Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.
A product of collaboration between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergey Prokofiev, the film Alexander Nevsky [Aleksandr Nevskii] (1938) boasts a rich sociopolitical and cultural history. Those acquainted with the film are likely familiar with its status as an artifact of Soviet propaganda. With regard to Eisenstein, discussions of Nevsky, which was his first film in nearly a decade and his first contribution to the medium of sound film, often recount creative challenges experienced by the director that led to his complicity in propagating Party ideology as well as his role in helping to foster Joseph Stalin's association with heroic figures of Russia's distant past. Similarly, the discourse surrounding Prokofiev's role in the project frequently focuses on his efforts to cultivate a nationalist style appropriately accessible for Soviet audiences. Consequently, it is easy to perpetuate an overly simplified understanding of Alexander Nevsky founded on stereotypical images of the Soviet artist working under the burden of socialist realism. Fortunately, however, Kevin Bartig's Sergei Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky," which appears as part of the publisher's new Oxford Keynotes series, offers a more nuanced understanding of Prokofiev's music for the film in a multitude of new contexts.
Having written previously about Nevsky in Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), Bartig returns to and expands upon a number of topics in his new monograph. Among these are Prokofiev's concerns about the legitimacy of film music as serious art as well as its role in establishing a type of "light-serious" music (p. 18) that would resonate with broad audiences. As a newly repatriated Soviet composer, Prokofiev was bound by the aesthetic demands of socialist realism, at the heart of which was a call for accessibility. Although his music had already undergone a process of simplification during the 1920s, ultimately yielding what he referred to as his "new simplicities," Prokofiev continued to weigh questions about whether he wanted to be identified with such music well into the next decade. Bartig underscores the fact that the lucrative potential offered by film indeed motivated the composer's continued interest in such projects as well. Eventually, Prokofiev came to terms with the idea of a "light-serious" style and carefully shaped the narrative surrounding his simplified musical style. Bartig reveals, however, that Prokofiev's concerns were consistent with and shared by other composers of the time. Citing the writings of Kurt Weill, Carlos Chavez, and Aaron Copland in particular, Bartig contextualizes the simplification of Prokofiev's compositional style as part of a greater trend among composers of the time. While individual motivations varied, he asserts that efforts of composers to cultivate an "accessible musical style was a common concern" during the period leading up to Alexander Nevsky and as such contributed to the work's "broad international resonance" (p. 20). In doing so, Bartig effectively redresses our understanding of Nevsky (and Prokofiev's Soviet works in general) as something other than political pandering.
Bartig also revisits Prokofiev's creation of a sonic backdrop for Alexander Nevsky. Throughout much of the film, the composer employs a sound palette that evokes various nineteenth-century Russian classics, in particular works by Mikhail Glinka, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Aleksandr Borodin. Such a strategy is easily understood as a response to the expectations of socialist realism, especially when considered in conjunction with the ideological conservatism that followed the infamous admonishment of Dmitrii Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District [Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda] in Pravda in January 1936. Bartig demonstrates, however, that rather than surrendering to the precepts of socialist realism, Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky is consistent with Eisenstein's intentions. A patriotic film such as Nevsky requires music of a correspondingly patriotic nature. In the absence of historically appropriate models, Bartig points out that "as images of the thirteenth century flashed on the screen, cinemagoers' ears remained in familiar, nineteenth-century territory at key moments" (p. 63). More important than the score's nineteenth-century resonances, however, is Bartig's discussion of the significance Nevsky held for Soviet music. Characterized by Izrail' Nest'ev as an awakening of Prokofiev's national voice--a voice that went silent decades earlier--Nevsky was branded a model of Soviet composition. Bartig emphasizes that as such, Nevsky played a central role in shaping socialist realist aesthetics and its establishment as a staple of the repertory.
Bartig also examines the relationship between Prokofiev's film score and the cantata created from it. It was not uncommon for Prokofiev to modify and adapt compositions to realize the greatest economic potential possible. This was particularly true for his large-scale works, such as ballets, operas, and film scores. In preparing a concert work from the film score for Alexander Nevsky, however, Prokofiev elected to construct a cantata, which was a favorite genre of Soviet ideologues, rather than the more typical suite. Unfortunately, neither manifestation of the work provided Prokofiev with the official recognition he sought as a Soviet composer. While reviews of the film were generally positive, critics afforded little attention to Prokofiev's score. Eisenstein as well as two of the film's actors received Stalin Prizes, but the awards shut out Prokofiev's cantata, leading some to believe that the work was received less favorably. Bartig divulges that the cantata was actually a strong candidate for the prize but sadly fell victim to bureaucracy; Mikhail Khrapchenko, head of the Committee on Arts Affairs, labeled the work as derivative, due to its origins as a film score, and actively lobbied against it. Bartig counters Khrapchenko's criticism, pointing out that the cantata required significant alteration because of the nature of its source material, and as such "demanded the same kind of hard labor as that behind symphonies, operas, and other large-scale, 'serious' undertakings" (p. 84). In short, the Nevsky cantata is more than a film score stripped of its celluloid trappings. Notwithstanding, Bartig shows that the cantata served an important role in propagating Prokofiev's music for audiences despite the lack of official Party recognition. The cantata made its way to United States thanks to the promotional efforts of the Soviet All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad (Vsesoiuznoe obshchestvo kul'turnoi svaiazi s zagranitsei, commonly referred to as VOKS), where it was premiered to great praise under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.
Bartig's greatest accomplishment is undoubtedly his detailed analysis of Alexander Nevsky's complex reception history. Throughout the text, he meticulously examines critical reactions to Nevsky, scrutinizing those cultural, geographic, and political factors that influenced the discourse surrounding it. In the Soviet Union, for example, Nevsky's reception was entangled with the film's obvious purpose of promulgating national patriotism. The cantata, however, was viewed with so much skepticism that following Andrei Zhdanov's decree accusing Prokofiev and others of formalism in 1948, it was no longer programmed (whereas his film score was spared the same condemnation and remained a Soviet classic). As it traversed the globe to reach the West, Nevsky encountered different challenges. Regarding the success of the work, Bartig emphasizes the importance of timing: "a work so direct in its Russian theme and style would hardly have been so welcome before 1941 or after 1945, when relations between the Soviet Union and United States were less amicable" (p. 93). On one hand, some Western critics and scholars have viewed Nevsky's film origins from the standpoint of a totalitarian regime's propaganda. Olin Downes, an early supporter of Prokofiev's music, sidestepped the issue of politics by discussing Nevsky in terms of a heroic rather than nationalist tenor. On the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Richard Taruskin suggested considering Prokofiev's music in the context of politics. Ultimately, Bartig's discussion of the reception history of Alexander Nevsky reveals that the work could be reinvented depending upon the contexts surrounding it. Whether encountered as a film score or the cantata, heard in live or recorded performance, or viewed as a work of Soviet propaganda or an expression of victory following struggle, the repackaging of Alexander Nevsky in this variety of contexts makes it, as Bartig describes, "one of the last century's most malleable collections of sounds" (p. 134).
Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky" is an important contribution to the scholarship concerning Prokofiev's film music. As is typical of his scholarship, Bartig combines an extensive knowledge of Soviet cultural history and politics with sensitivity to musical and contextual detail, which allows him ultimately to present new insights about Prokofiev's score. His prose is eloquent yet easily comprehensible. Accompanied by a website that provides ready access to music and video excerpts, Bartig's book will appeal to music scholars and general readers alike.
TERRY L. DEAN
Indiana State University