The two Sergeis: Dayton Philharmonic presents Sergei Prokofiev & Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Alexander Nevsky’

By Pat Suarez

Photo: 1938 ‘Nevsky’ film poster

Consider today’s military warriors and the implements of battle they don. Underneath all that intimidating technology is a human being whose identity vanishes and appears to the enemy as an anti-human robot, part of the psychology of today’s warfare.

Now, dial the calendar back seven and three-quarters centuries and focus on Europe. Lose the uniform, the rifle, the communications gear, the enhanced visual technology, all of it. Dress the guy in either shredded clothes or cumbersome armor, and arm him with swords, bows, and variations of clubs as he makes eye contact with the warrior he’s about to cut to ribbons or bludgeon to a pulp. Burden him with disease and infections resulting from the wounds, inflicted by unsanitary weaponry. This was the modern soldier in the 1200s.

And there was no shortage of soldiers in the 13th century. Or wars. Peace in that era was evasive as countries invaded one another over rivalries, revenge, land grabs, and religion. Zoom in closely on almost any area, especially central and northern Europe, and you would find some sort of skirmish.

Inevitably, there were heroes. Mel Gibson made Scotland’s William Wallace famous in his 1995 film “Braveheart.” In 2011, Jonathan English’s “Ironclad” told the story of a handful of Knights Templar defending Rochester Castle against the despotic King John, played by Paul Giamatti, refining his snarl for the eventual role of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades in “Billions.” Perhaps most significantly, in 1938 the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein filmed the bio-pic “Alexander Nevsky.”

On Jan. 6, 7, and 8, Neal Gittleman will lead the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, chorus, and soloist Ryu-Kyung Kim in a live performance of the music to accompany a screening of the film at the Schuster Center.

For 196 years, beginning in 1095, the Papacy in Rome launched four major crusades to the east. There were several goals to these wars, ranging from recapturing Jerusalem from Islam to contesting paganism and heresy in lands where Christians lived but did not rule. These incursions met with varying degrees of success and some deeply affected the futures of countries.

In 1193, Pope Celestine III sanctioned the Northern Crusades, pressing the Kingdom of Sweden to advance east into areas deemed rife with paganism. The Swedes controlled Scandinavia, leaving the Teutonic Knights to capture what are now Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. By 1203 the Knights maintained control, but the Estonians pushed back for more than 30 years, finally losing in 1236. The loss expanded the Holy Roman Empire to Lake Peipus, which formed part of the border between Estonia and the Russian republic of Novgorod. On April 5, 1242, 19-year-old Alexander Yaroslavich led his troops to victory over the Teutonic Knights, whose win was aided when many German soldiers fell through the ice and drowned because their armor was too heavy for the ice to hold (you won’t see that in the movie). As a sign of extreme adulation, Alexander’s troops renamed him “Nevsky,” a reference to the nearby Neva River. The Germans never challenged the Russians again for centuries. Nevsky, the son of a prince, became a prince himself and used his position as a skilled politician and negotiator. In 1252, he was installed as the Grand Prince of Vladimir (the supreme ruler of Russia).

In 1938, with relations between Germany and Russia fraying, 40-year-old Russian Director Sergei Eisenstein began production on a paean to Alexander Nevsky and his victory. Eisenstein was born in Riga, less than 100 miles from the battle his movie would present, so he had a historical connection to the event, as well as a point of view about Germans.

Eisenstein’s career bridged cinema’s silent and sound era, and he was a pioneer in the use of the montage, a cinematic device to show the passage of time. But he had not directed a released movie in nearly a decade because of an extended trip to the United States and Mexico. His attempts at finishing films in both countries ended in failure due, in part, to politics: Sergei was a communist and that meant trouble in the West. Upon his return to the USSR, “Alexander Nevsky” was his comeback project.

The film is about the battle, but to get to a running time of 112 minutes, Eisenstein and co-writer Pyotr Pavlenko (installed to keep Eisenstein in line with Soviet film-making requirements) added a couple of backstories. The first was about two warrior friends competing for the hand of a Novgorod maiden. The other concerned a woman, whose father was killed by the enemy, wh chooses to fight on the ice alongside one of the competing warriors.

Sergei Prokofiev’s music is, of course, a cornerstone of 20th century Russian romanticism. Its strikingly beautiful main theme is immediately recognizable, especially if you’re a fan of Woody Allen’s hilarious 1975 farce “Love and Death.” After the film’s release, Prokofiev restructured the music into a 40-minute, seven-movement cantata for orchestra, chorus, and mezzo-soprano that sings about the battle’s casualties.

The experience of hearing a soundtrack by a live ensemble gives a motion picture punch and life that a recorded soundtrack cannot impart. Given the age of the film, despite restoration and an updated recorded soundtrack, this is one movie whose accompaniment by a live orchestra will offer a thrilling evening.

Dayton City Paper spoke with Maestro Neal Gittleman—a man whose Russian heritage vibrates through his bones and his baton to electrify the orchestra’s Russian-written pieces—about his knowledge of and connection to “Alexander Nevsky.”

Why did Eisentstein and/or the Russian government choose Prokofiev for this film?

Neal Gittleman: It was the first collaboration of “the two Sergeis.” The whole project was closely monitored by the Mosfilm studio (and, presumably, by Stalin), so whoever had the idea of putting them together, it was certainly endorsed by the “powers that were.”

The government hired a couple of film professionals to work with Prokofiev. What might they have been concerned about?

NG: Paranoids are concerned about everything!

How do you know when to play as the movie progresses?

NG: My score has time codes indicated in it for synchronization.  I have three things to look at: 1. the score; 2. a video screen showing the film (so I don’t have to look up at the big screen); 3. a second video screen showing an analog clock that’s synced to the film so the times on the clock correspond to the time cues in my score. The last time we did “Nevsky” (November 1998), it was a real clock, physically synced to the film projector.  Now, everything’s been digitized, so instead of looking at a real clock, I’m looking at a video of the real clock that’s synced to the video of the film.

Are there different scores for the movie and the cantata version?

NG: Yes. Here’s the sequence…

1. 1938:  Prokofiev writes the score for the film (simultaneously with the filming).

2. 1938:  Prokofiev records a rough (and I mean rough) soundtrack for Eisentstein to use in the editing process, intending to rerecord everything once the film has a final edit.

3. 1938:  Stalin sees a rough cut of the film with the temporary music track and loves what he sees.

4. 1938:  Mosfilm tells the Sergeis that they’re done.  If the “Great Leader and Teacher” loves it, don’t change a thing.  So the rough cut is the version that’s released, complete with the hideous-sounding temp soundtrack.

5. 1939:  Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Agression Pact is signed, and suddenly, the Nevsky film is (to use a modern-day parlance) politically incorrect.  It’s pulled from theaters immediately.

6. 1939:  As he had done with “Romeo and Juliet” when politics delayed its premiere, Prokofiev created a concert suite from the Nevsky soundtrack music.  This is the cantata version that became the standard way people heard the music.

7. 1986:  John Goberman, longtime producer of “Live from Lincoln Center” on PBS, decides to re-adapt Nevsky for concert performance…film projection accompanied by live orchestra and chorus.  The original material from the 1938 film score is long since lost.  Goberman engages composer/conductor/arranger William David Brohn, to do the reconstruction of the music.  Brohn lines up the cantata version with the film, which accounts for about 35 minutes of the 55 minutes of music in the film.  For the rest, Brohn reconstructs the missing stuff by ear.  The result is a reconstruction of the soundtrack score that allows us to hear the music as Prokofiev imagined it should be heard.

Vaughn-Williams wrote his seventh symphony for a movie, and orchestras present it as a stand-alone work. Are there any other film scores of note that became stand-alone works?

NG: I can’t think of any complete film scores.  But there are things like Bernstein’s “On the Waterfront” suite, which was made because Lenny was so irritated at how his music had been chopped up, faded-in, and faded-out in the film soundtrack.

The Battle On the Lake is a riot of music. What is particularly difficult about performing it and how do you prepare the DPO for it?

NG: It’s got a lot of notes, but it’s not particularly difficult.  Or, let’s just say there’s a lot of other stuff that Prokofiev wrote in other pieces that’s a lot harder.  “Nevsky” was created on a very short timeline, so I’m sure he wrote it specifically to (a) sound very impressive and (b) be fairly straightforward to play.

This music seems to look back to Tchaikovsky and other late Russian romantics. Did Prokofiev write anything else this lyrical?

NG: Prokofiev could write whatever he pleased.  He had some serious chops!  I don’t really hear all that much Tchaikovsky in the score (well, maybe a little in the sack of Pskov scene and the battle aftermath) but if you hear that, maybe it’s there!

Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra performs Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Alexander Nevsky’ in accompaniment with the screening of the film Friday and Saturday, Jan. 6 and 7, 8 p.m., at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. The Classical Connections version of the production takes place Sunday, Jan. 8. Tickets range from $15.45–$64.30. For more information, please visit or call 937.224.3521.

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at

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