‘A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism.’
The second movement introduces the chorus with another famous quotation from Marx:
‘Philosophers simply explained the world in different ways. The point is to change it.’
A brief and dramatic interlude leads to the fourth movement, a setting of extracts from Lenin’s writings from before the Revolution, urging his followers towards the great task ahead.
Another stormy interlude leads to the heart of the work, ‘Revolution’. This, the longest section, is a gigantic choral and dramatic scena. Its texts, taken from Lenin’s writings and sayings from the very first few weeks of the October Revolution, have been arranged by the composer to suggest a vivid picture of an event unfolding before our eyes. It begins with the first violins alone playing a nervous message in morse code and builds eventually to a tremendous climax, when the composer introduces the whole arsenal of special effects: shots from heavy and light artillery, machine-guns, an alarm bell and a siren. As the revolutionaries gain the upper hand, the splendidly unexpected sound of an orchestra of accordions comes in, presumably to suggest the joy of the people as their cause is won. A speaker, representing Lenin himself, shouts out:
‘The success of the revolution hangs on two or three days! Fight to the death, but do not let the enemy through!
The seventh movement, ‘Victory’, is a haunting slow movement into which Prokofiev introduces another of his sound effects, the noise of distant tramping feet. ‘This is followed by ‘The Pledge’, setting parts of Stalin’s speech on the eve of Lenin’s funeral in 1924.
The next movement, the purely orchestral ‘Symphony’ was presumably what Prokofiev had in mind when he told the Pravda journalist that one of the themes of the piece was the industrialisation of the country. Industrial construction of some sort would seem to be suggested by the energetic first theme of this movement, while the pastoral-sounding second theme seems closer to the soundtracks of the many newsreel films of the period depicting the bliss of life in the Soviet countryside on the new collective farms.
The Cantata ends with a rapturous setting of fragments from Stalin’s speech to the Eighth Extraordinary Congress of Soviets in November 1936. The composer’s sweet and lyrical music to these extremely unlikely words brings the work to a glowing end in the home key of C major. But, as always with Prokofiev, his C major is not plain and simple, but full of surprises, harmonic twists and turns. Perhaps it was these that brought down Kerzhentsev’s immediate ire on that unhappy day in August 1937, when the composer had finished singing and playing his new work, and turned to hear what the committee had to say.
Programme note © Gerard McBurney
Gerard McBurney is Artistic Programming Advisor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He studied at the Moscow Conservatoire, and also divides his time between composing, arranging, teaching and writing and broadcasting on radio and television, especially on contemporary Russian and Soviet music.
Sun 2 Mar 7.30pm 2008, Barbican
Xian Zhang conducts the LSO in a screening of Prokofiev’s film Alexander Nevsky with live music. Part of the LSO’s Chronicle series. For more information visit lso.co.uk/0708season. Tickets £6–£30