Sunday, November 16, 2014

Prokofiev - Alexander Nevsky Cantata

Just days before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact that declared the two nations would take no military action against each other for 10 years. The date was August 23rd, Germany invaded Poland September 1st, thus starting World War Two.

The agreement was on shaky ground from the beginning. Germany wanted to try and keep Russia out of the war, and due to the Great Purge that began in 1934 (where over one million Russian leaders, citizens and military personnel were executed) Russia was weak militarily, so Stalin signed the pact to try and gain time to rearm. Anyone that didn't have their head in the sand knew that Germany would invade Russia, sooner or later.

In 1938 while both nations postured and blustered, the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev joined filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the making of the film Alexander Nevsky. Nevsky was an actual 13th century Prince of Novgorod who led an army that defeated the invading Teutonic (German) Knights in the Battle of Lake Peipus in 1242.  The movie was more than a historic epic. It became a patriotic propaganda tool after the Soviet big-wigs saw the finished product. The authorities were thrilled with the movie and the fact that it was brought in five months ahead of schedule.

The filmmaker and composer worked together very well .  Both fed off each other ideas and the movie became more than a Soviet propaganda film. After the war the film became a classic.  To allow the music to be heard other than in a movie house, Prokofiev arranged much of the music into a a cantata a few months after the premiere of the film for mixed chorus, mezzo-soprano soloist and orchestra.  The cantata is in seven movements, original text is in Russian except for the third movement which is in Latin:

Statue of Alexander Nevsky in St. Petersburg
I.  Russia under the Mongolian Yoke - A brief and bleak introduction refers to the time in the 13th century when parts of Russia were under the domination of the Mongolian Tartars who ruled over the Russians and forced them to pay tribute.  Alexander Nevsky had been given to the Mongol rulers as a hostage. He grew up among their leaders and understood the workings of their culture. He wed the Mongol leader's daughter and was named leader of the Vladimir principality.

II.  Song about Alexander Nevsky - Nevsky was summoned by the people of Novgorod to become Prince after Swedish invaders had landed on the outskirts of the area. Nevsky commanded a small army that surprised the Swedish invaders and prevented and all-out invasion.  Nevsky gained in power and political influence and coupled with his association with the Mongol invaders, conflict with the Boyars of the area caused him to be forced to leave Novgorod. In this song the chorus sings the praises of Nevsky and urges him to return and defeat the Teutonic invaders:

It happened by the river Neva,by the great waters .
There we cut down the enemy warriors of the Swedish army .
Oh, how we fought, how we cut  them down !
How we cut  their ships to pieces !
We swung an axe and a street appeared ,we thrust our spears and a lane opened up .
We cut  down the Swedish invaders like grass on parched soil.
We shall never yield our Russian land . Those who attack Russia will meet their death .
Arise , Russia, against the enemy, 
arise to arms, glorious Novgorod ! 

III. The Crusaders in Pskov -  The Crusades by Christians against Islam to regain the Holy Land in the Middle East is well known, but what many don't realize is there was also Christian Crusades held in Eastern Europe against pagans. These Crusades were similar to the ones to regain the Holy Land in that not all the actions taken by the Crusaders were for purely religious reasons. Political gain, personal gain and seizing land played a large part. The Teutonic Knights were formed in the 12th century to aid Christians fighting in the Middle East and to establish hospitals. After Christians were defeated in the Holy Land, the order moved to Eastern Europe to help defend Catholic countries and convert pagan ones. The German Crusaders are depicted in slow, plodding, heavy music punctuated by percussive dissonance. The words sung are Latin, but when translated don't make any sense: As a foreigner, I expect my feet to be shod in cymbals.
Perhaps Prokofiev chose the words (that were taken from the Latin Vulgate Bible) at random, or for their foreign sound:

Peregrinus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis

IV. Arise, Ye Russian People - A call to arms against the invaders sung by the choir:

Arise to arms, ye Russian people,
in battle just, the fight to death; 
arise ye, people free and brave
defend our fair native land!
To living warriors high esteem,
immortal fame to warriors slain!
For native home, for Russian Soil,
arise ye people, Russian folk!
In our great Russia, in our native
Russia no foe shall live: Rise to arms,
arise, native mother Russia!
No foe shall march across Russian land,
no foreign troops shall raid Russia;
unseen are the ways to Russia,
no foe will ravage Russian fields.

Scene from the film Alexander Nevsky
V. The Battle on the Ice - The two armies meet on the ice of the frozen River Neva. This battle is also referred in history as The Battle On The Ice.  Prokofiev creates tension and builds drama with the orchestra that slowly builds in tempo and speed. As the armies clash the Teutonic Knights repeat their hymn with added words:

A foreigner, I expect my feet to be shod in cymbals. 
May the arms of the cross-bearers conquer! Let the enemy perish!

After much creative orchestration and development of themes, the hymn of the Crusaders is finally overtaken by themes that praise Nevsky. Traditional history of the battle relates that the weight of the Teutonic Knight's horses and armor broke the ice and many Crusaders drown in the frigid water while the ones that didn't fall through the ice were slain by Nevsky and his army.

VI. The Field of the Dead -  The aftermath of the battle has the mezzo-soprano voice of a woman walking among the dead:

I will go across the snow-clad field,
I will fly above the field of death.
I will search for valiant warriors,
my betrothed, my stalwart youths,
Here lies one felled by a wild saber;
there lies one impaled by an arrow. 
From their wounds blood fell like
rain on our native soil, on Russian fields. 
He who fell for Russia in noble death shall
be blessed by my kiss on his eyes and to
brave lad who remained alive,
I will be a true wife and loving friend.
I’ll not be wed to a handsome man;
earthly charm and beauty fade fast and die.
I’ll be wed to the man who’s brave.
Give heed to this, brave warriors!

VII. Alexander’s Entry in Pskov - The hero Nevsky is welcomed with a procession by the jubilant people:

In a great campaign Russia went to war.
Russia put down the hostile troops.
In our native land no foe shall live.
Foes who come shall be put to death!
Celebrate and sing, native Mother Russia.
In our native land foes shall never live,
Foes shall never see Russian towns and fields.
They who march on Russia shall be put to death.
Foes shall never see Russian towns and fields.
In our Russia great, in our native Russia no foe shall live.
Celebrate and sing, native Mother Russia.
To a fete in triumph all of Russian came.
Celebrate, rejoice, celebrate and sing, our Motherland!

Of course the non-aggression pact between the two totalitarian dictators ended up being not worth paper it was written on as Nazi Germany launched the largest invasion force in history against Russia on June 22, 1941. Russia's participation in the war resulted in between 20 and 40 million Russian deaths from all causes, and Germany suffered the same fate of other forces in history that tried to invade the country; collapse under the sheer size of Russia, its rugged weather and huge population, not to mention the ruthlessness of their leader Stalin.

Prokofiev had returned to the USSR after living abroad from 1918 to 1936, and his Alexander Nevsky film music and cantata brought him into good graces with Stalin until 1948 when Prokofiev, along with composers Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, and Khachaturian were denounced for formalism, a crime that was described as renunciation of the basic principles of classical music [in favour of] muddled, nerve-racking [sounds that turned] music into cacophony. 

Prokofiev suffered from extreme hypertension and as a result had a fall from which he never really recovered. In poor health and deeply in debt because his works had been banned, he desperately tried to get back into good graces with the authorities, but he remained in official artistic limbo the rest of his life. After Stalin's death on March 5, 1953 things began to change in the USSR and composers were slowly 'rehabilitated' and bans on their music began to be lifted. Ironically, Prokofiev didn't benefit from Stalin's death as he died the same day.

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