16 Feb 2012

Nevsky – Op. 78 (Cantata for Chorus & Orchestra)

Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78 (Cantata for Chorus & Orchestra)

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; strings; percussion

Performance time: 37 minutes

In the Soviet film industry, as in other sectors of its state-controlled economy, demonstrating technical accomplishment was a high priority, and there is no question that the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest of all early film directors. His monumental 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, for which Prokofiev wrote the musical score, could not have been more different from the slightly earlier Lieutenant Kijé; it is a historical epic that depicts the 13th-century incursion of Livonian knights into the Novgorod Republic, and the subsequent rescue of the captured city of Rus by the heroic prince Alexander Nevsky.

The Nevsky film score, Prokofiev’s third, put him in collaboration with an artist who, like the composer, was a master of dramatic narrative. With song texts written by the poet Vladimir Lugovskoy, the visual and aural narrative elements of the film work together to hair-raising effect.

Prokofiev arranged the film’s music as a cantata in 1939. The challenging score encompasses orchestra, chorus and mezzo-soprano soloist. Five years later Prokofiev would again join forces with Eisenstein and Lugovskoy on a historical film epic, Ivan the Terrible. While these films have special resonance for Russian viewers, they have achieved a permanent place in world cinema. Among concertgoers, Alexander Nevsky is one of the most renowned of all 20th-century cantatas, with a dramatic intensity that transcends the historical details of its story.