Sergei's Big Score

Watching 'Alexander Nevsky' -- and listening to Prokofiev's music -- with ASO's Peter Bay

Russians and Germans face off in the climactic Battle on the Ice in <i>Alexander Nevsky.</i>
Russians and Germans face off in the climactic "Battle on the Ice" in Alexander Nevsky.

Great films deserve great music. When a movie is able to captivate us with the power and eloquence of its imagery, it's only right that it be matched with a score that does for the ear what the picture itself does for the eye. When a movie and score are of the same masterful quality and are in sync with each other, they evoke atmosphere, character, and feeling as one, a glorious cinematic whole that defies separation. Try to imagine Gone With the Wind without Max Steiner's soaring "Theme for Tara" or Psycho sans the slashing strings of Bernard Herrmann.

One of the earliest films to boast a memorable union of music and visuals was Alexander Nevsky, which paired the influential Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein with the esteemed composer Sergei Prokofiev. It was 1938, and Prokofiev had just returned from Hollywood where he was wooed by Walt Disney, among others, to join the ranks of Tiomkin, Steiner, and Korngold writing scores for American films. Instead, he chose to score a truly Russian film, the story of one of their homeland's national heroes, a 13th-century warrior duke who united his countrymen to crush a horde of invading Germanic crusaders. Despite the propagandistic nature of the project -- the film was meant to send a signal to the Germany of Mr. Hitler that invaders would be dealt with severely -- the film they created endures. Its combinations of vistas of the steppes with rousing choruses in praise of the motherland, of an epic battle between armored warriors on a frozen lake with clashes of thundering timpani and blasting brass, of a sober inspection of the battlefield with a stirring aria by a woman in search of her beloved, compel, thrill, inspire.

Austin Symphony conductor Peter Bay fell under the spell of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky score well before he saw the film for which it was written, having heard orchestras play the cantata that Prokofiev fashioned from the score the year after the film was made. But in college, when he was able to experience this score -- which he still calls "some of the most touching, exciting music I know" -- wedded to Eisenstein's monumental visuals, it only increased his affection for it. That's why three decades later, Bay will lead the Austin Symphony, Conspirare, and mezzo-soprano Rose Taylor in a live performance of the score for Alexander Nevsky as the film is shown at Bass Concert Hall. This is the fourth time he has conducted such a performance, further evidence of his regard for the work. With that in mind, we sat down and screened parts of Alexander Nevsky with him to learn more about this remarkable fusion of image and score and what's involved in performing it live.

As the film begins, Bay points out that the original version of the film had no music scored over the credits. But in 1986, when producer John Goberman conceived the idea of performing the Alexander Nevsky score with live orchestra and chorus while the movie was shown, he had orchestrator William Brohn salvage some of the cantata music that Prokofiev had not used in the film score and create an overture.

"This guy William Brohn," Bay notes, "who is known in New York as a great orchestrator and has done a lot of vocal arrangements for Dawn Upshaw and other people, he had to reconstruct a good third of the score, because the full score of the original film music is long missing." He opens a copy of the score. "The full printed score is all taken from the cantata, and everything that's handwritten is all stuff that he had to transcribe off the film."

On the screen, shots of broad landscapes have given way to the interior of the village of Pskov, where church bells are tolling. "For example, this cue, this bell cue, doesn't exist. It's missing, so he just transcribed it by ear. But he had to fill in certain places where it doesn't line up with the cantata. You see, he'd cut and paste to add this bar to make it line up with the film. Cantata, cantata, cantata, film, cantata, film. ... It's a massive reconstruction effort."

Bay pages through the open score. Every few bars of music, a notation shows the amount of time between musical cues in the film. Because Alexander Nevsky is a sound film, Bay has to be especially sensitive to the dialogue. "A voice cue will come up, and you have to cut off exactly one minute and two seconds before the next cue. That's why I watch the clock," he says, describing a large, old-fashioned timepiece with a sweeping second hand that will be visible to him from the podium. He looks at the screen, then points to the score. "I have to make sure I'm in this bar at 54 seconds."

Not everyone who has conducted the score along with the film -- and it has been performed numerous times now in this country and internationally -- has been so conscientious. "The first person ever to do it was Andre Previn," Bay says. "Now, this is someone who has written film scores and who loves Prokofiev, and John [Goberman] says that he was one of the worst conductors to do it. He didn't care much about the timing. He conducted it as if it was still the cantata. He couldn't divorce himself from doing the cantata." As Bay finishes relating this story, the current section of music ends. He glances at the score. "At this point, I've got four minutes and 10 seconds to hang out until the next cue," he quips.

Such start-and-stop conducting seems worlds away from the conducting of traditional orchestral scores, so with Alexander Nevsky is there any kind of emotional payoff for the guy with the baton?

Chart revealing just how closely Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked to fuse image and sound in <i>Alexander Nevsky</i>. For the Battle on the Ice, the timing of individual shots was worked out deliberately to correspond to the length of musical phrases.
Chart revealing just how closely Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked to fuse image and sound in Alexander Nevsky. For the "Battle on the Ice," the timing of individual shots was worked out deliberately to correspond to the length of musical phrases.

"In a sense there is," Bay replies, "because the music is so good. If it were any lesser of a score, it would not be worth it. But even to conduct this two or three minutes" -- an impossibly tender, wistful melody is carried by a few horns, then swells into orchestral splendor -- "is a wonderful experience."

And what specifically makes this a great score?

"I think the best film scores are the ones that can live without the image," Bay observes. "In other words, scores which don't just Mickey Mouse what's on the screen. The Aaron Copland scores are very much like that. On the Waterfront is like that. They have a life of their own, and also they seem to reflect the regular writing style of the composers. Take Dimitri Tiomkin, for example. Sometimes as good as the music is, it sounds like he could have used the music in another film and it wouldn't have made any difference. I have almost all of his writing on record or video, and I'm amazed at how similar all the scores sound. Giant sounds very much like one of the Tarzan movies he scored. You don't get much of the flavor of the action. This score, you feel the patriotism in the melodies. When people are singing, the melodies are simple. They're heartfelt. The battle scene is scored beautifully. Prokofiev uses the full resources of the orchestra. He uses leitmotifs. The Germans always sing this Latin text, and there's a certain fanfare that one hears, so even before the Germans actually show up on screen, you hear the fanfare, so you know they're coming. I think that's what makes this score really good."

As we skip ahead to the "Battle on the Ice," Bay talks about the way the music in Alexander Nevsky echoes Prokofiev's other works -- bits of melody that recall his ballet score for Romeo and Juliet or a bit of Peter and the Wolf -- and a distinctive kind of orchestration, heavy on the oboe ("There's something plaintive and soulful about an oboe, more so than clarinet") and prominent, though sometimes offbeat, percussion: a lot of woodblock, lots of chimes, sleigh bells, church bells, steel plates, even an anvil.

The screen comes up on the showdown between the noble Russians and the Teutonic invaders. "The battle scene is remarkable," says Bay. "It has what looks like thousands and thousands of people, animals, horses everywhere. How they coordinated all of that in 1938 is beyond me. I don't know if they had walkie-talkies then or bullhorns. I have no idea. Nevsky maneuvers the army onto the ice of this frozen river."

Asked if there were any other film scores by great composers before this, Bay responds that "this is one of the earliest. Most people point to this as being the trendsetter."

As the battle rages, the strings and percussion pick up the tempo like a racing pulse, and you can hear pieces of music that many a movie composer has lifted in the years since.

"Matter of fact," says Bay, "William Walton stole from this film for his Henry V score, for the Battle of Agincourt. In this, when the battle starts, there's a zhunka-zhunka-zhunka-zhunka bassline and a tuba solo that comes in, and Walton just stole it. His zhunka-zhunka-zhunka is exactly the same. More recently, James Horner has on three or four occasions almost stolen melodies or rhythms from this score."

The ice on the frozen river cracks, sending the German invaders to a cold and watery grave. When the last Teuton has slipped beneath the surface of the river, the image shifts to a still landscape under an overcast sky. Bay describes the scene: "This is the field of the dead. It's just after the battle is over. Here's an extraordinary camera shot of the camera just rolling along the ground, and you see whatever you would see if you were just walking -- dead bodies, shields -- and then one woman, alone, sings about how she's lost her loved one. The music is heartfelt, simple, but combined with the imagery, it's extraordinary. I don't know why this sounds Russian, what it is about the construction of the melody, but it sounds Russian. And these are all original melodies. It sounds like an old Russian lament, but it's all original. That's the beauty of it."

The battle won, Alexander leads his army, with a few surviving Germans as his prisoners, back to the village of Pskov. After the prisoners are judged and dispatched (i.e., ripped apart by a mob) and various lovers are reunited (yes, the film has romance, too, and a fair amount of humor), the movie closes on a shot of the villagers as a final chorus sings rapturously, "Sing and celebrate Russia, our motherland!"

"This is brilliant," Bay says as the chorus draws to its exultant close. "It was 1938, they were worried about the Germans. You have the masses there staring at the camera, with their swords, and in big letters across the screen: 'We shall never be defeated. Glory to the motherland!' I mean, it looks like it went past the movie to be a message for the viewer. Big message to the Nazis." end story


Alexander Nevsky will be shown with live accompaniment by the Austin Symphony and Conspirare on Friday and Saturday, May 23-24, at Bass Concert Hall. A preconcert talk will take place at Bass starting at 7:10pm. For more info, call 476-6064 or 888/4-MAESTRO or visit www.austinsymphony.org.

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