How Lieutenant Kijé brought Prokofiev back to Russia
In December 1934 Prokofiev’s Kijé sleigh-rides through the Russian snow
Since fleeing revolutionary Russia in 1918, Prokofiev had struggled to find a musical home conducive to his strikingly original talent.
He initially spent four years in North America, where he completed two masterworks, premiered within a fortnight of each other in December 1921 – the melodically enraptured Third Piano Concerto and The Love of Three Oranges, a scintillatingly inventive opera which epitomised his bracing creative fusion of ‘the classical, innovative, motoric, lyrical and grotesque’.
Yet he never felt entirely happy on foreign soil. ‘I wandered through Central Park,’ he reflected despondently, ‘and thought of the wonderful American orchestras that cared nothing for my music, and who recoiled at the first sign of anything new.’
A move to the artistic hustle and bustle of 1920s Paris hardly improved matters. ‘Foreign air does not inspire me because I’m a Russian, the least suited of men to live in exile,’ he despaired. Accordingly, much of the music he produced at this time – including the ballets Le Pas d’acier (‘The Steel Step’) and The Prodigal Son, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, and Fifth Piano Sonata – only fleetingly capture his inspiration operating at white heat.
From 1929, Prokofiev began reassociating himself with Mother Russia, and although Moscow hardly welcomed Le Pas d’acier with open arms, renewed contact with the Homeland appears to have inspired a poignant distillation of his musical essence in the Fifth Piano Concerto. The turning point came when – despite being unsure what ‘sauce’ to put on it – he agreed, at the author’s suggestion, to compose the music for a forthcoming film adaptation of Yuri Tynyanov’s waspishly comical tale, Lieutenant Khize.
The story focusses on the eponymous soldier, whom Emperor Paul I assumes exists after spotting his distinctive name entered mistakenly in a set of official records. No one dares admit the clerical error, so an entire life history is quickly invented in order to save the situation. Prokofiev’s initial reluctance was entirely understandable – after all, movie soundtracks were still in their infancy and he may also have been aware of the young Dmitri Shostakovich’s early attempts at film music.
Nevertheless, viewing it as a unique opportunity for his work to reach a wider audience and to collaborate with the director Aleksandr Feinzimmer on his first major feature, he set to work and produced 16 short numbers, lasting around 15 minutes.
In contrast to the more generalised, post-Romantic mood music prevalent at the time, Prokofiev meticulously wove his inspiration into the narrative fabric of the film, and in so doing created a melodically enchanted, emotionally beguiling soundworld that would characterise much of his music during his period of repatriation.
Although he was not especially keen on the film itself, the music was another matter. So when the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra suggested he might turn it into an orchestral suite, despite the immense task of rescoring and restructuring involved – he despaired that the suite caused him ‘more trouble than the film itself’ – he was confidant he could produce a sure-fire winner.
More like this
Lieutenant Kijé Suite: Israel PO/Leonard Bernstein, French National Orchestra/Lorin Maazel