Lieutenant Kijé (Prokofiev)

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From a poster advertising the 1934 film Lieutenant Kijé

Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé (Russian: Поручик Киже, Poruchik Kizhe) was originally written as musical accompaniment to the film of the same name, produced by the Belgoskino studios in Leningrad in 1933–34 and released in March 1934. It was Prokofiev's first attempt at film music, and his first commission from within the Soviet Union which he had left shortly after the 1917 October Revolution. After the film's release, Prokofiev adapted the music into what became a popular orchestral suite.

In the early days of sound cinema, various distinguished composers were ready to try their hand at film music, among whom Prokofiev was not an obvious choice for the Russian film industry. When he was invited to write the Kijé music he had been based in Paris for more than a decade, and had acquired a reputation for experimentation and dissonance, characteristics at odds with the prevailing cultural norms of the Soviet regime. By this time, however, Prokofiev was anxious to return to his homeland, and saw the film commission as an opportunity to write music in a more popular and accessible style.

After the film's successful release, the five-movement Kijé suite, Op. 60, was first performed in December 1934, and quickly became part of the international concert repertoire. It has remained one of the composer's best-known and most frequently recorded works. Elements of the suite's score have been used in several later films, and in two best-selling songs of the Cold War era.

Background[edit]

Expatriate composer[edit]

Prokofiev in 1921, drawn by Henri Matisse

The Ukrainian-born Sergei Prokofiev graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1914, having by then acquired an early reputation as an avant-garde composer.[1] His biographer Israel Nestyev asserts that the Second Piano Concerto of 1913 was "Prokofiev's ticket of admission to the highest circles of Russian modernism".[2]

When the First World War broke out in August 1914 Prokofiev avoided military service, possibly because he was the only son of a widow. During the war years he continued to compose; in May 1918, in the period of upheaval following the October Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, Prokofiev obtained permission from the revolutionary government to travel abroad, and left for America.[3] His biographers have maintained that he did not "flee the country"; rather that he embarked on a concert tour, which he extended when he became convinced that his career prospects would be better served in America and Europe.[3][4] He remained in America until March 1922; he thern stayed briefly in the small German town of Ettal before moving to Paris in October 1923.[5]

The Russian government, rather than treating Prokofiev as a fugitive or exile, chose to consider him as a general ambassador for Soviet culture,[6] and the composer returned the compliment by registering in France as a citizen of the Soviet Union – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or "Soviet Union", had been established in Moscow on 20 December 1922 by the states of the former Russian empire.[7] Prokofiev expressed support for the political developments in what he still considered his homeland, and was keen to resume contacts there.[8] He was accorded VIP status when he paid his first visit to the Soviet Union in 1927, for a recital tour. Further visits followed, and in 1930 Prokofiev took a flat in Moscow, although Paris remained his principal home. During this period of rapprochement he consciously sought to simplify his musical language into a form that he believed would be consistent with the official Soviet concept of art.[8]

Growth of film music[edit]

In the first years of the silent film era, from the 1890s, films were generally accompanied by live music, often improvised, provided by piano or pump organ. In the early twentieth century, larger cinemas began to use orchestras, which would accompany the film with out-of-copyright classical pieces or, increasingly, with original compositions. The score for the 1916 classic The Birth of a Nation, compiled by Joseph Carl Breil from various classical works and some original writing, was a landmark in film music, and inspired notable composers of the day to provide scores for silent films. Among these were the Americans Victor Herbert and Mortimer Wilson, from France Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger, and the Germans Gottfried Huppertz and Edmund Meisel.[9]

In 1927 developments in sound technology brought the arrival of "talking pictures". In these, accompanying music was originally recorded on disc, separately from the film images, but within two years the "Movietone" system enabled sound to be captured on the film itself.[10] Music could now be aligned specifically with the film's on-screen action—the so-called "diegetic" approach. Early pioneers of this method were the Germans Friedrich Hollaender and Karol Rathaus, who provided the music for The Blue Angel (1930) and The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov (1931) respectively.[11] By this time, in the Soviet Union the young Dimitri Shostakovich had already begun his prolific career as a composer of film sound-tracks, with The New Babylon in 1929 and Alone in 1931.[11][12] In 1932 the Belgoskino film studios, when planning their proposed film Lieutenant Kijé turned to the expatriate Prokofiev for the film's score. Prokofiev accepted the commission enthusiastically; this would be his first Soviet project, and his first venture into film music.[13] In some respects Prokofiev was a surprising choice; he was at this stage better known abroad than in the Soviet Union, and had acquired a reputation for dissonance. Moreover, his ballet Le pas d’acier had failed badly at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1929.[14]

1933 film[edit]

Tsar Paul I

Inception[edit]

The film Lieutenant Kijé was one of the earliest sound films made in the Soviet Union.[14] The origin of the story was a 1927 screenplay by the critic and novelist Yury Tynyanov, written for the Soviet film director Sergei Yutkevich. This project failed, and Tinyanov recast his script into a novella that was published in January 1928. In the early 1930s, when the Belgoskino studios in Leningrad announced their interest in making the film, Tynyanov produced a second script.[15] The story has been described by Prokofiev's biographer Harlow Robinson as "a satire on the stupidity of royalty and the particularly Russian terror of displeasing one's superior".[13] By his own account Prokofiev was at this time "restive, and afraid of falling into academism";[16] the Kijé story provided ideal material for a composer of his caustic wit and sharp humour.[17]

Plot[edit]

In the Russian Imperial Palace, while Tsar Paul I sleeps, a dalliance between two courtiers ends with a shriek which wakens the tsar. Enraged, he demands that his officials produce the culprit or face banishment for life. Meanwhile, a clerk's slip of the pen while compiling a military duty roster, results in the inclusion in the list of a fictitious officer, "Lieutenant Kijé". When the tsar inspects the list he is intrigued by this name, and asks that the officer be presented to him. The court officials are too terrified of the tsar to admit that a mistake has been made, and are in a dilemma until it occurs to them to blame "Kijé" for the nocturnal disturbance. They inform the tsar, who duly orders the imaginary lieutenant flogged and sent to Siberia.

When the real culprit confesses, Kijé is pardoned by the tsar and reinstated in the imperial court with the rank of colonel. The courtiers, in fear of the tsar, are forced to extend their creation's phantom career; thus, he supposedly marries the princess Gagarina, after which the tsar grants him lands and money and promotes him to general and commander of the army. When Paul demands Kijé's immediate presence, the cornered officials announce that "General Kijé" has, unfortunately, died. A ceremonial funeral is held with full military honours. The parsimonious tsar demands the return of Kijé's fortune, but is told by the courtiers that Kijé has spent the money on high living—in fact, they have stolen it. The tsar denounces Kijé as a thief, and posthumously demotes him from general to private.

Music[edit]

Despite his lack of experience in writing film music, Prokofiev began his Kijé score confidently, later writing: "I somehow had no doubts whatever about the musical language for the film".[18] The language he chose combined elements of humour and romance with an underlying melancholy—he interpreted the story as more tragic than comic.[13] In Paris in 1928, Prokofiev had heard Ravel's Boléro, and had been much impressed by the French composer's use of the saxophone, an instrument then rarely used in orchestral compositions outside France but which suited Prokofiev'a intentions perfectly.[19] The composer Gerard McBurney has drawn attention to the "haunting sounds of the tenor saxophone" that punctuate the Kijé music.[17]

The critic Ernest Chapman refers to Prokofiev's "unfailingly witty and melodious score".[20] It comprises only about 15 minutes of music, written as a series of 16 short fragments or leitmotifs which are repeated at appropriate times during the film's duration, to highlight specific moments in the drama.[14][21] This approach was a departure in film music from the established form of broad symphonic movements, and was described by Prokofiev's biographer Daniel Jaffe as "well ahead of its time ...one of the most celebrated [film scores] of that era".[14]

Production and reception history[edit]

The film, directed by Alexander Feinzimmer, was made in Leningrad at the Belgoskino studios, where the music was recorded under the direction of Isaak Dunayevsky. The Moscow premiere was held on 7 March 1934; after which the film was released in London as The Tsar Wants to Sleep and in Paris as Le Lieutenant Nantes.[22][21] Prokofiev did not rate the film highly, although he was pleased with his music.[23] After the New York release in December 1934, the New York Times critic described the film as "calculated to entertain lovers of detail and genuine atmosphere in semi-historical films. Even the introduction of a little slapstick comedy seems quite in keeping with the Russian tradition." Prokofiev's contribution to the film is not acknowledged in this review.[24]

Suite[edit]

Composition[edit]

Soon after the film's release, Prokofiev received an invitation from the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra to create an orchestral suite from his Kijé film music[21]—probably the first instance of a film score being adapted into a significant musical work.[25] The guiding light behind the invitation was Boris Gusman, the assistant director of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and a leading film critic. Gusman was a strong supporter of Prokofiev's ambition to rehabilitate himself in the Soviet Union, and had negotiated with the Moscow orchestra for a series of concerts that would showcase the returned composer's talent.[21]

Prokofiev's task was not straightforward; the 15 minutes of the film's musical material was fragmentary, and scored for a small chamber orchestra.[21] According to Prokofiev's own account, producing the suite was "a devilish job",[26] which, he said, "gave me much more trouble than the music for the film itself, since I had to find the proper form, re-orchestrate the whole thing, polish it up and even combine some of the themes."[18] Nevertheless, he worked quickly, and had finished the piece by 8 July 1934.[27] Because the work was published by Prokofiev's regular music publisher in Paris, the French form of "Kijé" rather than the Russian "Kizhe" was adopted in the work's title.[21]

Musical forces[edit]

According to Douglas Lee's commentary,[27] the Kijé suite requires: baritone voice (optional); piccolo; two flutes; two oboes; two clarinets; two bassoons; tenor saxophone; four horns; cornet; two trumpets; three trombones; tuba; bass drum; snare drum; triangle; cymbals; tambourine; sleigh bells; celesta; piano; harp

Structure and themes[edit]

Structure[edit]

The five movements of the suite are organised and titled as follows:

Birth of Kijé[edit]

A distant, mournful fanfare (A), played on a cornet representing a bugle, is followed by a brisk military march initiated by a duet for side drum and piccolo (B).[14] A passage for brass precedes the introduction of a theme or leitmotif associated with the phantom Kijé which, after a reprise of the march and a C major crescendo, is repeated on tenor saxophone, an instrument relatively new to the orchestra at that time.[28] The cornet fanfare then returns to close the movement.[14]

Romance[edit]

The principal theme for this movement (C) is based on an old song, "The little grey dove is cooing", for which Prokofiev provided an optional vocal part for baritone voice.[29] The song theme is developed using a range of instruments, before giving way to a second theme introduced by the tenor saxophone; this in turn is replaced, as the movement draws to its close, with the return of the "little grey dove" tune, now ornamented by birdsong.[28]

Kijé’s Wedding[edit]

The movement begins and is regularly visited by a broad, ceremonial and somewhat pompous melody (D), played on brass and woodwind.[14] In between these formal-sounding statements are a cheerful cornet solo and various elaborations and variations on the Kijé theme,[28] which together give the movement a celebratory feel, both boisterous and sentimental.[16]

Troika[edit]

A troika, a traditional Russian sled combination

The principal melody in this movement (E) is taken from an old Hussar song, which first appears in a slow and somewhat dissonant statement.[28] After this beginning, the pace quickens: sleigh bells, rapid pizzicato strings and piano combine to give the impression of a fast winter's journey by means of the troika, a traditional Russian three-horse sled.[14] The ride is interrupted at regular intervals by the song theme, which brings the movement to its close with a slow repetition of its final phrase.[28]

The Burial of Kijé[edit]

This final movement is largely a melange of earlier themes, a series of reminiscences of Kijé's imaginary life.[28] The opening cornet fanfare returns, as does Kijé’s leitmotif,[14] together with "the little grey dove", this time intertwined with the wedding music.[28] In what Orrin Howard in a programme note for The Los Angeles Philharmonic describes as "a wistful, touching farewell", the music reaches its conclusion with a distant rendition of the fanfare.[16]

Themes[edit]

  • (A) Opening fanfare:  \relative c'' { \key d \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "Andante assai" 4=60 \clef treble a4.\p-- d8-- fis2-- | e8( cis a4) fis'( d8.) r16 | a4.-- d8-- fis2-- | e8( b cis4) d2\>~ | d1\! }
  • (B) March:  \relative c''' { \key bes \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "Andante" 4=80 \partial 4*1 bes4\p_"dolce"( | f4.) bes8( f bes f ges | aes4 ges8 f ges4 bes | f1) }
  • (C) Romance ("The little gray dove"):  \relative c' { \key g \minor \tempo "Andante" 4=68 \clef bass \time 4/4 g4\mp-- d'-- c8([ bes)] a([ g)] | f--[ g16( a bes8) a--] g4( d) | d-- a'-- g8( a) bes-- c( | d) ees-.-- d-.-- c-.-- d4.-- r8 }
  • (D) Wedding:  \relative c'{\clef treble \key ees \major \tempo "Allegro fastoso" 2=84 \numericTimeSignature \time 2/2 ees2->\f g4--_"pesante" aes-- | bes-- g-- c4.->^"ten." bes8 | bes4-- g-- c4.->^"ten." bes8 | bes2 }
  • (E) Troika:  \relative c' { \clef bass \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "Allegro con brio" 4=152 \key d \major \partial 4*1 a\f | d8->([ cis)] b([ cis)] d4-. b-. | a-- b-- fis8-. r a4 | b8( a g4) d'-.-- cis8( d) | a2~ a8 r }

Performance and adaptation history[edit]

Boston Opera House, where the 1942 ballet version was first shown

Prokofiev conducted the first performance of the suite, in a broadcast by Moscow radio on 21 December 1934.[25] The piece received its American premiere on 14 October 1937, when Serge Koussevitsky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra;[30] this performance formed the basis of the first commercial recording of the work, issued in the following year.[31] The suite rapidly gained popularity, particularly in the United States; on 23 January 1942 the choreographer Michel Fokine produced it as a ballet, at the Boston Opera House.[32] A further ballet version was devised for Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet in 1963, by Alexander Lapauri and Olga Tarasova.[33]

In his Essential Canon of Classical Music (2001), David Dubal remarks on how the Kijé music has thrived in popular culture: "Bits and pieces are used everywhere".[34] Having begun life as a 1930s film soundtrack, parts of the suite began to appear in later films, such as the British The Horse's Mouth (1958),[35] and Woody Allen's 1975 parody on Russian literature, Love and Death.[36] In the world of pop music, the "Troika" movement has been adapted several times, beginning in 1958 as "Midnight Sleighride", a jazz band arrangement by Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan.[37] In 1975 the "Troika" formed the basis of a best-selling rock song, Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas",[14] and in 1985 the main theme from the "Romance" movement was used in Sting's anti-war song "Russians".[38]

Recordings[edit]

The 1938 performance of the suite by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on 78rpm discs,[31] provided the only commercially available recording until the advent of the LP era in the 1950s;[39] a performance by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner in January 1945 was not issued until many years later.[40] In 1951 Capitol issued Hermann Scherchen's recording of the suite with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra,[41] since which many recordings of the work have been issued under a variety of labels. The version with baritone voice has rarely found its way on to disc; Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Andrei Laptev (2010, Exton) is a recent example.[42] A DVD of the Bolshoi Ballet production, featuring Raisa Struchkova and Vladimir Vasiliev was released in 2007.[43]

Notes and references[edit]

Citations[edit]

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