Medieval Heroes, a Betrayed Husband and a Battle on the Ice
Notes on Works by Borodin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev
From Paris to the world: Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances
As founder and guiding spirit of the circle of five composers who went down in music history as “The Mighty Handful” (or “The Five”), the St Petersburg music critic Vladimir Stasov frequently directed the interest of his protégés to fairy tales, legends and historical material in which they could find inspiration for their works. For example, in 1869 he called Alexander Borodin’s attention to The Lay of Igor’s Host: an anonymous, 218-line medieval epic poem depicting the military campaign of Prince Igor Sviatoslavich of Novgorod-Seversk against the khan of the Kipchaks in 1185. Borodin wrote his own libretto based on the poem and enthusiastically set to work on the opera, but when he died 18 years later Knyaz’ Igor’ (Prince Igor)was still unfinished. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov expanded and completed the fragment for the premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 4 November 1890. The splendid ballet music from the second act had been completed, though, and became famous under the title Polovtsian Dances after Sergei Diaghilev presented it with his Ballets Russes in the choreography of Michel Fokine on 19 May 1909 during his fourth “Russian season” at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
“Polovtsian” or “Polovtsi” (“inhabitants of the steppes”) is the ancient name of the Muslim Turkic peoples of the Kipchaks, or Cumans, who lived primarily on the Volga and in the steppes of Ukraine during the 11th and 12th centuries until they were gradually driven further west by the Mongols and Tatars. Their khans repeatedly waged wars against the Kievan Rus’, but Igor’s campaign became especially well-known from The Lay of Igor’s Host.
In the Polovtsian Dances Borodin does not quote original melodies or dances but works with characteristic woodwind solos (clarinet, oboe and English horn), scales and harmonies – open fifths, augmented seconds, chromatic melismas and drone-like ostinatos – which were regarded as symbols of “oriental” exoticism throughout Europe.
Blossoms instead of murder: Rachmaninov’s cantata Spring
Just as the triumphant march of the Polovtsian Dances through the world’s concert halls began with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes performance in Paris, Sergei Rachmaninov’s cantata Vesna (Spring) was also brought to the French capital by Diaghilev. For the five concerts billed as “Russian Music Through the Ages” which the legendary impresario presented during his second Russian season at the Paris Opéra in May 1907, the 63-year-old Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov even came to conduct several concerts. The Parisian public heard two other prominent Russians: Rachmaninov and the bass Feodor Chaliapin. In a concert conducted by Camille Chevillard, the cantata and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto were on the programme, with the composer himself at the piano.
The literary source for the cantata is the poem Zelyonyi shum (“Green Rustle”) by Nikolai Nekrasov, published in 1863, which describes the desire for revenge of a betrayed husband. All winter long he thinks he hears a voice in the howling of the wind, calling to him: “Kill the faithless one!” The knife is ready – until at the close the “green rustle” of the approaching spring dissuades him from his murderous plans. The fact that the 28-year-old Rachmaninov set these lines in January and February 1902 – a few months before his marriage to Natalia Satina – and that Nekrasov’s adulteress is also called Natalia may seem somewhat disconcerting. On the other hand, the music, with its naturalistic, mystical E major at the beginning and the end, exudes an altogether positive atmosphere, which is rather unusual for the composer, who had an inclination towards the depressive key of D minor and ostinato Dies Irae quotations. The rocking quaver motif, with which the bassoons, cellos and double basses begin the cantata in Allegro moderato above a muted tremolo in the violas, runs like a central thread through the entire work, which is quite operatic in style.
By one of the “most wonderful film composers”: Prokofiev’s music for Alexander Nevsky
Sergei Prokofiev had already composed his first film score for Alexander Fainzimmer’s Lieutenant Kijé in 1933 when Sergei Eisenstein commissioned him to write the music for his Alexander Nevsky in 1938. The director had previously worked with other composers – Edmund Meisel for Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) and Gavril Popov for Bezhin Meadow(1935-1937), which remained a fragment – but in the end was obviously not happy with their works. Eisenstein himself commented on how different the collaboration with Prokofiev was six years later on Ivan the Terrible: “Nothing ephemeral, nothing accidental. Everything clear, exact, perfect. That is why Prokofiev is not only one of the greatest composers of our time, but, in my opinion, also the most wonderful film composer.”
Like Borodin’s Prince Igor, Alexander Nevskyalso depicts an event from early Russian history: the battle of the Novgorod princes against the Teutonic knights who had invaded Russia, plundering, murdering and pillaging under the sign of the cross. Although the Mongols – under whose yoke Russia had already suffered during many years of occupation – had met with little resistance until then, on 5 April 1242 Alexander finally managed to unite the feuding Russian princes and with a combined army lured the troops of the Teutonic knights onto the frozen Lake Peipus, situated between Estonia and Russia, where the knights broke through the ice with their horses and heavy armour and were decisively defeated. The fact that, against the backdrop of the impending war, the film was highly charged politically was also obvious in the epilogue: “He who comes with a sword dies by the sword. On this Russia stands and will stand forever.” It is no wonder that the film, which had its premiere at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre on 23 November 1938, vanished again from Soviet cinemas immediately after the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on 24 August 1939. The same fate also befell the seven-movement cantata, op. 78, which Prokofiev had adapted from his film score and conducted the premiere of in Moscow on 17 May 1939.
The film music and cantata correspond with each other almost note for note, although several specific effects from the soundtrack had to be altered. That included, in particular, the technique of “inverted instrumentation”, which Prokofiev had devised expressly for the recording of the film. For example, he placed the bassoon directly in front of the microphone but had the louder brass play from 20 metres away, shifting it into the acoustical background. Particularly effective and impressive was the congruence between Eisenstein’s montage technique, assembled from innumerable cuts, and the music. That is demonstrated especially in the fifth movement of the cantata, which provides the musical accompaniment to the battle on Lake Peipus. The first film sequence lasts a good seven minutes and consists of 54 camera angles with lengths ranging from 2 to 22 seconds. In this movement Prokofiev succeeds in building up an atmospheric tension that never seems “collaged” or “montaged”, yet captures the visual rhythm of the film cut by cut. In the second section – the actual battle – the sinister “Peregrinus” chant of the Teutonic knights, an ostinato equestrian theme and a folk song theme associated with Nevsky’s army form a kind of triple counterpoint, giving this movement of the cantata – at approximately 13 minutes, the longest – a dramaturgical force so powerful that one no longer needs images to be caught up in its wake.