Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Listening to Alexander Nevsky

My previous post mentioned Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky as a means to explain how I had come across a musical piece that had been in my CD collection for many years but that I hadn't actually listened to until just a week ago. Now I'd like to look more closely at Nevsky itself.

The work is a cantata that was taken from the musical score Prokofiev wrote for a 1938 film of the same name directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Rather than rehash all the great descriptions of the work that are already floating around out there, I thought I would just reproduce an excerpt from the liner notes of the Chicago Symphony recording that was done under the direction of Fritz Reiner:
Alexander Nevsky deals with the Russian defense of Novgorod in 1242 against the invading Knights of the Teutonic Order. Prince Alexander Nevsky, through the power of his personality alone, gathered an enormous army and met the enemy on the frozen waters of Lake Chud. There he dealt them a humiliating defeat, thus saving his country from the brutality threatened by the German horde. (The film was made one year before the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact, and sentiment in Russia was at that time violently anti-German.) With this epic and heroic tale as a pivot, Prokofiev created a score that equaled in every degree the dynamism and vitality of Eisenstein's movie.
That's a pretty good description of the work. And now, here are some bits from each movement that should give you a good sample of what Nevsky is all about. (These excerpts are from the recording of Charles Dutoit leading the Montreal Symphony.)

I. Russia Under the Mongolian Yoke
This movement is intended to depict a battered landscape, a Russia that has been devastated by the Mongols. The music is desolate and sear, suggesting hopelessness and despair. Interesting that the piece opens with this mood.

II. Song About Alexander Nevsky
The Russians sing of past military glory, and they call on the people to prepare for the next threat. A very martial sound, stirring and inspiring. Appropriate for a call to arms.

III. The Crusaders in Pskov
The Teutonic Knights enter Pskov to the sound of ominous, doom-filled music. Imagine Darth Vader in medieval armor riding a dark horse, make it darker, and then you will have pretty decent picture to go along with such threatening music. The lyrics here are in Latin to reflect the Roman Church's influence over the knights, and their English translation is (roughly) "As a foreigner, I expected my feet to be shod with cymbals."

IV. Arise, Ye Russian People
Now with the invaders in Pskov, the Russian folk are urged to run to battle. Patriotic and grand, the music underscores the urgent call to defend the motherland.

V. The Battle on the Ice
The battle begins, and the forces clash on a frozen lake. Chaos and mayhem rule, and the Teutonic (German) theme comes back to duel with the Alexander Nevsky (Russian) theme first presented in second movement. The Russians are victorious, and the Teutons sink beneath the frigid waters of the lake.

VI. Field of the Dead
After the battle, a lonely woman walks the field of the dead. She mourns the passing of the brave soldiers, but she also praises their fighting spirit, and the music is appropriately somber. Strange that this is called the Field of the Dead given that the battle took place on a frozen lake.

VII. Alexander's Entry into Pskov
Victorious, Alexander Nevsky returns to Pskov to receive the praise and adulations of the people. The music is celebratory as the Russians sing songs of rejoicing.

A grand piece, and one of my favorites. If you like this kind of robust, boisterous classical music, I suggest you get your own copy of Alexander Nevsky and listen to it over and over again. I don't think you will be disappointed.

P.S.: Just remember to get a recording where the lyrics are sung in Russian! Much better than that weird version by Fritz Reiner where they sing in English!

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