I have three DVDs sitting on my desk waiting for me to have time for a Russian film festival. I’m not sure if this will happen over one long afternoon, or over three separate nights. I stumbled upon these films because the music for each, was composed by some of my favorite Russian composers. Being a composer, or artist of any sort, in Stalinist Russia was an absolute nightmare. More accurately, being a human being in Stalinist Russia was an absolute nightmare, and being a composer was no exception. There was no such thing as due process under the law, nor freedom of speech, nor so many of the things I take for granted as a citizen of a free country. There were several “purges” over the time Stalin was in power, whereby people who showed opposition to the Party, or some undesirable trait, were rounded up and imprisoned or killed. Many people disappeared in the night, never heard from by their families ever again. Writers, artists and composers were under a certain scrutiny because their work had a public voice. Censorship happened by the whim of government officials, as well as self-censorship by artists themselves hoping not to attract negative attention.
Composers seemed to fall in an out of Stalin’s favor with the changing of the weather. The Communist Party needed music, writing, and film that fell in line with the propaganda messages they wanted to spread. Works of art that spread an unapproved viewpoint were condemned. When composers were on the bad side of the Party, they could hardly get a performance of their works. They often were forced into “hack” work to survive, things like churning out film scores very quickly. Every once in a while, however, the music they turned out for a film proved to be a real gem. Three of these treasures are found in the DVDs on my desk right now.
I’d like to write about one of the films in this post. It is a film I have seen before, although it has been a long time. Alexander Nevsky is a 1938 historical drama directed by Sergei Eisenstein, with music by Sergei Prokofiev. It is often included on lists of the 100 greatest films, and truly is a powerful work. Prince Alexander Nevsky is a legendary Russian figure, and the film is set in the year 1242 during a time when Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire are planning and attempting an invasion of Novgorod. Nevsky is a fisherman at the beginning of the film, but rises courageously to motivate the Russian people and lead them in battle against the invaders. There is a classic battle scene played out on a frozen lake, one which begins with ever rising suspense as the enemy is first seen way off in the distance. The invading Knights are a huge army, and Prokofiev’s music helps build the rising tension as they grow closer and closer until the armies clash together.
In 1938 political tensions were very high as Hitler was coming to power in Nazi Germany. The Alexander Nevsky story, with a brave Russian hero defeating an invading army, was something that Stalin could get behind. It was a message the Communist Party could approve of, and the director Eisenstein won a Stalin prize for the film in 1941. Prokofiev was quite pleased with the music, and extracted much of it for a concert work he called the Alexander Nevsky cantata Op. 78. This cantata is one of the few examples of film music that has actually made it into the standard repertoire. I would get a ticket to see the cantata version in concert anytime I had the opportunity. One thing I am unable to judge, is how it would be to listen to the music without knowing the film first. The music certainly is of great depth and stands on its own very well. I personally knew the film before the cantata, so I always have a memory of where in the film the music was originally placed.
The other two films in my Russian film festival have scores by Dmitri Shostakovich, and I hope to write about them in a future post.