The cantata Alexander Nevsky was composed on the basis of music for the eponymous film by Sergei Eisenstein which was released in 1938. The exceptional success that accompanied the film, comparable to that of Chapaev, allowed Prokofiev to create a work independent from the film music and take it to the stage of the concert hall, changing almost nothing in it apart from several details of the orchestration.
The “picture-like” and “visible” nature of the images is one of the typical features of Prokofiev’s music in general and of this work in particular. It is as if the audience “sees” what is happening onstage, even if behind the musical impressions there is no sense of watching a cinema film. In the structure of the cantata itself one can detect features of a symphonic poem in which the first movement is a prologue and the second and third are an exposition that embodies two opposing forces: that of the Russian heroes (represented by Alexander) and that of the Order of Livonian Knights. The fourth and fifth movements form a section in which the fifth movement – the battle scene on Lake Chudskoe – is the undoubted peak and central piece of the cantata as a whole. The sixth movement is an episode of lament for fallen warriors, the only solo section (for mezzo-soprano) in the entire work. And lastly there is the seventh movement – the finale, a reprise, the celebration and triumph of the Russian warriors who are victorious.
Ivan the Terrible was the second joint project between Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Eisenstein. Following the triumphant success of Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein conceived a new film that was made even more intense thanks to the music of his genius collaborator. “My comrade composer may have tremendous freedom in all directions” he immediately informed Prokofiev. Work progressed during the war. The lyrics, as with Alexander Nevsky, were written by the semi-disgraced poet Vladimir Lugovskoi (the text of the work was written by Eisenstein himself).
The score was grandiose. In 1997 Marina Rakhmanova and Irina Medvedeva published all surviving parts of the manuscript of the music for Ivan the Terrible – almost forty episodes and a further twelve Orthodox canticles that were incorporated into the film. But Prokofiev did not transform this score into an oratorio, cantata or concert suite. Possibly a fateful role was played by the ban on a sequel to the film and Eisenstein’s death shortly afterwards.
In 1958 Abram Stasevich – a cellist, conductor and composer who wrote music for the film – produced an oratorio from Prokofiev’s materials. He enhanced the form by uniting some episodes and repeating others, while he also significantly altered the orchestration, as the composer’s original to a great extent was aimed at producing mixing effects (Prokofiev compiled incredibly detailed instructions for the sound technician). Since then, other “performance versions” of Ivan the Terrible have appeared, but it is Stasevich’s version, first performed in 1961 and printed in 1962, that remains the most frequently performed.