Ivan IV, Russia’s first czar, united a vast, multi-ethnic expanse under a single crown during the latter half of the 16th century. Although his accomplishments set the stage for the modern Russian state, Ivan has become one of history’s more infamous characters, reviled for the brutality of his rule (not for nothing did he earn the sobriquet “Terrible”). The grotesquerie of Ivan’s consolidation of state power, from forming a savage secret police to the fit of rage in which the czar murdered his own son, proved irresistible to later Russian artists. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, for instance, dedicated his second completed opera to Ivan’s despotism and the painter Ilya Repin turned out a particularly gruesome (and now infamous) painting of the murder of Ivan’s son.
Ivan the Terrible also piqued Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s interest, albeit in 1941, long after Tchaikovsky and Repin worked. The occasion was a new film about the czar, for which Prokofiev’s friend and collaborator Sergei Eisenstein asked him to compose a musical score. Unlike Tchaikovsky’s and Repin’s 19th-century works, however, Eisenstein’s film was a state commission, one likely initiated by Joseph Stalin himself. Although bringing such a controversial figure to Soviet screens might seem an odd move on the part of Soviet bureaucrats, war in Western Europe and the growing Nazi threat made themes of defense and strength critical to state propaganda. (Many have also argued that Ivan’s career, presented as an ends-justify-brutal-means tale, was meant to teach viewers something about the way Stalin’s Russia worked.)
Although conceived as a patriotism-stirring propaganda film, Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible” proved an unusual example of its genre. The director reveled in Ivan’s contradictions and complexities and planned not a single film but an immense trilogy, one that from its earliest conception was a work of stunning complexity (at least four book-length studies have been devoted to it). Prokofiev collaborated with Eisenstein at various points during the five years it took to make the film’s first two parts, their work interrupted by war, evacuations and frequent interference by bureaucrats unhappy with Eisenstein’s conception. When Part I was finally finished in 1945, it netted high state honors for its depiction of Ivan’s military prowess. Yet Part II, which delves far more into Ivan’s psyche, was banned for over a decade, its complex and reflective protagonist judged too much of a waffling “Hamlet,” to borrow Stalin’s description. Although Part III of Ivan the Terrible remained unfinished when Eisenstein died in 1948, the two completed parts survived the crude Soviet cultural politics of the late 1940s to become classics of world cinema. They constitute a compelling study in power, corruption and morality, one as relevant today as it was during the 1940s.
Ivan the Terrible was the last and most extensive film score Prokofiev composed. In an industry where a director and composer might not even know each other, Prokofiev and Eisenstein enjoyed a famously close collaborative relationship. During a radio show in 1945, Prokofiev described a typical workday on the set of “Ivan the Terrible”:
At the studio, I looked through a segment of film with Eisenstein as he explained his wishes for the music. These wishes were often very vivid. For example, “here we need it to sound as if a child is being torn from its mother’s arms,” or in another place, “make it sound exactly like a cork hitting glass.” Returning home, I write the music using timings exact to the second. I play through the written material for a recording. When a choir is involved, I sing and play, which amuses Eisenstein because I’m a mediocre singer. If the visuals match well with the music and there is no need for changes, I begin orchestrating the passage.
The process was demanding. Prokofiev’s wife marveled that her husband and Eisenstein occasionally spent hours working on just a few minutes of music, a labor that testifies to the integral role music plays in an Eisenstein film. Prokofiev also had to decide what over-all style of music suited a 16th-century czar. Eisenstein insisted on including some Baroque liturgical music in the soundtrack for period flavor, but Prokofiev gravitated toward the lush Romantic style of the late 19th century (he even included references to the Ivan-themed works of Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for those listening especially closely). For Soviet cinema-goers, this style proved far more familiar, intelligible and descriptive than anything true to Ivan’s time. Critics praised Prokofiev for his accessibility, and they also applauded his score for “offering considerable individual artistic interest,” to borrow the words of one of the composer’s contemporaries. In other words, Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible was no mere accompaniment to image, but a work that could stand on its own.
On Feb. 23-25, CSO audiences have the chance to hear just that, and in grand fashion: Riccardo Muti will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Chicago Children’s Choir and soloists in a concert version of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible. Prokofiev himself thought about creating such a concert work, but reportedly thought better of arranging music from a censored film. It fell to Abram Stasevich, the director of the studio orchestra for the Ivan soundtrack recording, to bring Ivan the Terrible to the concert stage. He did so only in 1961, just a few years after the Soviet prohibition on Part II had finally been lifted. He also took substantial liberties with Prokofiev’s music, rearranging the order of the musical cues and stitching them together to form an “oratorio” of 20 movements. To compensate for the reordering, not to mention the lack of images and dialogue, Stasevich added a narrator who relates important bits from the plot of Ivan the Terrible. For the CSO performances, French actor Gérard Depardieu will portray Ivan, with Yasen Peyankov as the narrator, Michael Brown as the Holy Fool and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cook as the czarina.
Thanks to Stasevich’s cantata, many know Prokofiev’s music for Ivan the Terrible far better than the film in which it originated. (It bears noting that to date, at least three other composers have produced their own oratorio versions. The film score also was used in an Ivan the Terrible ballet that premiered in the Soviet Union in 1975.) Yet CSO audiences have the unique opportunity to see Ivan the Terrible on both screen and stage: preceding the concert performances, on Feb. 19, both Parts I and II of “Ivan the Terrible” will be presented in a free screening at Orchestra Hall. Joined by CSO annotator Phillip Huscher, Muti will offer remarks beforehand.
Kevin Bartig is associate professor of musicology at Michigan State University and author of Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film (Oxford University Press, 2013).