Prokofiev and Film Music

There are many topics and research projects that I wish I had the time to properly research.  For now, I am content to jotting down notes and thoughts about them and telling myself that I’ll get to it some day, and maybe somehow work it into possible dissertation topics.  Such topics include my interest in music and sound in the Kurosawa film, serialism and minimalism in film scoring, and the topic at hand: the film score of Sergey Prokofiev.

Prokofiev’s reputation as a film composer comes largely not from the scores themselves but rather the concert suites/cantatas based on the music, the most known being those after Alexander Nevsky and Lt. Kije (Op. 78 and 60 respectively).  His music for Ivan the Terrible Pt. I and II was also posthumously turned into a cantata.  I’m not going to go into much detail here about the scores, but rather just give a few thoughts and also try to tell you what is readily available.

In all, Prokofiev seems to have completed eight scores, and left another unfinished due to the project’s cancellation (though he would work some of that material into other works).  The scores are:

1) Lt. Kije (1933, released 1934) – For the longest time I thought the film for this hadn’t actually been made because in the listing in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (the goto source for musicians and researchers of music) says that the film was unrealized. So imagine my surprise when, going to do some quick background for this post, I find that not only was the film made, but could be viewed on-line.  As mentioned above, the score exists as a concert suite, Op. 60, which can sometimes have vocalists singing in the second and fourth movements.  This piece is widely available on CD.

2) The Queen of Spades (1936) – This score was to be for a film released in part of celebrations to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death (who wrote the novel the film was to be based on).  The film was cancelled and the score never finished.  Prokofiev did work some of the material and themes in to other works, including the Fifth Symphony.  There has recently  been a reconstruction of sorts of the score and turned into a concert piece by Michael Berkeley, a CD was released in 2009.

3) Alexander Nevsky (1938) – Directed by Russian master Sergei Eisenstein, this is one of Prokofiev’s most well known film projects, and the masterful Battle on the Ice sequence and music has proven to be one of the most influential in the history of cinema and deserves a post all on its own.  The music is well known in the form of a concert cantata (Op. 78), but the 1993 re-recording of the complete score available from RCA is what film score fans will want to get (re-released in 2004).

4) Lermontov (1941, film released 1944?), 5) Kotovskiy (1942, film released 1943), 6) The Partisans in the Ukrainian Steppes (1942, film released 1943), 7) Tonya (1942, film unrealized according to Grove) – I know nothing at all about these films, nor can I find any recordings of the music.  They are listed in IMDB under Prokofiev’s entry (which is also cluttered with other instances of his music used in films).  Also listed is a 1943 film Nashi devushki which is nowhere in the Grove entry for Prokofiev.  It could be that it simply used music by him but not specifically written for the film.  It is these films and scores that seem to be in the most need of academic study and recovery.

8 and 9) Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (1942-44, films released in 1944 and 1958 respectively) – Prokofiev’s final scores and also Eisenstein’s final films.  Part II was not released until 1958 due to state censorship, ten years after the director’s death and five years after Prokofiev’s death. Luckily, there exists both a complete recording and full score of the film.  Unfortunately, we never did get the third part of this planned trilogy as Eisenstein died before completing it.

For those interested in also seeing the films, besides the above link for Kije, the three films by Eisenstein are all available in a box set by the always excellent Criterion Collection, though I cannot comment on sound quality of them (and I’ve always heard horror stories about the quality of the original Nevsky score).

Finally, a word of warning about the recent massive box set of Prokofiev’s music from Warner Classics.  There is a volume included which is labeled “Stage Works & Film Scores,” which, when I first saw it in my school’s library, I was quite excited by.  But I was dismayed when looking at the listings that the “film music” is merely the Nevsky and Kije suites, though, of course, there are four different versions of Peter and the Wolf (each in a different language!), but no music from Ivan or any of the other scores mentioned above.

Prokofiev, while not the most prolific of Russian film composers, has proven to be a very influential one.  As Cooke points out in The History of Film Music, many of Hollywood’s leading composers have taken cues from not only his scores but also his ballets, operas, and concert works, most notably one John Williams.  I realized this some years ago when, after becoming very familiar with the Fifth Symphony, I suddenly heard his influence in the orchestration and thematic writing during the asteroid chase in The Empire Strikes Back. And while Prokofiev’s collaboration with Eisenstein have been well documented and preserved, much like the films and writings of Eisenstein himself, it seems long overdue that we assess and retrieve the rest of Prokofiev’s film work to properly place him among not only Russia’s but also the world’s film composers.

One thought on “Prokofiev and Film Music

  1. I remember watching ‘The Battle on the Ice’ sequence in my film theory class as an undergraduate and I seem to remember the sound quality was pretty good. Unless I’m mistaken – and I very well could be – the rerecording of the Nevsky score originally released on RCA/Victor was actually used for the restoration of the film. At least that’s what the old guy with the lightsaber told me.

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