Prokofiev: Ivan the Terrible, Opus 116, Oratorio after the Film Score, Arranged by Levon Atovmyan

Sergei Sergeievich Prokofiev was born in Sontsovka (now called Krasnoye), Ukraine, on April 23 as he himself claimed) or April 27 (according to his birth certificate), 1891, and died in Moscow on March 5, 1953. He composed the First Part of his score for Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible in 1942-44, and the Second Part in 1945. Part I of the film was first shown to the public at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on December 30, 1944; it was first shown in the United States on March 8, 1947. Part II was not shown in the Soviet Union until 1958, and in the United States not until November 24. 1959. The arrangement and orchestration heard in these concerts was made by Levon Atovmyan (1901-73) and was first performed January 28, 2012, at the Southbank Centre in London, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, with soloists Eva Podleś and Andrey Breus. These are the first North American performances. The score calls for two flutes and two piccolos, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, five trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani (and piccolo timpani), triangle, snare drum, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, woodblock, tam-tam, whip, chimes, xylophone, celesta, two harps, piano, and strings, plus two vocal soloists (mezzo-soprano and baritone) and four-part mixed chorus. Performance time: about forty-five minutes.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Eisenstein were the Soviet Union’s proudest claims to international eminence in the fields of concert music and cinema. The two appear to have met for the first time in the 1920s in Paris, where both spent time during the decade following the Russian Revolution. They were kindred souls. Both had been formed in their homeland’s pre-Revolutionary years and both broadened their native Russian experiences through extensive travel in Western Europe; Prokofiev, in fact, was living as a Russian expatriate at that point. Both would have first-hand brushes with the Hollywood film industry. Eisenstein had achieved critical acclaim through his three great films of the 1920s: The Battleship Potemkin, October (or Ten Days that Shook the World), and The General Line (or Old and New). In 1930 he visited Hollywood, where he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, an agreement that fell apart after five months of incompatibility. He then embarked on an epic film project involving Mexico, produced by Upton Sinclair but ultimately abandoned. In 1933 he returned to the Soviet Union thoroughly disenchanted by the capitalist movie industry.

That was just when Prokofiev was also looking longingly toward his homeland, and Soviet authorities went to considerable effort to entice him back. One of the point men on the case was Levon Atovmyan, a native of Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan, who in 1930 had been elected to the All-Russia Society of Composers and Dramatists, heading the Composer’s Division as executive secretary. In a late-in-life memoir, Atovmyan related that, in 1932, he was advised of the government’s desire that “it would be good to correspond with those musicians abroad, namely Prokofiev, Koussevitzky, Malko, and Piatigorsky, who had taken part in [certain] concerts and, if possible, try to convince them of the merits of moving to the Soviet Union.” For some reason, he did not contact the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, but he did write to the other three. Serge Koussevitzky, at that time conductor of the Boston Symphony, ignored him. Conductor Nikolai Malko, who headed the Danish State Radio Orchestra, agreed to make some appearances in Russia with the proviso that he would then return to the West.

Prokofiev, on the other hand, expressed interest. Atovmyan was authorized to dangle a private residence in Moscow as an inducement, and things developed in a positive direction. Soviet authorities set up concerts for Prokofiev in late 1931 and early 1932. During that visit he was fêted at a banquet in Leningrad and guaranteed commissions from the state. The first of these to be formalized was his score for Lieutenant Kije; the film, released in 1934, is long forgotten, but Prokofiev’s music is still encountered through the orchestral suite he adapted. Though Prokofiev maintained his principal residence in Paris, he paid increasingly frequent visits to Russia, and in the spring of 1936 he settled in Moscow for good, his fortune cemented by the offer to serve as a “consulting professor” at the Moscow Conservatory. Atovmyan had been central to finessing Prokofiev’s relocation, and the two remained close thereafter. Though Atovmyan would be caught up in some bureaucratic scandal in 1937, he was rehabilitated in 1940 and assumed positions at Soviet State Radio and then at Muzfond, the funding arm of the Union of Soviet Composers. In that capacity he commissioned various pieces from Prokofiev, and Prokofiev had Atovmyan orchestrate a number of his piano pieces and, conversely, make piano transcriptions of some of his symphonic compositions.

In 1937, Soviet cultural authorities invited Eisenstein to propose a topic for a major new film, and he responded with the idea of Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century noble who had engineered a decisive victory over Teutonic invaders. Prokofiev leapt to write the score, although he was already committed to performing a concert tour in Europe and the United States at the beginning of 1938. While he was in America he made a point of spending time in Hollywood, getting up to speed on the techniques of cinematic sound.

Alexander Nevsky was a success following its release in late 1938, and in the ensuing months Prokofiev adapted much of its material into a cantata, which also proved popular. The Soviet cinema authorities followed up with another commission for Eisenstein, a film on the subject of Ivan the Terrible. Ivan was a figure of immense historical importance, a Grand Prince of Moscow who in 1547 was named the first Tsar and went on to unify Russia as a nation. He is credited with securing Russia’s trade routes to the Baltic Sea (decimating the region of Livonia in the process), and he exterminated the troublesome Mongol Tartars. He also crushed the boyars (the hereditary nobles) and founded a loyal entourage of torture-and-murder squads, the oprichniks, who effectively turned Russia into a secret-police state and everyday life into a reign of terror. Stalin identified with him, but of course Eisenstein would be expected to effect some revisionism to clean up the nasty parts of Ivan’s image. Wrote the filmmaker, “By freeing [the Tsar’s] history from lies and distortions, and basing it on those aspects of the epoch expressed by Marx, the image of the sixteenth-century Russian State looks entirely different.”

Prokofiev would again be Eisenstein’s music-man of choice. On July 23, 1941, the director wrote to Prokofiev explaining that he envisioned Ivan the Terrible as a multi-part film and assuring him that “the composer is presented with great opportunities in all directions.” He was writing from Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, where the Moscow film industry was displaced due to World War II, and Prokofiev would at times join him there, juggling his work on the score with other compositions that also held his attention. The Prokofiev biography written mostly in 1941 by Israel Nestyev (with a ten-page introduction by Eisenstein, no less) is partly a work of propaganda, but it does provide a glimpse of Eisenstein and Prokofiev in the throes of collaboration:

The two artists discussed each sequence of the film before the musical passage was written and the sequence finally edited. Prokofiev was thrilled by Eisenstein’s temperament and taste and by his graphic skill in directly or paradoxically formulating his “order” to the composer: “At this point the music must sound like a mother tearing her own child to pieces,” or “Do it so that it sounds like a cork rubbed down a pane of glass.” In his turn Eisenstein more than once listened profitably to the keen comments of Prokofiev . . . . In the new film the authors aimed to show Ivan the Terrible as a courageous unifier of the Russian state and as a clever warrior who made his empire’s power firm despite the personal greed of the reactionary boyars.

Part I of the film, released to the public at the end of 1944, recounts Ivan’s coronation as Tsar of Russia, his wedding to Anastasya, his campaign against the Tartars and the Livonians, his life-threatening illness and surprise recovery, and the scheme of his aunt Yefrosina Stariskaya to have her simpleton son ascend to the throne in his place. The sprawling opus met with a mixed public reception but official acclaim, earning the Stalin Prize First Class. Prokofiev was injured in a fall shortly after the premiere and struggled through the ensuing physical impairment—and the competing pull of composing his Fifth Symphony—to gradually produce his score for Part II. That installment focused on Ivan’s continuing personal and political challenges: the poisoning of his wife by Yefrosina, his alliance with the church (which turns against him in an partnership with the boyars), his unleashing the oprichniks against the boyars, and his murder of Yefrosina’s son. In early 1946 that installment was ready for screening by the appropriate government agency. They denounced it: “The second part of the film Ivan the Terrible does not stand up to criticism in view of its anti-historical and anti-artistic qualities.”

Suffering from the effects of a serious heart attack, Eisenstein did not rework the film. He died in 1948, leaving Part II unreleased and his plans for Part III in fragmentary form. Another decade would pass before Part II was finally released for public screening, by which time Prokofiev was also dead. In 1941 Nestyev had predicted, “After completion of all three parts of Ivan the Terrible, Prokofiev will undoubtedly reshape its music into a vocal symphonic work—or perhaps into an opera.” In the event, only two parts were completed, and Prokofiev wisely did not test his luck.

Abram Stasevich, who had conducted the soundtrack, did turn Prokofiev’s music into an oratorio in 1962, complete with a connecting narration that has been widely criticized. Five years ago, however, it came to light that Prokofiev’s old friend Atovmyan had actually prepared an oratorio version before Stasevich did. It was performed in 1961 for the Union of Soviet Composers and submitted for review to a repertory committee, which approved it for public performance. Just then Atovmyan suffered two strokes, and the project accordingly stalled. With his death in 1973 it was all but forgotten. In 2007, Atovmyan’s daughter, Svetlana Levonovna Merzhanova-Atovmyan, presented a copy of the score to the musicologist Nelly Kravetz, and this led to the 2012 public premiere of the Atovmyan version, in London.

Rather than strive to present a condensation of the film, Atovmyan selected sections of Prokofiev’s score drawn from both parts of the film and reordered them into what he judged to be a harmonious musical balance. He re-orchestrated Prokofiev’s original to draw on the capacities of a full symphony orchestra, and he re-composed many passages when adapting them to their new contexts. His work is in every sense a hands-on arrangement, a re-working rather than a literal compilation.

The bipartite first movement consists of Prokofiev’s opening music, Ivan and the Boyars, in which the chorus declaims a text that foresees troubled times. This segues to Ivan Entreats the Boyars, ominous music from the middle of Part I of the film; and then Atovmyan rounds the movement off with a recollection of the opening music. The Song of the Beaver, from Part II, is a macabre lullaby sung by Aunt Yefrosina Stariskaya to her simpleton son; Prokofiev described the vocal tone he desired here “as though holding a cigarette between the lips, as through a comb.” The Oprichniks comes from near the end of Part I, where the secret police dance in frenzied ecstasy; Eisenstein photographed this on crimson-colored film to underscore the oprichniks’ bloodthirsty character.

The Swan, also from Part I, is a folkish-sounding expanse with women’s chorus, relating to the wedding of Ivan and Anastasya. The Anastasya movement depicts Ivan’s wife on the point of death, having been poisoned by Yefrosina. The Broad Expanse of the Sea expresses Russia’s yearning to firm up its trade routes to the Baltic; Prokofiev/Atovmyan maintain a stately tempo throughout this portion while building musical interest through expansion of the orchestral sound. The Fall of Kazan, which (in Part I) chronicles Ivan’s successful campaign against the Tartars, begins with a majestic tune that illustrates Ivan in his tent, continues with an exotic depiction of the Tartars (with piquant oboes and E-flat clarinet against the incessant beat of a piccolo timpani), and follows on through the sounds of the triumphant battle. The concluding section, Glorification, is drawn from a bridegroom’s song in the wedding scene of Ivan and Anastasya. It spills into a grand hymn and then a final reminiscence of the score’s opening music.

James M. Keller

More About the Music

Recordings: The Atovmyan version of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible has not yet been recorded for commercial release. For Prokofiev’s incidental music, Valeri Polyansky conducting the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Capella (Chandos)  |  Neeme Järvi conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, in an arrangement by Christopher Palmer (Chandos)  |  Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Vox)  |  Parts I and II of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible are available on DVD, released by the Criterion Collection.

Reading: The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, by Simon Morrison (Oxford)  |  Sergey Prokofiev and his World, edited by Simon Morrison (Princeton)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: His Musical Life, by Israel Nestyev (Knopf)  |  Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, by Harlow Robinson (Viking)  |  S. Prokofiev: Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow)