Alexander Nevsky (Prokofiev)

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Nikolay Cherkasov as Aleksandr Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky (Russian: Александр Невский) is the score composed by Sergei Prokofiev for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film Alexander Nevsky. The subject of the film is the 13th century incursion of the knights of the Livonian Order into the territory of the Novgorod Republic, their capture of the city of Pskov, the summoning of Prince Alexander Nevsky to the defense of Rus', and his subsequent victory over the crusaders in 1242. The majority of the score's song texts were written by the poet Vladimir Lugovskoy.

In 1939, Prokofiev arranged the music of the film score as the cantata, Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78, for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra. It is one of the few examples (Lieutenant Kijé is another) of film music that has found a permanent place in the standard repertoire, and has also remained one of the most renowned cantatas of the 20th century.

Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and Lugovskoy would go on to collaborate again some five years later on another historical epic, Ivan the Terrible (Parts 1 and 2), Eisenstein's next and last films.

Alexander Nevsky, film score (1938)[edit]

Composition history[edit]

The score was Prokofiev's third for a film, following Lieutenant Kijé (1934) and Pique Dame (1936). Prokofiev was heavily involved not just with the composition, but with the recording as well. He experimented with different microphone distances in order to achieve the desired sound. Horns meant to represent the Teutonic Knights, for instance, were played close enough to the microphones to produce a crackling, distorted sound. The brass and choral groups were recorded in different studios and the separate pieces were later mixed.[1]

Prokofiev employed different sections of the orchestra, as well as different compositional styles, to evoke the necessary imagery. For instance, the Teutonic Knights (seen as the adversary) are represented by heavy brass instruments, playing discordant notes in a martial style. The sympathetic Russian forces are represented predominantly by folk-like instruments such as woodwind and strings,[2] often playing quasi-folksong style music.

Publication history[edit]

In 2003, conductor Frank Strobel reconstructed the original score of Alexander Nevsky with the cooperation of the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). The score is published by Musikverlage Hans Sikorski, Hamburg.

Performance history[edit]

The film Alexander Nevsky premiered on 23 November 1938 at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow.[3]

The concert premiere of the complete original film score, as reconstructed by Frank Strobel, took place on 16 October 2003, accompanied by a showing of the film at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Strobel conducted the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Ernst Senff Chor, with mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko as soloist.[4]

The Russian premiere of the restored film score took place on 27 November 2004 at the Bolshoy Theatre.



The film is divided into 9 'scenes' by intertitles stating the location of the action, or, in the case of the 'Battle on the Ice', the date—'5 April 1242'. There are 27 cues[5]—musical numbers or strings of numbers forming continuous stretches of music with little or no superimposed or intervening dialogue. The table below shows the scenes and cues with the musical numbers (or accompanying action) they contain:

Note: A gray background indicates numbers omitted in the cantata.

Intertitle Cue Numbers and themes Scoring
It was the 13th Century...
Rus' under the Mongol Yoke Orchestra
Lake Pleshcheyevo
Song about Alexander Nevsky Chorus, orchestra
Lord Novgorod the Great
The Bells of Novgorod Bells
The Crusaders in Pskov Orchestra
He Who Died a Noble Death for Rus' Orchestra
Horn Call of the Crusaders Brass
Peregrinus expectavi Chorus, orchestra
The Crusaders in Pskov Orchestra
Horn Call of the Crusaders Brass
He Who Died a Noble Death for Rus' Orchestra
Arise, Russian People! Chorus, orchestra
In Our Native Rus' Orchestra
Arise, Russian People! Chorus, orchestra
Lake Chudskoye
The Crusaders' Camp Chorus, orchestra
Alexander Nevsky's Camp Orchestra
Fanfares Brass
5 April 1242
Awaiting the Enemy at Raven's Rock Orchestra
Horn Call of the Crusaders Brass
Charge of the Crusaders Chorus, orchestra
The Russian Counterattack Orchestra
The Shawm Players Orchestra
Horn Call of the Crusaders Brass
Peregrinus expectavi Chorus, orchestra
Spears and Arrows Orchestra
Fanfare Brass
Duel between Alexander and the Grand Master Orchestra
The Crusaders Routed Orchestra
The Ice Breaks Percussion, orchestra
The Field of the Dead Soloist, orchestra
The Bells of Pskov Bells
The Fallen Orchestra
Prisoners and Traitors Orchestra
Song about Alexander Nevsky Orchestra
In Our Native Rus' Orchestra
Prisoners and Traitors Orchestra
Song about Alexander Nevsky Orchestra
Prisoners and Traitors Orchestra
The Fallen Orchestra
In Our Native Rus' Chorus, orchestra
The Shawm Players Orchestra
Finale: Song about Alexander Nevsky Orchestra

The performance duration is approximately 55 minutes.[6]

Repeating themes

The following themes occur in two or more cues.

  1. 'Rus' under the Mongol Yoke': 1, 12
  2. "It happened on the Neva River": 2, 3, 22, 27
  3. 'He Who Died a Noble Death for Rus'': 6, 20
  4. 'Horn Call of the Crusaders': 6, 14, 16, 19
  5. "Peregrinus expectavi": 6, 11, 14, 16
  6. "To the living fighter esteem and honor": 7, 10, 15, 19
  7. "In our native Rus'": 7, 8, 9, 10, 22, 25
  8. "The enemy shall not enter Rus'": 7, 10, 15, 19
  9. 'The Russian Counterattack': 15, 19
  10. 'The Shawm Players': 16, 26
  11. "I shall go over the white field": 20, 21, 22, 24

Alexander Nevsky, cantata, Op. 78 (1939)[edit]

Composition history[edit]

The great popularity of Eisenstein's film, which was released on 1 December 1938, may have prompted Prokofiev to create a concert version of the music in the winter of 1938–39. Prokofiev condensed the 27 film score cues into a seven movement cantata for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra, structured as follows:

No. Title English Scoring
Русь под игом монгольским Rus' under the Mongol Yoke Orchestra
Песня об Александре Невском Song about Alexander Nevsky Chorus, orchestra
Крестоносцы во Пскове The Crusaders in Pskov Chorus, orchestra
Вставайте, люди русские! Arise, Russian People! Chorus, orchestra
Ледовое побоище Battle on the Ice Chorus, orchestra
Мёртвое поле The Field of the Dead Soloist, orchestra
Въезд Александра во Псков Alexander's Entry into Pskov Chorus, orchestra

The performance duration is approximately 40 minutes.[7]

There are many changes in the cantata. Prokofiev remarked to sound engineer Boris Volskiy: "Sometimes it is easier to write a whole new piece than solder one together."[8]

"Once the film made it to the screen I had the desire to rework the music for symphonic orchestra and chorus. To create a cantata out of the music wasn't easy; I ended up expending much more labor on it than the original film. I first needed to provide it with an exclusively musical foundation, arranged in accord with the logic of musical form, with purely symphonic development, and then completely reorchestrated—since scoring for orchestra is of an entirely different casting than scoring for a film. Despite my effort this second time around to approach the music from an exclusively symphonic perspective, the pictorial element from Eisenstein's film obviously remained."[9]

Although some 15 minutes of music from the film score are omitted, the cuts mainly consist of needless repetitions, fragments, sound effects, and a relatively little actual music.

Omissions: The table above (under "Film score") shows the cues and numbers omitted from the cantata. There is no ad libitum bell tolling from the Novgorod and Pskov scenes. The 'Horn Call of the Crusaders' is no longer played as a free standing brass number, but is now combined with other themes as part of the orchestral texture. About half the choral repetitions of stanzas of "Arise, Russian People!" are cut, as are all of the instrumental versions. 'The Crusaders' Camp', being a repeat of the "Peregrinus expectavi" theme, is omitted. Two significant numbers featuring themes not presented elsewhere, 'Spears and Arrows' and all iterations of 'Prisoners and Traitors', are not included. Repetitions of 'The Fallen' are omitted, probably because they are a restatement of the theme "I shall go over the white field" from 'The Field of the Dead'.

Abbreviations: The 'Charge of the Crusaders' is condensed, losing about half its length. The 'Duel between Alexander and the Grand Master' is greatly shortened (only the first 12 measures are preserved), and moved to an earlier position, preceding "Peregrinus expectavi".

Consolidation: Numbers broken into two cues by dialogue, such as 'Song about Alexander Nevsky' and 'The Field of the Dead', have their respective parts joined together. 'Rus' under the Mongol Yoke' now concludes with a repeat of the opening passage, possibly taken from 'Alexander Nevsky's Camp', giving the movement an ABA form.

Recomposition: 'The Ice Breaks', which depicts the crusaders perishing, consisting in the film score of percussive sound effects, is now replaced by a substantial section of new music (the Brohn version of the film score uses this and the new introduction to "Arise, Russian People!" as an opening credits prelude).

Expansion: The 'Finale' of the film score, rather perfunctorily performed by a modest studio orchestra without chorus, is, in the cantata, enlarged and transformed into a massive and glittering 'Final Chorus' with prominent brass and percussion section accompaniment.

Additions: The 'Song about Alexander Nevsky' gains a new third stanza ("Where the axe was swung, there was a street"). "Arise, Russian People!" gains a new introduction consisting of loud woodwind and brass chords, clanging bells, xylophone glissandi, and plucked strings. In 'The Battle on the Ice', there is now, after the 'Charge of the Crusaders', an added section depicting the commencement of fighting between the Livonian knights and the Russian defenders, with some additional Latin text ("Vincant arma crucifera! Hostis pereat!") 'The Battle on the Ice' now concludes with a quiet and poignant instrumental repeat of the "In our native Rus'" theme from "Arise, Russian People!". 'The Field of the Dead' gains a new first stanza ("I shall go over the white field"). 'Alexander's Entry into Pskov' gains a new passage ("Rejoice, sing, mother Rus'!") depicting the people's celebration, with glockenspiel, xylophone, and harp accompaniment. Two more repetitions of "In our native Rus'" are added to 'Alexander's Entry into Pskov', one combined with the end of 'The Shawm Players', and one following it, leading to the final stanza based on 'Song about Alexander Nevsky'.

Despite these many modifications, the order of events and music changes hardly at all, and the best music is not only preserved, but improved by larger instrumental forces, richer orchestration, added choral accompaniments, greater dynamic contrasts, and, obviously, greater continuity. Furthermore, in 'The Crusaders in Pskov', 'The Battle on the Ice', and 'Alexander's Entry into Pskov', Prokofiev indulges in more frequent juxtaposition and overlap of themes, resulting in some jarring dissonances.

Publication history[edit]

  • 1939, 'Three songs from the film Alexander Nevsky', Op. 78a, Muzgiz, Moscow; the numbers were: 1. 'Arise, Russian People', 2. 'Answer, Bright Falcons' ('The Field of the Dead'), 3. 'It Happened on the Neva River' ('Song about Alexander Nevsky')[10]
  • 1941, Alexander Nevsky, cantata for mezzo-soprano, mixed chorus, and orchestra, Op. 78, Muzgiz, Moscow

Performance history[edit]

The world premiere of the cantata took place on 17 May 1939. Sergei Prokofiev conducted the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, with soloist Varvara Gagarina (mezzo-soprano).[11]

The first American performance took place on 7 March 1943 in an NBC Radio broadcast. Leopold Stokowski conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra and the Westminster Choir, with soloist Jennie Tourel (mezzo-soprano).[citation needed]

The American concert premiere took place on 23 March 1945, when Eugene Ormandy led the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Westminster Choir, with soloist Rosalind Nadell (contralto).[citation needed]



Video of a performance of "Song About Alexander Nevsky", second movement of Alexander Nevsky cantata. Performers: St Matthew's Concert Choir. length: 2 min 54 sec
  1. "Russia under the Mongolian Yoke": The opening movement begins slowly, and in C minor. It is meant to evoke an image of destruction, as brought to Russia by the invading Mongols.
  2. "Song about Alexander Nevsky": This movement (B flat) represents Prince Alexander Yaroslavich's victory over the Swedish army at the Battle of the Neva in 1240. Alexander received the name 'Nevsky' (a form of Neva) in tribute.
  3. "The Crusaders in Pskov": For this movement (C-sharp minor), Prokofiev's initial intention was to use genuine 13th century church music; however, the examples he found in the Moscow Conservatoire sounded so cold, dull and alien to the 20th century ear that he abandoned the idea and instead composed an original theme "better suited to our modern conception" to evoke the brutality of the Teutonic Knights.[12]
  4. "Arise, ye Russian People": This movement (E flat) represents a call to arms for the people of Russia. It is composed with folk overtones.
  5. "The Battle on the Ice": The fifth (and longest) movement is arguably the climax of the cantata. It represents the final clash between Nevsky's forces and the Teutonic Knights on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus in 1242. The serene beginning (representing dawn on the day of battle) is contrasted by the jarring middle section, which is cacophonous in style.
  6. "The Field of the Dead": Composed in C minor, the sixth movement is the lament of a girl seeking her lost lover, as well as kissing the eyelids of all the dead. The vocal solo is performed by a mezzo-soprano.
  7. "Alexander's Entry into Pskov": The seventh and final movement (B flat) echoes the second movement in parts, and recalls Alexander's triumphant return to Pskov.

Text analysis[edit]

The Latin text devised by Prokofiev for the Livonian knights appears at first sight to be random and meaningless:

"Peregrinus expectavi, pedes meos in cymbalis"
("A pilgrim I waited, my feet in cymbals")

According to Prokofiev, "the Teutonic knights sing Catholic psalms as they march into battle."[12] In 1994, Dr. Morag G. Kerr, a soprano with the BBC Symphony Chorus, was the first to notice that the words are indeed from the Psalms, specifically from the Vulgate texts chosen by Igor Stravinsky for his 1930 Symphony of Psalms.[13] Dr. Kerr believes Prokofiev may have felt a temptation to put the words of his rival into the mouths of the one-dimensional Teutonic villains of Eisenstein's film.[14] This explanation has been accepted by the BBC: "Even their words are gibberish, with Prokofiev rather mischievously creating them by chopping up Latin texts from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and then randomly stringing them together".[15] In the 'Battle on the Ice', the Latin phrase Prokofiev concocted ends with 'est', which is not found in Symphony of Psalms, but is possibly a pun on the first letters of Stravinsky's surname in Latin (Prokofiev enjoyed such games).[16]

A motive for this nonsensical parody may be found in the lifelong rivalry between the two Russian composers, specifically in the younger man (Prokofiev's) dismissal of Stravinsky's idiom as backward-looking "pseudo-Bachism",[17] and his disdain for Stravinsky's choice to remain in western Europe, in contrast to Prokofiev's own return to Stalinist Russia in 1935.

Versions by other hands[edit]

Film score reconstruction by William Brohn (1987)[edit]

Composition history

In 1987, orchestrator William Brohn created a version of Alexander Nevsky that could replace the widely derided original soundtrack in showings of the film accompanied by a live symphony orchestra. Producer John Goberman provides the following details concerning the genesis of the Brohn version:

"[Prokofiev] had orchestrated his score for a small recording studio orchestra, intending to achieve orchestral balances through miking techniques... However, partly because of Prokofiev's intent to experiment with the new soundstage recording techniques, the soundtrack for Alexander Nevsky is a disaster. Ironically, the best film score ever written is probably the worst soundtrack ever recorded. The intonation of the instruments and of the chorus is sad, and the frequency range is limited to 5,000 Herz (as opposed to an industry standard of 20,000 Hz). This in the period when Hollywood was turning out Gone with the Wind and Disney's Fantasia.
[...] In 1986, realizing that the Cantata contained virtually all the musical ideas of the film, I considered the possibility of overcoming the limitations of the original soundtrack by finding a way to perform this most monumental of all film scores with a full symphony orchestra and chorus accompanying the film in the concert hall. Crucial to the approach was that in the Cantata we had Prokofiev's own orchestration. If we could work out the technical issues, we could achieve a completely authentic re-creation of the film score which would allow audiences to hear what Prokofiev heard when he saw the magnificent images created by Eisenstein. I engaged the brilliant orchestrator (and my good friend) Bill Brohn to use the cantata to re-create the film score, both of us committed to the authenticity of the project from the beginning.
[...] So here, more than 50 years after the conception of Alexander Nevsky, we can witness the extraordinary visual imagination of Prokofiev captured in a soundtrack recording of what is probably the greatest film score ever written, in the authentic and unmistakable musical hand of its author."[18]

At the time the Brohn version was written, Prokofiev's original manuscripts of the film score were unavailable for study. Brohn transcribed the score, using the orchestration of the cantata as a model. Music not present in the cantata was transcribed by ear from the film. With special attention paid to tempos a 1993 recording of this version was matched to a new edition of the film, which was released in 1995.

Although the Brohn version is not technically the film score as composed by Prokofiev, it is a brilliantly successful substitute for the original soundtrack for live performances by a full symphony orchestra accompanying showings of the film. There is little in the arrangement that is not by Prokofiev. However, it is more accurate to say that this arrangement is a "hybrid" of the film score and the cantata, allowing the audience the opportunity to enjoy the film score cues using the expanded sound values of the cantata.

Performance history

The Brohn version premiered on 3 November 1987 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. André Previn conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, with soloist Christine Cairns (mezzo-soprano).



The first recording of the film score reconstructed from the original manuscripts was made in 2003 by Frank Strobel conducting the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and released on Capriccio Records.

Year Conductor Orchestra and choir Soloist Version
1947 Samuil Samosud Russian State Radio Orchestra and Chorus Lyudmila Legostayeva (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1949 Eugene Ormandy Philadelphia Orchestra,
Westminster Choir
Jennie Tourel (mezzo-soprano) Cantata (English)
1954 Mario Rossi Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus Ana Maria Iriarte (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1959 Fritz Reiner Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) Cantata (English)
1962 Karel Ančerl Czech Philharmonic Orchestra,
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Věra Soukupová (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1962 Thomas Schippers New York Philharmonic Orchestra,
Westminster Choir
Lili Chookasian (contralto) Cantata
1966 Yevgeny Svetlanov USSR Symphony Orchestra,
RSFSR Chorus
Larisa Avdeyeva (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1971 André Previn London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Anna Reynolds (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1972 Eugene Ormandy Philadelphia Orchestra,
The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia
Betty Allen (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1979 Leonard Slatkin St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Claudine Carlson (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1980 Claudio Abbado London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Elena Obraztsova (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1984 Riccardo Chailly Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus Irina Arkhipova (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1987 André Previn Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra,
Los Angeles Master Chorale
Christine Cairns (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1988 Neeme Järvi Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus Linda Finnie (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1991 Dmitri Kitayenko Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Lyudmila Shemchuk (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1992 Charles Dutoit Choeur et orchestre symphonique de Montréal Jard van Nes (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1992 Kurt Masur Gewandhausorchester Leipzig,
Latvija Choir
Carolyn Watkinson (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1993 Eduardo Mata Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Mariana Paunova (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1993 Zdeněk Mácal Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Janice Taylor (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1994 Semyon Bychkov Choeur et orchestre de Paris Marjana Lipovšek (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1994 Jean-Claude Casadesus Orchestre National de Lille,
Latvian State Choir
Ewa Podleś (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
1995 Yuri Temirkanov St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra,
Chorus of the St. Petersburg Teleradio Company,
Chamber Chorus of St. Petersburg,
St. Petersburg Chorus Capella "LIK"
Yevgeniya Gorokhovskaya (mezzo-soprano) Brohn
2002 Valery Gergiev Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
2002 Dmitry Yablonsky Russian State Symphony Orchestra,
Stanislavskiy Chorus
Irina Gelakhova (mezzo-soprano) Cantata
2003 Frank Strobel Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin,
Ernst Senff Chor
Marina Domashenko (mezzo-soprano) Film score



  1. ^ The score of Alexander Nevsky is published by Schirmer, ISBN 0-634-03481-2
  2. ^ Herbert Glass. "About the piece: Cantata, Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78". LA Phil. Retrieved December 17, 2011. 
  3. ^ Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis (2015: p. 28)
  4. ^ Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis (2015: p. 28)
  5. ^ Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis (2015: p. 28)
  6. ^ Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis (2015: p. 28)
  7. ^ Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis (2015: p. 30)
  8. ^ Kravetz (2010: p. 10)
  9. ^ Kravetz (2010: p. 6)
  10. ^ Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis (2015: p. 29)
  11. ^ Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis (2015: p. 30)
  12. ^ a b Sergei Prokofiev, "Can There Be an End to Melody?", Pioneer magazine (1939), translation in Sergei Prokofiev, Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences, compiled by S. Shlifstein, translated by Rose Prokofieva (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2000, ISBN 0-89875-149-7), 115–17 ).
  13. ^ Morrison (2009: pp. 228–9, 448)
  14. ^ Morag G. Kerr, "Prokofiev and His Cymbals", Musical Times 135 (1994), 608–609
  15. ^ Daniel Jaffe, BBC Prom concert programme, 29 July 2006, page 17
  16. ^ Morrison (2009: pg. 229)
  17. ^ Prokofiev (2000, p. 61)
  18. ^ Goberman, John (1995)


  • Bartig, Kevin. Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013
  • Goberman, John. Alexander Nevsky. Notes to RCA Red Seal CD 09026-61926-2, 1995
  • Kravetz, Nelly. An Unknown Ivan the Terrible Oratorio, Three Oranges Journal No. 19, 2010
  • Morrison, Simon. The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009
  • Prokofiev, Sergei. Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences, compiled by S. Shlifstein, translated by Rose Prokofieva. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2000, ISBN 0-89875-149-7
  • Sergei Prokofiev: Werkverzeichnis, Hamburg: Musikverlage Hans Sikorski, 2015

External links[edit]