|Still from Alexander Nevsky, a 1926 film directed by Sergei Eisenstein|
It's odd how a series of completely unrelated events can coalesce into vivid memories of one's past. That happened to me earlier in the week when the Kennedy Center's quarterly publication on its upcoming events arrived in our mail. Normally, my son and daughter-in-law would be reading it at their home in Arlington, but they have moved on to Europe for a three-year assignment and their domestic mail now comes to us. After spending an hour or so reading the quarterly, it was time to check the Internet for news and mail. One item demanded some surfing that led to a Japanese orchestra and choir performing music that brought to mind some vivid memories of the Kennedy Center and my days in Washington over forty years ago.
The year was 1970 when my world was filled with the throes of grad school and revolution. And Marti. She was a most beautiful Marxist, brilliant, kind, funny, a history lover, and one who enjoyed film and fine music. At our university film club she introduced me to the magic of the amazing work of Sergei Eisenstein and his collaboration with the composer, Sergei Prokofiev. As much as we enjoyed sound on film, our appreciation of music took us beyond the silver screen. In the two years we were together we enjoyed many concerts at the Kennedy Center. In fact, we went so often, the young concertmaster - Miran Kojian, now 83 and teaching violin in California - began talking with us when the orchestra was seated. Maybe it was the rebel uniforms - blue jeans, camp shirts, sandals and hippie chic - seated in Orchestra Center, Row Three. In spite of the statement nearby concertgoers were totally unmoved by our appearance. Smiles and conversation were a common occurrence.
After all, the contradictions were not confined to the concert hall. They were everywhere in the tumultuous American experience of that period. From our "city on a hill" we watched the skies glow red from fires set by rioters in Washington in 1968. For months I passed through rows of peacekeeping National Guardsmen on my way to class. More than once, a professor called class when the teargas got too intense only to find we were locked in the building for our own safety while a full-scale riot went on outside. So much for learning. Indeed it was a time for rebellion and doubts about the center holding in one piece. I'd venture something similar to this from Alexander Nevsky (1938):
Thanks to God, my dad's patriotism, and common sense that comes from age and experience, I survived the folly of Marxism. Eisenstein and Prokofiev, among many others in film and music, stayed with me. Alas, Marti did not. Eventually she transferred to UNC Chapel Hill and rekindled a relationship with a professor there. We parted on the best of terms, but it was tough to say good-bye. Our phone calls and letters over the months gradually changed to warm and happy memories. Today I imagine she remains as beautiful a woman as ever, and one who still enjoys concerts and films. On the other hand, I would hope that her political philosophy eventually mellowed toward sanity as did that of the perplexed student who loved her so many years ago.
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N.B For readers who would like to hear the Battle on the Ice in context with Prokofiev's score for the film, here is his 38 minute cantata derived from the complete score. A superb performance, too:
No libretto available, but Russian music is so expressive you can surely enjoy it with the section titles and a brief description of each. The description below is by Herbert Glass and taken from the Music and Musicians Database at the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra site, (see "Sources" for address):
The cantata is divided into seven sections. The first, "Russia under the Mongol Yoke," accompanied the opening credits of the film. In No. 2, "Song about Alexander Nevsky," the chorus exhorts the young prince to don armor again, to expel the invading Teutonic Knights. Part 3, "The Crusaders in Pskov," depicts the havoc wrought on the city by the pillaging, plundering invaders (the choral text is in Latin, the accompanying strains a caricature of church music). "Arise, ye Russian People," No. 4, is a heroic hymn, a bright, noble contrast to the dark ponderousness with which the Germans are characterized in the preceding movement.
No. 5, "The Battle on the Ice," is a virtuoso evocation (visually and musically) of a battle between the forces of darkness and light -- the invaders, riding richly caparisoned horses, appear dimly through the morning mist, and then Prokofiev creates aural magic: as the armies approach each other from different sides of the musical spectrum, with the Teutonic Knights’ strains dark, growling, earthbound, with special emphasis on the low brass, the Russians’, brightly animated, with chattering upper strings and woodwinds. At the climax of the battle, the ice begins to crack; the Teutonic Knights are unable to flee as the weight of their armor on the already heavily burdened horses causes the ice to crack. Horses and riders sink beneath the water.
The ensuing "Field of the Dead" is the score’s single vocal solo, a profoundly affecting lament for the Russian heroes fallen in the battle. The finale, No. 7, depicts "Alexander’s Entry into Pskov," the chorus exulting in his victory, with the sternest of warnings to potential invaders that any and all will meet the same fate as befell the hapless Teutonic Knights.