in which the soloist plays non-stop semi- quavers with no obvious pattern. It slithers through many keys while the orchestra throws in fragments of tunes, but nothing lasts more than a few bars, and the movement stops as abruptly as it began.

The intermezzo is mostly in a march tempo, though it can’t decide whether to be confident, ironic or tragic. At times it seems to be all three at once. After a final climax this movement, like the previous two, just stops.

The finale starts boldly and vigorously, as if trying to shrug off the problems of the previous movements with pure energy. The orchestra drives like a motor, and the pianist leaps around his keyboard like a firecracker. But the tragedy returns with bell-like notes on the piano, and curious little turns in the cellos. Now at last it seems Prokofiev faces the emotion of the situation honestly instead of running away from it, and the piano sings a simple melody, half lament, half lullaby, of great calm and beauty. There is a central section to this lullaby/lament which is a little quicker, and is punctuated by a sudden sharp chord — very like a pistol shot. Again the bell-tones ring out on the piano, and the lament continues, until the piano subsides to a distant rocking. The final section recalls the opening of the movement, a virtuoso high energy display by both piano and orchestra.

Romeo & Juliet

Sergei Prokofiev wrote several ballets during his composing career, but none has achieved the fame of his wonderful Romeo and Juliet. For many people this is simply the best ballet ever written. The lyrical beauty and tragic power are simply overwhelming.

Prokofiev wrote the score for Romeo and Juliet in about 1935, to a commission by the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow. But the directors of the Bolshoi, finding the music "not suitable for dancing" cancelled the contract. Prokofiev had given the tragic story a happy ending. Romeo arrives at Juliet's tomb in time to find her alive and everything ended well. When challenged on this (even the Soviet critics of the day were unimpressed by this piece of tampering!) Prokofiev's memorable reply was "Dead men can't dance, live men can". But after discussing the problem with his choreographers, Prokofiev worked out a way of ending the ballet in accord with Shakespeare's tragedy, and rewrote the closing music expressing the tragedy in dance.

Since the Bolshoi had cancelled the commission, Prokofiev was concerned that the music would never be heard. So he extracted two concert suites from it, which received several performances around the world, while the whole ballet still awaited a premiere. The first full performance was in Brno, in Czechoslovakia in 1938 (a fact that Prokofiev's Soviet biographers preferred to ignore!). The first Russian performance was by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in 1940, but it did not reach the Bolshoi in Moscow who had first commissioned it - until a production in 1946. Prokofiev enhanced the orchestration for the Kirov production, adding some extra instruments to help the sound in the bigger spaces of the Leningrad theatre.

Back to programme notes index