- Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky by Kevin Bartig
A product of collaboration between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergey Prokofiev, the film Alexander Nevsky [Aleksandr Nevskĭ] (1938) boasts a rich sociopolitical and cultural history. Those acquainted with the film are likely familiar with its status as an artifact of Soviet propaganda. With regard to Eisenstein, discussions of Nevsky, which was his first film in nearly a decade and his first contribution to the medium of sound film, often recount creative challenges experienced by the director that led to his complicity in propagating Party ideology as well as his role in helping to foster Joseph Stalin's association with heroic figures of Russia's distant past. Similarly, the discourse surrounding Prokofiev's role in the project frequently focuses on his efforts to cultivate a nationalist style appropriately accessible for Soviet audiences. Consequently, it is easy to perpetuate an overly simplified understanding of Alexander Nevsky founded on stereotypical images of the Soviet artist working under the burden of socialist realism. Fortunately, however, Kevin Bartig's Sergei Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky," which appears as part of the publisher's new Oxford Keynotes series, offers a more nuanced understanding of Prokofiev's music for the film in a multitude of new contexts.
Having written previously about Nevsky in Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), Bartig returns to and expands upon a number of topics in his new monograph. Among these are Prokofiev's concerns about the legitimacy of film music as serious art as well as its role in establishing a type of "light-serious" music (p. 18) [End Page 657] that would resonate with broad audiences. As a newly repatriated Soviet composer, Prokofiev was bound by the aesthetic demands of socialist realism, at the heart of which was a call for accessibility. Although his music had already undergone a process of simplification during the 1920s, ultimately yielding what he referred to as his "new simplicities," Prokofiev continued to weigh questions about whether he wanted to be identified with such music well into the next decade. Bartig underscores the fact that the lucrative potential offered by film indeed motivated the composer's continued interest in such projects as well. Eventually, Prokofiev came to terms with the idea of a "light-serious" style and carefully shaped the narrative surrounding his simplified musical style. Bartig reveals, however, that Prokofiev's concerns were consistent with and shared by other composers of the time. Citing the writings of Kurt Weill, Carlos Chávez, and Aaron Copland in particular, Bartig contextualizes the simplification of Prokofiev's compositional style as part of a greater trend among composers of the time. While individual motivations varied, he asserts that efforts of composers to cultivate an "accessible musical style was a common concern" during the period leading up to Alexander Nevsky and as such contributed to the work's "broad international resonance" (p. 20). In doing so, Bartig effectively redresses our understanding of Nevsky (and Prokofiev's Soviet works in general) as something other than political pandering.
Bartig also revisits Prokofiev's creation of a sonic backdrop for Alexander Nevsky. Throughout much of the film, the composer employs a sound palette that evokes various nineteenth-century Russian classics, in particular works by Mikhail Glinka, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Aleksandr Borodin. Such a strategy is easily understood as a response to the expectations of socialist realism, especially when considered in conjunction with the ideological conservatism that followed the infamous admonishment of Dmitrĭ Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District [Ledi Makbet uezda] in Pravda in January 1936. Bartig demonstrates, however, that rather than surrendering to the precepts of socialist realism, Prokofiev's music for Alexander Nevsky is consistent with Eisenstein's intentions. A patriotic film such as Nevsky requires music of a correspondingly patriotic nature. In the absence of historically appropriate models, Bartig points out that "as images of the thirteenth century flashed on...