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The Music is the Movie: Alexander Nevsky

In May 1938, Prokofiev was approached by the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, who proposed they collaborate on a film about the 13th-century military hero Alexander Nevsky. The result is one of the rare occasions when a great film not only boasts a great score, but is made infinitely more powerful and meaningful by that score. Although Eisenstein and Prokofiev later collaborated on Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky that remains their greatest achievement, and it is still unrivaled in the brilliance of its linking music and film.


The vivid, almost visual impact of the film music Alexander Nevsky is due in no small part to way it was composed. Few, if any, films have ever relied so heavily on music to provide meaning and dimension to the images on the screen. In every scored sequence in the film, background noise and dialogue drops out almost entirely, leaving the music alone to connect and propel the story. In some sequences, such as the opening prologue and the moments before the battle on the ice, the film becomes a series of nearly static images—almost like still photographs.

Prokofiev’s music mirrors and adds emotional weight to those images with no other support. For example, as the Russian soldiers wait in stillness and silence for the coming German attack at the climax of the film, Prokofiev’s music employs a series of quiet, static chords in the brass, followed by whirl of woodwinds that subliminally evoke the feel of the frozen lake on which they stand and the cold wind that rises occasionally. There is no sound of wind in the movie (it was actually filmed at the height of summer), but it’s there in the music.

In some of the images, even the clouds display patterns echoed in the music. This is in no way traditional Hollywood “mickey-mousing,” where music playfully follows the exact action on the screen. Rather it is a breath-taking synthesis of sound and image, each of equal importance to the artistic goal. This is what the director Sergei Eisenstein sought in his collaboration with Prokofiev, sometimes shooting film to match the music. Rising to the demands of such a visionary artist, Prokofiev wrote a score which he knew could stand alone as well in the concert hall.

Nelsons, Andris 01 by Marco Borggreve
Andris Nelsons
Thursday, October 22 at 8 PM
Boston Symphony Orchestra

The triumphant new partnership of Music Director Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra thrills in two scintillating Russian masterpieces. Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, taken from his complete score to Eisenstein’s famous film, comprises music that accompanied its iconic scenes, including the menacing chant of invading Teutonic Knights, the Russian people’s stirring exhortation to battle, a tender lament, and the colossal Battle on the Ice. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is a spectacular orchestral showpiece that weaves threads of Russian Orthodox chant with the chilling Dies Irae, resulting in a blockbuster finale.

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