'Alexander Nevsky' shows different side of Prokofiev

June 14, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

`TC This week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra takes its audience to the movies. In the final concerts of the regular subscription season, the orchestra, the BSO chorus and associate conductor David Lockington will provide the soundtrack to a restored print of Sergei Eisenstein's epic "Alexander Nevsky" -- the music Sergei Prokofiev wrote when he and Eisenstein collaborated on the film in 1938.

Symphony orchestras throughout the United States are trying to resuscitate concertgoing with visual aids, but this "concert" is more than a stunt aimed at a television-age audience. Most music lovers are familiar with Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" as the frequently performed secular cantata that the BSO programmed as recently as a few seasons back.

But while many of them may know that Prokofiev fashioned his popular score from the music he created for the film, most of them do not realize how closely the composer worked with Eisenstein, whose films -- along with those of Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, Jean Renoir and a few others -- created the visual grammar of the movies and whose footprints are obvious in the work of directors as diverse as Mel Gibson (in the current "Braveheart"), Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Brian De Palma and Woody Allen.

Classical music began going to the movies as far back as the silent film era. The great movie palaces built in the 1920s employed orchestras -- smaller theaters used pianos and pipe organs -- and composers as famous as Arthur Honegger (for Abel Gance's "Napoleon") and Darius Milhaud (for Marcel L'Herbier's "L'Inhumaine") wrote scores for the silents. In the first few decades of the sound era, German emigre composers such as Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner filled Hollywood films with music that sounded very much like Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Wagner.

Later film scores were to use 20th-century composers' styles for films: Aaron Copland's to suggest the image of America, past and present; Arnold Schoenberg's to evoke eeriness and violence; and Stravinsky's (particularly that of the "Rite of Spring") for terror and brutality. But composers traditionally served the dramatic, visual and psychological intent of the film. While the score immeasurably enhanced the film, the listener was never aware of it as music.

In "Nevsky," Eisenstein and Prokofiev (in a collaboration that continued in the two films that constitute "Ivan the Terrible," Parts I and II) were after something different -- a film that would create what the director called the "complete congruence" of the audio and visual.

The partners could not have been better suited for each other. Eisenstein was as knowledgeable about the poems of Milton and Pushkin, the novels of Kafka and Tolstoy, and the music of Bach and Beethoven as he was about montage. Prokofiev loved movies, and his compositional technique -- he was more comfortable writing in episodes than in large symphonic movements -- was tailor-made for film. He had written for the movies as early as 1933 in the Soviet-made "Lt. Kije" (from which he fashioned his popular suite of that name). And on his last trip to the United States in 1938, Prokofiev met Walt Disney and was offered a job -- at $2,500 a week -- to write music for the Disney studio.

It was an offer he could not accept-- after long exile, he had gone back to the Soviet Union in 1936, where his wife and sons were held hostage for his return. But he probably could not have written music as great as what he contributed to "Nevsky" and "Ivan" had he remained in Hollywood.

In America, film composers were dismissed as "commercial" and "popular"; in Soviet Russia, they were highly esteemed. Lenin had called film "the most important art," and Prokofiev was only ++ one of many "serious" composers who were intrigued by the possibility of reaching millions of people through the movies.

During the filming of "Nevsky," Prokofiev enjoyed luxuries seldom, if ever, afforded his American counterparts. There were even occasions when Eisenstein, who adored Prokofiev and his work, would cut shots to the music the composer had already written.

Both men had a lot riding on the project. The director had fallen out of favor with Stalin, who distrusted Eisenstein because he was a Jew and because he was popular in the United States, and he had not been permitted to complete a film since 1929. As a recent returnee from the West, the cosmopolitan Prokofiev was also distrusted. That is why they picked a project they were confident would please the dictator -- the story of the heroic Prince of Novgorod, whose defeat of invading Teutonic Knights had preserved Russia in 1242.

In his megalomania, Stalin identified with Alexander because he liked to see himself as the latest in the line of Russia's saviors. And the story had topical appeal because Russia was once more threatened by the Germans, this time by Hitler's Nazi hordes.

Although the film was withdrawn in 1939-1941, the years of the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact, the film made Stalin very happy -- Eisenstein and Nikolai Cherkassov, "Nevsky's" leading man, were awarded the Order of Lenin, and Prokofiev's music was lavishly praised.

Prokofiev and Eisenstein were to work again on the even greater "Ivan the Terrible." But that artistically more ambitious and much more honest movie -- this time the Stalin figure (Ivan) was not portrayed as a selfless hero but as a complex figure who descends into power-crazed, homicidal paranoia -- destroyed Eisenstein's reputation (he died a broken man two years later in 1948) and did irreparable harm to Prokofiev's.

"Ivan" was to be his last picture.

BSO AT THE MOVIES

What: The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform Prokofiev's film score at a screening of Sergei Eisenstein's film "Alexander Nevsky"

When: 8:15 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and Saturday

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $17-$48

$ Call: (410) 783-8000

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