On numerous occasions, cinema has resorted to classical music to reinforce particular narrative content or to prefigure a specific event. As happens, for example, in the beginning of 2001, A Space Odyssey, with the sound of the first bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Sometimes, composers appear in cinema as the objects of a biopic, as in the case of Mozart in the extremely famous Amadeus. However, it is less common to find composers in the actual production of a soundtrack, because it seems to be assumed that there is one type of composer for cinema and another for concert halls. Prime amongst the ranks of classical composers who have written music specifically for the cinema is Sergei Prokofiev, who composed the music for no less than six films, as well as two scores for films that were never made. Prokofiev’s history as a soundtrack composer is also interesting because of his links, in the period  before the Second World War, with two other important characters: Sergei Eisenstein and Josef Stalin.

Prokofiev and Eisenstein working on the production of <i>Alexander Nevsky</i>
Prokofiev and Eisenstein working on the production of Alexander Nevsky

When Stalin came to power in Russia, he subjected artistic creation to a politicised regime, according to which the artists were required to exalt their leaders and the people, showing the greatness of the working classes and of the state itself. All the artists were under an iron fist, made to produce works in a language accessible to the masses. In this order of things, foreign avant-garde influences were proscribed and Soviet art was isolated from international trends. To ensure the success of this enterprise, the authorities used terror, censorship, prohibition, condemnation and occasionally execution of anyone who did not comply with their demands.

One of the people most damaged by this process was Eisenstein, the lauded director of Battleship Potemkin. In 1937, Eisenstein was in the process of filming Bezhin Meadow when the authorities froze the project on grounds of it being “inartistic and politically without foundation”. This was a disaster in the career of the director and of his composer, Gavriil Popov, whose symphonic music had already been criticised and attacked by the regime. Prokofiev also was harassed by the state. Travelling through Europe and the United States, Prokofiev had already gained his place amongst the most famous composers of the 20th Century. Having decided to return to Russia – with the intention, however, of continuing his international career – he set up shop in Moscow. In 1938, however, the Soviet authorities confiscated his passport, and with it his hopes of leaving the country and continuing his lucrative American tour. Both Prokofiev and Eisenstein were regarded with suspicion as a result of their travels abroad, most particularly for their sojourns in the United States.

But those were by no means the only questions which preoccupied Stalin in the late 1930s. The  imminence of the Second World War and the dark menace of Germany required a major shoring up of the national spirit, and in the process of exaltation of the nation’s leadership and peoples, Stalin focused his gaze onto film as the medium through which to call the masses to attention. There was now an obvious choice: Eisenstein had to rehabilitated. Without further ado, the Politburo entrusted him with the task of creating a film on the subject of one of the greatest Russian national heroes, Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263), whose great achievement was to repel the Teutonic Knights, with the use of both valiant soldiers and numerous peasants. Given that the Teutons were German warrior monks, the film was to serve as propaganda in advance of any possible aggression on the part of Germany. The production company Mosfilm resumed work with its team after the disaster of Bezhin Meadow, but as Popov had been dismissed as a composer, it was Sergei Prokofiev who received the commission to compose the soundtrack, for the not insignificant sum of 25,000 roubles.

Nikolay Cherkasov as Alexander Nevsky in a frame from the film
Nikolay Cherkasov as Alexander Nevsky in a frame from the film

Prokofiev was not new to the business of film music. During his stay in the United States, he had been given the opportunity to visit Disney Studios. There, the sound engineers were able to record dialogue, music and sound effects on different tracks, later to be assembled in perfect synchronisation with the picture. On another occasion, in the course of a visit to the filming of Henry Hathaway’s 1938 Spawn of the North, Prokofiev had noted his impressions of the techniques for recording the soundtrack: the musicians played their scores closed in a soundproof booth, without listening to the rest of the orchestral music. This was knowledge not to be discarded lightly and accordingly, Eisenstein decided to involve Prokofiev in all aspects of the production of the film.

At the time, however, the Russian methods of recording and editing were substantially different from the American ones, and Prokofiev was not able to gain access to the possibilities available in the Hollywood studios. The poor recording quality is easy to hear in the original version of the film. Nevertheless, the composer managed to overcome the technical limitations to the greatest extent possible. For example, to intensify the repelling of the Teutonic knights, he placed the microphone immediately in front of the brass, producing a distorted sound which created highly dramatic effects.

Other aesthetic aspects were discussed during filming. Eisenstein thought that the era and the religious nature of the German invaders justified the inclusion of ancient liturgical chants for the scene of  the Battle of  the Ice. Prokofiev refused, considering that this ancient music was unknown to a 20th century audience and would therefore lack emotional impact. For describing the Russian defenders, he would compose music with which the people would identify, whereas the representation of the invaders required music that was repulsive, distorted; once again, he would achieve this by experimenting with instruments and microphones.

The première of the film on the 1st December 1938 turned the work of Eisenstein and Prokofiev (not to mention the superb director of photography Eduard Tisse) into a genuine blockbuster. Both received the approval of the regime and the film was one of the works honoured in the first set of Stalin Prizes, with Eisenstein himself receiving the award. Prokofiev did not win the prize; none the less, he later reworked the score into the form of a cantata, Alexander Nevsky, Op.78, which is now the version most commonly recorded and programmed in the concert hall.

After Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked together in two more films, the two parts of Ivan the Terrible, with contrasting results. The first part was much applauded, but the second did not receive Stalin’s approval, representing as it did a leader afflicted by mental illness and tyranny: it was consequently censored, and neither filmmaker nor composer live to see the results of this collaboration. It is believed that the two masters began preparation to collaborate on a new work, entitled The Love of a Poet, but this project never came to fruition owing to Eisenstein’s death on 11th February 1948. Boris Volsky, Eisenstein’s sound technician and also a composer, noted in his “Memories of S. S. Prokofiev” that Prokofiev never again accepted a commission to compose a soundtrack considering that his film career had “ended forever after the death of Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein”.


Translated from Spanish by David Karlin