Battle on the Ice

Composer of the Week: Sergei Prokofiev

Over the last few weeks, this series has focused on female composers. We have looked at women in the Western and Eastern traditions, classical and modern. To keep things fresh, we will change the focus of the series periodically. The next few installments will revolve around composers who have written music for films, beginning with Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953 AD). If you’re unsure about how to pronounce “Prokofiev”, the accent is on the second syllable. Also, make sure to trill the “r”. If you’re looking to challenge your ears and broaden your knowledge of music, Prokofiev is a great place to start.

Biography

This great musician cuts an imposing figure over the troubled musical landscape of the 20th century. His amazing powers of imagination, and his penchant for innovation, make him one of the giants of music history. Despite this, he seems to have a lived a rather ordinary life and done some rather dull and boring things, such as enrolling to study organ in order to avoid conscription.

In this article we will look at his life and focus on a piece of music he wrote for a film. When we get there, you’ll see how much the modern film score genre owes to Prokofiev. Here is one of his most famous compositions, the Dance of the Knights. This piece is from his ballet based on Romeo and Juliet.

Prokofiev’s instrument was the piano and many of his greatest works are piano compositions, either solo or concerto. His mother was a pianist and Prokofiev seems to have enjoyed listening to her play Chopin and Beethoven. In light of this, it is not surprising to find both neo-classical and romantic influences at work in Prokofiev’s music. In his own lifetime, he gained a reputation for daring and innovation. For instance, his piano concertos broke with convention in some exciting ways. This caused him some trouble with the Soviet authorities and in 1918 AD he left for the United States of America. He eventually returned to Europe and finally back to Russia. In his later years he composed some of his most iconic works, including the “War Sonatas” and a “Symphonic Fairy Tale for Children”, Peter and the Wolf. Today, this charming work is one of the most popular pieces in the orchestral repertoire.

Peter and the Wolf

The plot of this memorable work centers on a boy named Peter. As in any good fairy tale, the boy goes into the forest, meets some talking animals and gets involved in some trouble. I won’t spoil this story for you, as you can watch it yourself below. Each character in this story is represented by a particular instrument. The flute represents a bird, with the oboe depicting a cat. The wolf gets the bassoon and Peter himself has the string section. This is all very engrossing for children and adults alike. If you’re not sure what instrument you’d like your child to learn, you can use this piece to help you think it through. Take a listen:

Prokofiev & Alexander Nevsky

You might be wondering why this article is headed by a medieval image. After all, Prokofiev lived in the 20th century, and the wars he lived through were fought with tanks and planes, not horses and lances. Well, one of Prokofiev’s greatest projects was his cantata Alexander Nevsky, which was the soundtrack for a film of the same name, made in 1938 AD. A cantata, literally “sung” in Italian, is a piece of music written for vocalists with instrumental accompaniment. Bach immortalized this genre in his lifetime and it grew in popularity after his time.

A scene from the 1938 film by Eisenstein

This cantata, as we’ve said, was written as the musical background for a film. The film was a patriotic statement about Russia’s destiny and her place in the world in a very difficult period of her history. The subject of this film, Alexander Nevsky, lived in a similarly perilous time in Russia’s history and therefore his life was a perfect vehicle for a patriotic film of this kind.

Background of the Composition

St Alexander Nevsky (1221 – 1263 AD) is one of the most important figures in Russian history. This famous prince ruled at various times Novgorod (literally “New City”), Kiev and Vladimir, the three greatest Russian cities. This was a period of horrifying violence, emanating, as usual, from the pagan world. Russia was in subjection to the Golden Horde, a portion of the Mongol Empire. To make matters worse, Russia’s Northern and Western boundaries were under constant pressure from Swedish, German and Polish aggression. It’s easy to see how this situation corresponded, loosely, to the political machinations of Prokofiev’s times.

The Battle on the Ice

The tensions between Slavic and Germanic, Orthodox and Catholic, culminated in a crusade. It was launched from Rome, using the Teutonic Knights and Baltic mercenaries. The Slavic city-state of Novgorod had managed to remain relatively safe from Mongol tyranny because of its boggy terrain, among other things. As a result, Novgorod had been able to maintain a vigorous trade network throughout the Baltic. Knowing that Nevsky was busy dealing with other problems, Russia’s western enemies saw an opportunity too tempting to ignore. With the ready addition of religious justifications, the crusade marched north and in 1252 AD, the invaders met a 20-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky with a small army of defenders.

The Outcome of the Battle, and Prokofiev’s Interpretation

To put it mildly, things didn’t go well for the crusaders. The battlefield, for one thing, suited the defenders. This place, the frozen Lake Peipus, on the border between modern Estonia and Russia, provided an ideal defensive position for the hardy Slavs. The heavy Teutonic horsemen were professional soldiers but they had underestimated this challenge.

The Music

Prokofiev puts some de-contextualized Latin in the mouths of the crusaders, perhaps as a bit of a sectarian jab, but also to take a swipe at one of his critics, Igor Stravinsky. The absurdly over-the-top Livonian Knights barrel across the icy lake while shouting:

Peregrinus expectavi
Pedes meos in cymbales

A stranger, I have waited,
My feet in cymbals

Predictably, this whole debacle ends in triumph for Prince Alexander. The piece opens in a hushed, brooding atmosphere. These ominously dissonant chords build up into a storm of sound, with choir and orchestra in an almost hysterical fortissimo. The movement ends with a triumphant trumpet fanfare.

You can hear this rich, complicated, absurd piece of music below. This video contains the entire cantata, beginning with Russia’s subjection to the Mongol yoke and ending with the victorious prince’s entry into the city of Pskov. The Battle on the Ice starts at 15:38.

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