Monday, April 12, 2010

Alexander Nevsky: How to Score a Big Honking Battle Scene

I stumbled across Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky at just the right time in my teenage love affair with big, bombastic, epic movie scores. I had just bought the Leonard Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recording of Carmina Burana - still the best version yet recorded - and inside the disc was another CD, a sampler of classical offerings on the RCA Red Seal Label. I've never seen packaging like that before or since, though of course I've heard plenty of sampler discs.

It was a date with destiny. I'd bought Carmina Burana in the first place because of the quintessential choral bombast of the O Fortuna movements. We had used those in our high school production of Frankenstein, to great effect. Park Tudor had a terrific theatre department, one that was able to pull off a pretty impressive scene of the destruction of Frankenstein's lab while blasting that trademark Carl Orff vocal apocalypse. I still remember the tech director shouting, "More Carmina! More Carmina!" during one of the dress rehearsals.

So, after plunging my way through Carmina Burana's outlandish vocal landscape of vulgar Medieval bawdry and fatalism, I threw on the sampler disc and discovered the music for "The Battle on the Ice" from Nevsky in the very first track. From the eerie, hesitant strings at the beginning, all the way to the all-out choral frenzy at the end, I was hooked. By the time the track dissolved into audio from the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film, clanking swords and horses and shouting men above howling winds . . . I knew that I had to track down both the film and the soundtrack.

I discovered both, eventually. The re-recorded soundtrack album fulfills the potential of Prokoviev's massive score and detailed orchestration, subtleties that were completely obliterated by '30s Soviet recording technology. In the same year that Hollywood released Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, with beautifully recorded soundtracks, the score to Alexander Nevsky in the original print sounds like it was recorded through a tin can from the other side of a thick wall. The 1996 re-recording by Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra rectifies that, and then some. I absolutely love it.

The film itself is mostly a disappointingly one-dimensional piece of thinly veiled Soviet agitprop, a tale of a medieval Russian hero who smacked down a Teutonic invasion. Obviously, it was designed to psych up the Russian people for the storm that was a-brewin' with the Nazis in the late '30s. (Nothing unique or even wrong with that, necessarily; Olivier did almost exactly the same thing with his WWII-era production of Henry V, though Shakespeare has to be given credit for creating some slightly more well-rounded characters.)

Nevsky is remarkable in its imagery and editing, though, as you probably don't need to be reminded if you're familiar at all with Eisenstein. The man literally wrote the book - several, actually - on the marriage of sound, image, and editing in film. What Eisenstein created in his scene of the battle on the icy Neva river created the template for big cinematic battles. Check out the scene here with some observant commentary on the construction of tension leading up to the battle . . .

Look familiar? That's because nobody has yet figured out how to do it better. Just about every big, old-fashioned frontal army battle ever filmed has followed this pattern visually, and often musically: Shot of the "good" army, shot of the "bad" army, shots of the leaders of the armies and close-ups of the troops, back and forth and back and forth, faster and faster until the moment when it all hits the fan and the two armies collide. You can see it in everything from Gladiator to Braveheart to Spartacus, and even the stupid Gungan battle in The Phantom Menace. (All of those are video links for comparison . . . and yes, you really should click on the Phantom Menace video link. It's been "improved" with some fan editing.)

Also, for comparison, here's a video of the same scene with the original soundtrack recording of the score: Nevsky Battle on the Ice The full score is a revelation compared to that tinny mess.

Man, do those Teutons look mean with their big, face-obscuring helmets, and their creepy hooded priests. Speaking of Star Wars, take a look at those guys and tell me they didn't influence the likes of George Lucas when he was creating his stormtroopers and Sith lords. Just sayin' . . .

As for Prokofiev's score, it's emotionally manipulative, epic scoring at its very best, and you can hear its influence clearly in many, many scores that have come since -- including a few that are in my collection. You can be sure I'll make a note of it when the time comes.

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