Sergei Prokofiev

(1891 - 1953)

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Lieutenant Kijé Suite (1934)


   One of Prokofiev's most distinctive gifts was his flair for combining satire and sentiment. When Prokofiev returned to the U.S.S.R. in the early 1930s and finally decided to settle there after many years of living in both Europe and America, he was anxious to start working on Soviet subjects and to develop his own musical style in a direction suited to Soviet life. "But the musical idiom in which one could speak of Soviet life was not yet clear to me," he wrote in his Autobiography. "It was clear to no one at this period, and I did not want to make a mistake."

     "Hence I was much pleased when the Belgoskino Studios invited me [in 1933] to write the music for the film Lieutenant Kijé. This gave me a welcome opportunity to try my hand, if not at a Soviet subject, then at music for Soviet audiences, and mass audiences at that." The film seemed ideally suited to Prokofiev. It was an affectionate period portrait of early nineteenth-century Russia, combined with a satire on official bungling.

    Lieutenant Kijé never existed. An office clerk in the era of the pompous Tsar Paul (Catherine the Great's son, who reigned from 1796 to 1801) makes a slip when copying over official military documents. Inadvertently repeating two letters (in Russian, "zh-e"), he adds a nonexistent lieutenant, Lt. Kijé, to a list of soldiers presented for the Tsar's approval. The unusual name catches Paul's eye, and Kijé is singled out for special treatment.  So terrified are they of contradicting their sovereign that Paul's subordinates carry out his decree, promoting the nonexistent Kijé to the Tsar's elite guard. As often happened to such soldiers, however, Kijé eventually falls into disfavor and is sentenced to Siberia.  Still unaware that Kijé does not exist, and protected from the truth by his intimidated aides, the Tsar magnanimously pardons Kijé and promotes him to general. Even his "wife" goes along with the scheme, concealing the truth that Kijé is a creation of cowardly bureaucrats. When he "dies", Kijé is buried in an empty coffin with imperial pomp and circumstance.

       Prokofiev was delighted with the subject and his film music was a tremendous success. The original film score contains sixteen small "numbers", rather like a ballet score.  For each separate dramatic episode or character Prokofiev sought a specific theme, timbre, rhythm and orchestration. One year after the movie premiere the composer made a symphonic suite out of his film score.  "This gave me much more trouble than the music for the film itself," Prokofiev recalled, "since I had to find the proper form, re-orchestrate the whole thing, polish it up and even combine several of the themes."  The Suite was first performed in  December 1934 in Moscow and was given its United States premiere on October 14, 1937, by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky.  It is in five movements.

I.     The Birth of Kijé. Kijé is appropriately ushered into this world by a fanfare on a military cornet which we hear from offstage as if from a great distance. The rasp of a military drum and a jaunty piccolo introduce the satirical military march.

     II.     Romance.There are two alternative versions of this movement, one for baritone solo, to words describing the fluttering of an amorous heart.  The more frequently performed version is for orchestra alone.

     III.     Kijé’s Wedding. Kijé's wedding is accompanied by a blustery tune whose banality and “oom-pah” underpinning suggest that the “wedding chapel” might be a tavern.

     IV.     Troïka. To an accompaniment suggesting the motion of the traditional Russian three-horse sleigh, complete with sleigh bells, we hear another instrumental version of a tavern song, as Kijé races across the Siberian landscape. This song is sung in the film to the following words: “A woman’s heart is like an inn: All those who are about, keep going in and coming out, night and day they roam about.”

     V.     The Burial of Kijé. Kijé's exit from this world is merry rather than otherwise, considering how relieved his inventors must have been to get rid of him.  The music resembles a summary of his life, beginning with the cornet fanfare of his birth, and recalling the episodes of his romance and his wedding.  The distant bugle call that ushered into the world the Lieutenant--who, incidentally, made the rank of General before his demise--escorts him back to the misty oblivion from which he was originally conjured.

Click the PLAY button below for a wonderful video introduction to Lieutenant Kijé

Click the PLAY button below to watch the opening segment of the original Lieutenant Kijé film!

Prokofiev at the time of Lieutenant kijé (1934)