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Rescoring 'Alexander Nevsky': Would Prokofiev Roll Over?

November 01, 1987|JOHN HENKEN

Offhand, showing "Alexander Nevsky" with a live performance of Prokofiev's sound track would not seem too taxing an endeavor. Eccentric and unnecessary, perhaps, but not overly difficult.

Wrong on all counts, according to John Goberman. The Emmy Award-winning producer of "Live From Lincoln Center" has been at work on just that for several years.

A briskly confident man, Goberman speaks of the project with missionary assurance. "This will be the first time anyone will see and hear what Prokofiev had in mind," he says.

Such a statement might raise more than a few eyebrows, since the union of sight and sound in "Nevsky" is widely acknowledged as an epoch-making masterpiece. The 1938 film, which depicts the Russian prince Nevsky repelling an invasion by the Teutonic knights in the 13th Century, was one of Stalin's favorites because of the clear parallel to the threat from Hitler in 1938 (see Michael Wilmington's analysis, next page).

Goberman has always been disappointed with the performance and technical quality of the sound track, particularly in comparison with the hard-hitting glories of the cantata, which Prokofiev created in 1939 from themes in his film score.

Goberman believes that the music in the film is not as the composer ultimately intended it to be. He finds support for his belief in the story of how "Nevsky" came to be released in a possibly incomplete form.

"Nevsky," with its strong propaganda element, was produced under the watchful eye of the Soviet political apparatus. According to the memoirs of Victor Shklovsky, a personal friend of director Sergei Eisenstein, Stalin demanded a personal showing one night while Eisenstein was asleep. In scrambling to put together the screening, the director's assistants left a reel in the editing room.

Stalin, however, noticed nothing amiss. And once he had approved the production, nobody was about to change anything. The missing reel, containing another battle scene, reportedly still resides in a Soviet archive, but has never been shown.

"I'm convinced the sound track is a rough-cut also," Goberman asserts.

According to Shklovsky, editing was almost complete when Stalin preempted "Nevsky." It was also five months ahead of schedule, so Eisenstein may well have thought he had more leisure for making a definitive cut, which could have included a rearrangement and/or re-recording of Prokofiev's music, as speculation may fancy.

Eisenstein's own subsequent writings make no mention of any of this, instead describing the originality and integrity of his and Prokofiev's joint accomplishment. Goberman, however, regards most of that as revisionist, ex post facto theory.

"Absolutely wrong," he exclaimed when Eisenstein's graphic analysis of the "Dawn of Anxious Waiting" sequence was mentioned as evidence of the close unity of the audio and visual components of "Nevsky." "It's theory. It was not at all shot for shot."

If "Nevsky" was indeed released in an unfinished form, then speculation about the music becomes possible. The fact that Prokofiev almost immediately reworked roughly two-thirds of the sound track into a large cantata for full orchestra, chorus and mezzo may suggest that his concept of the score was indeed symphonic.

But at the same time, he also arranged three of the numbers as solo songs with piano accompaniment. In the sound track itself, Prokofiev experimented with his limited technical resources, manipulating the microphones for deliberately abrasive distortion and reversing natural balances. It is difficult to conclude with any certainty that Prokofiev heard his "Nevsky" music as basically symphonic.

Goberman placed the project before William D. Brohn, a noted arranger of Broadway shows and classical pops events, last January, to see how much work would be involved. "It became very obvious, very quickly, that there was a lot," Brohn reported ruefully.

He accepts Goberman's thesis in large measure. "(The sound track) sounds in places like it was slopped together, and very obviously looped."

Yet Brohn is also pragmatic about what he has done in adapting the music. "I'm sure there are things a musicologist might call me on. But if it was left to musicologists, they'd still be holding seminars. I had to get it written, and it's down."

Since the manuscript no longer exists, Brohn had to take down many passages from the sound track itself.

He acknowledges Prokofiev's experimentations, noting also that Prokofiev created a pseudo-folk instrument sound for a folk-dance section. The question of how to arrange that passage led "to a long discussion, not to say argument."

The final decision was that this was to be a score for symphony orchestra, playable without recourse to ethnic or exotic instruments. "We decided to use the cantata as the paradigm, the model for any further orchestration," Brohn stated.

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