Sergei Prokofiev’s first film score, written in 1933 for one of the earliest Soviet sound features, is today one of the most celebrated of that era (more famous than, say, Max Steiner’s almost contemporary score for “King Kong”). Since Prokofiev was already a composer of international fame, his involvement in “Lieutenant Kijé” (1934) was a tremendous coup for the Leningrad-based Belorussian State Film Studio (Belgoskino). Exceeding expectations, he created one of his most infectiously tuneful works (in the last 40 years or so, at least two chart-topping rock songs have borrowed from the film’s suite: Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” and Sting’s “Russians”). Perhaps less often recognized, it was one of the most forward-looking scores of the decade.

Yet to many, even to the Belgoskino administration, Prokofiev had seemed a far from obvious choice for “Kijé.” Notwithstanding his Classical Symphony (which had persuaded the author of Kijé, Yuri Tinyanov, that Prokofiev would be ideal for its 18th-century subject), he had yet to compose such international hits as Romeo and Juliet or Peter and the Wolf. There was concern, too, that, as a Paris-based émigré, Prokofiev would find it hard to coordinate with the Leningrad studio to meet production deadlines. Furthermore, for much of the 1920s, he had cultivated a dissonant style with such modernist works as the Second Symphony and the Quintet, and Prokofiev was seen in some quarters as politically suspect. When his “Soviet” ballet Le pas d’acier had been auditioned by Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater in 1929, it was condemned by the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians as a “a counterrevolutionary composition bordering on fascism.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, will perform Prokofiev’s Suite from ‘Lieutenant Kijé’ in concerts Dec. 18-20.

But by then, Prokofiev was seriously reconsidering his style. Homesickness and the shock of having his ballet rejected no doubt played their part, as did his faith in Christian Science (which caused his revulsion against such earlier expressionistic works as his opera The Fiery Angel), and a genuine desire to reach a wider audience. Already in 1929, he was telling the press that he was making his music “simpler in form, less complex in counterpoint, and more melodic” and was aspiring to “a new simplicity.”

Sergei Prokofiev

Sergei Prokofiev

Then, in 1932, the RAPM was suddenly abolished by a Central Committee Resolution; this also stipulated that musical works should be expressed in a readily understood language addressed to the people at large. According to fellow émigré Nicolas Nabokov, Prokofiev welcomed the resolution as “a realization of some of his own ideas about the function of music: ‘I always wanted to invent melodies which could be understood by large masses of people — simple, singable melodies.’ ”

The prospect of finding a wider audience through film was therefore most enticing, so when Belgoskino told Prokofiev that “Lieutenant Kijé” was likely to get international distribution, he was effectively hooked. Prokofiev also was attracted by its satirical story, which Tinyanov, a Soviet historical novelist, adapted for the screen. The plot hinges on a clerk’s slip of the pen while writing out a list of soldiers for Tsar Paul I (who reigned from 1796 to 1801), inadvertently adding a nonexistent lieutenant, “Kijé.” The tsar is subsequently enraged when awakened by a scream from one of his courtiers (whose bottom was pinched by a coquette). When he demands that the culprit be punished, “Lieutenant Kijé” receives the blame and is sent to Siberia, only to be found innocent when the guilty party confesses. The tsar then decides to promote Kijé to his elite guard — which his subordinates, too terrified to admit the truth about the nonexistent lieutenant, proceeded to realize.

Unusually for film scores of that era, Prokofiev composed not a continuous symphonic tapestry, but several short cues: some are leitmotifs as requested by the director Alexander Fayntsimmer (under the close supervision of Tinyanov himself); others more (or sometimes less) directly part of the action, such as the military parades or Kijé’s wedding music. The result is strikingly ahead of its time: much of the film is unaccompanied, with music only used to enhance the drama of a scene or as ironic comment — a style of scoring more akin to Bernard Herrmann (whose first film score, for “Citizen Kane,” was released in 1941) than to Max Steiner or even Shostakovich.

Prokofiev confessed he spent longer creating the suite than he had composing the film music, since he had to make substantial movements out of the original succinct cues. The suite, composed in 1934, roughly follows the dramatic outline of the film:

Birth of Kijé: A distant fanfare opens the suite. Then, accompanied by a side drum, a piccolo pipes a march, twice over. A near climax subsides to a shimmering string tremolando and soft brass “stabs,” as if to prompt the next theme: a quirky leitmotif, associated with the nonexistent Kijé, played by flutes accompanied by saxophone. The movement is rounded off with the piccolo’s march, and then the distant fanfare.

Romance: This is based on two chansons, of which the first needs little introduction, thanks to Sting’s “Russians.” Both chansons originally were composed to be sung, and Prokofiev extends them through several repetitions with various accompaniments and delicious orchestral colors (rather than just harp and celesta in the film).

Kijé’s Wedding: In the film, this accompanies a farcical ceremony in which the absent groom’s “presence” is indicated by the priest holding a crown over the supposed head of the protagonist. Each episode opens with a pompous brass and woodwind choir, answered by a free ranging cornet solo. Kijé’s theme also is heard, rather forlorn and in a key distant from the rest.

Troika: This famous number describes a swift, three-horse sleigh ride with bells. Like the Romance, this was originally written as a song, one of a gallant nature for a guard officer, with Kijé’s characteristic theme as punctuation.

The Burial of Kijé: The cornet fanfare returns, followed by a lugubrious rendition of Kijé’s leitmotif. Themes from Romance and Kijé’s Wedding are recalled, juxtaposed to create a striking aural equivalent of double-exposed film (where two contrasting scenes are superimposed to dreamlike effect). The music eventually peters out before a final fanfare.

Daniel Jaffé is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine and a specialist in English and Russian music; he is author of a biography of Prokofiev (Phaidon) and the Historical Dictionary of Russian Music (Scarecrow Press).

NOTE:  The film “Lieutenant Kijé” is viewable online at YouTube and the Internet Archive.