Oh! Now I Get It!!!

| 1 Comment

There's a neat work, Apophenia, that means seeing connections where you didn't before. That is, you may have known Fact A and Fact B separately, but you have an apophenic moment when you suddenly realize that A causes B, or some such.

I had such a moment tonight, regarding Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata. Alexander Nevsky has long been a favorite piece of music, but I never put together the context in which it was produced until tonight. So anyhow, the facts that got connected:

Sergei Prokofiev was a composer who lived from 1891 to 1953. Born in Russia, he emigrated to the United States in 1918, but moved back and forth between Russia and the US throughout the 20s and early 30s before eventually deciding to remain in Russia in 1936.

Alexander Nevsky was a legendary Russian hero of the middle ages. The story goes that in 1240 or so he rallied the Russian people to expel the occupying Teutonic Knights, who were there to spread Catholicism to Russia. He might have been made a Czar as a result. It's also possible that the Romanovs subsequently insinuated him into their lineage in order to give their rulership more credibility. In either case, Prokofiev's piece was a musical retelling of his life.

Soviet art and music was always heavily state-controlled, but particularly during the reign of Josef Stalin. Stalin felt art should have a purpose; art for art's sake is a luxury of the bourgeoisie, true proletarian art must be useful and functional. Therefore: A piece of music should have a message that advances socialist ideals. It should be easily understandable by the common man, and require no special training or sophistication to appreciate.

But what are socialist ideals? An interesting question, and the answer that you gave could determine whether you lived or died if you lived in Russia in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The correct answer, of course, is that socialist ideals were what Stalin said socialists ideals were at that moment. Throughout the 20s, socialist ideals were mostly internationalist and cosmopolitan. The world revolution was coming soon, and Russia happened to be at the vanguard. Soon there would be no need for states, so petty nationalism was gauche, a sign of bourgeois sympathies. Russian artists should focus on creating a new, universal proletarian style.

But the world revolution didn't come, and the new party line became Socialism in One Country. Russia would build its own socialist paradise and soon the rest of the world would fall in line. Suddenly it became very important to show how great Russia was. The Socialist Universalists were exposed for the utopian naifs that they were, and many found themselves in labor camps in Siberia. The true Socialist Art was art that exemplified the glories of the Russian people. The old Russian folk heroes who had been discarded with the revolution were rehabilitated, their histories re-written to reflect the true proletarian spirit with which they obviously acted before their stories were hijacked by the old aristocracy. Art that glorified the Russian People was the true Socialist Art, at least in the late-30s and early-40s.

And, of course, the big story in Russia in the early 40s was the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II).

All of this information had been floating around in my head until tonight, when suddenly it all came together and caused a revelation: Prokofiev wrote Alexander Nevsky when he was in Russia. He would have written it under the supervision of Stalin and his art commissars. And: Alexander Nevsky's legend is all about a great folk hero inspiring the Russian people to rise up and expell an invading German force. So I looked it up and confirmed: Alexander Nevsky was written in 1939, when tensions with Germany were at their peak before the German invasion of Russia. And it was written to serve a useful purpose, per Stalin's guidelines. It's not just a piece of music that happens to evoke an interesting story from history; it has a second layer as a piece of propaganda art, an inspirational work designed to say "We beat the Germans before, now let's rise up and beat them again."

It's interesting; before I'd always listened to Nevsky in a historical vacuum. I'd heard it as a piece of music that tells a folk story, but the music was divorced from the context of its production. Now I won't be able to listen to Nevsky without thinking about Leningrad and Stalingrad and the Great Patriotic War. The interesting question is whether knowing more about the piece will cause me to appreciate it more, or whether knowing that it was designed to serve a simple utilitarian purpose will make me think less of it.

And, for the heck of it, here's the fourth movement of Alexander Nevsky, Arise, Ye Russian People. It's a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado. It's available on a nicely priced album from Deutsche Grammophon that includes the Lieutenant Kije Suite and the Scythian Suite, also by Prokofiev.

1 Comment

Alexander Nevsky is a great piece of Soviet propaganda. The film is even more striking than the cantata, as it shows the Teutonic knights throwing Russian babies into a fire (in Pskov, I believe). You might be interested to know that the film was suppressed for several years, as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (under which the USSR and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact and agreed to divvy up Poland/Ukraine/Baltic States) made the anti-German message undesirable. After the German invasion in 1941, the film was resurrected to great effect. Also interesting is the way in which it uses a *Russian* folk hero and thus appeals to *Russian* nationalism and identity, which is distinct from the Soviet identity (which was supposedly inclusive of the many other ethnic groups which comprised the Soviet Union).

I am also quite fond of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (#7), which was composed during the terrible seige of Leningrad. You can hear the advance of the German soldiers in the music.

February 2012
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29      

Contact Zach


Webcomics of Which I am a Fan

Sites I Read Daily: Politics

Sites I Read Daily: Video Gaming

Sites I Read Daily: General Miscellany

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Zach published on June 19, 2006 1:37 AM.

Il Cavaliere della Rosa was the previous entry in this blog.

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.04