Before MTV, there was 'Nevsky'

June 21, 1995

Surely one of the more unusual programs the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has offered in recent years was last week's performance of Prokofiev's classic score to "Alexander Nevsky," the 1938 film by director Sergei Eisenstein that has been called the world's first music video. Music lovers who attended this rare event -- the BSO played the score as the movie was shown on a screen suspended from the ceiling of Meyerhoff Hall -- heard a masterpiece: the only soundtrack ever to become part of the regular symphonic repertoire.

Yet the historical circumstances that produced "Nevsky" are nearly as interesting as the movie itself, given today's rancorous debate over the state of American arts and the many misguided efforts to make creative expression conform to the narrow requirements of "political correctness." "Nevsky" sheds a fascinating light on the pitfalls of government meddling in the creative process.

In 1938, Stalin wanted a propaganda piece against the Nazis. So Prokofiev and Eisenstein based their story on a 13th-century prince who routed Teutonic invaders in one of the decisive battles of Russian history. The title character became a benevolent despot with a curious resemblance to the Soviet dictator, while the German hordes clearly stood for Hitler's Wehrmacht.

The film was a tremendous success at its premier. Prokofiev and Eisenstein's collaboration was hailed as a landmark of Russian cinema in an era when Soviet artists labored literally on pain of death to tread the orthodoxy enforced by Stalin's thought police. Yet "Nevsky's" very success made it the exception which proved the rule that the heavy hand of government on a nation's cultural life invariably leads to artistic stagnation and decline.

A year after "Nevksy" opened, Stalin's cynical pact with Hitler suddenly left Eisenstein, who had been awarded the Order of Lenin for the film, persona non grata. He never completed another film and died a broken man in 1948. The great director's death marked the end of Russia's artistic preeminence in European cinema.

Prokofiev was restored to official favor after 1941. But he never recovered from the blow he suffered when "Nevsky" was withdrawn. Perhaps rather than leave the kind of flawed, compromised legacy Soviet totalitarianism forced on younger composers like Shostakovich, he chose to retreat and play it safe, thus ending his significant creative life many years before Stalin's death on March 4, 1953 -- and his own, in Moscow, the next day.

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