Monday, October 23, 2006

Alexander Nevsky.

This past Saturday I joined three other Ciszekians for a night at Lincoln Center, where we saw and heard the New York Philharmonic perform Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky - not Prokofiev's cantata of that name, but the seldom-performed film score that Prokofiev wrote for Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 movie about the legendary 13th-century battle between Russian forces commanded by Prince Alexander Nevsky and the invading knights of the Teutonic Order (an order that exists to this very day). So that the audience could see the visuals meant to accompany Prokofiev's music, Eisenstein's film was projected in Avery Fisher Hall during the Philharmonic's performance.

Having the chance to see Alexander Nevsky at the same time as I heard the score was a great treat for me. Prokofiev is one of my favorite composers, and I love his cantata "Alexander Nevsky." Before Saturday evening, I hadn't heard the longer score on which the cantata is based, nor had I seen Eisenstein's film. My reaction to the music was positive - compared with the cantata, the score of Alexander Nevsky only offers more of a good thing. I had a mixed reaction to the film itself. On the positive side, Eisenstein's thrilling visuals are a great match for Prokofiev's music. Nonetheless, in some ways the film hasn't aged well. Despite impressive production values and fine editing, the film's stilted dialogue and blatantly obvious intent as a work of Stalinist propaganda are a bit hard to take.

The portrayal of religion in the film Alexander Nevsky is as interesting as its as problematic. The Orthodox faith of Nevsky and his compatriots is never mentioned in the dialogue and is represented visually by a single brief shot near the end of the film. The shot in question (which is so brief that you'll miss it if you blink) shows a group of Orthodox clergy waiting to welcome the victorious Alexander as he arrives in the newly-liberated city of Pskov. By contrast, the Catholicism of the Teutonic Order is emphasized by the crosses that cover their garb and by the presence of as a menacing German bishop who regularly blesses and prays over the assembled knights. The cartoonish bishop also presides over an auto-da-fé of Russian women and children and utters lines like, "All must submit to Rome or be destroyed." This kind of selective blindness, by which only the negative aspects of faith are portrayed, is perhaps unsurprising in a film produced under Soviet auspices. However, the film's effort to divorce Russian nationalism from Orthodox Christianity must be deemed a failure when contrasted with Stalin's decision to ease restrictions on religious practice during World War II in a bid to boost morale.

Considered apart from the complex politics of the film bearing the same name, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky is a masterpiece. I'm glad I had a chance to hear the score as ably performed by the New York Philharmonic in the fine setting of Avery Fisher Hall, and I hope to visit Lincoln Center again during my time in New York. AMDG.


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