Alexander NevskyA play for Radio  and a Prokofiev UK première

5 Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 6 No. 65, 31 May 1939.

6 Brown, T. and Reid, A (eds.), Time was away: The world of Louis MacNeice, (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974), 98.

7 Fyodor Fyodorovich Komissarzhevsky (1882-1954), during his time in the UK in the 1930s, also designed the artwork for the interior of one London theatre (The Phoenix, Charing Cross Road) and a number of London cinemas in the Granada chain.

8 Boult, Adrian, My own trumpet, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1973), 120.

9 Ibid.: 120.

10 Coulton, Barbara, Louis MacNeice in the BBC, (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 57. The recording is held at the BBC sound archive: T3618 (61 minutes 27 seconds), 08.12.1941.

11 The play was given a further two broadcasts by the BBC: on 26 April 1942 with Michael Redgrave (Nevsky) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Theatre Chorus, conducted by Clarence Raybould; and on 22 June 1944 (to commemorate the third anniversary of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war) with James McKechnie (Nevsky) and the London Symphony Orchestra and the augmented Revue Chorus (with soloist Joyce Hutton) conducted by Walter Goehr.

12 The Listener, 18 December 1941.

13 MacNeice, Louis, Alexander Nevsky, (BBC unpublished script, 1941), 40.

The Monthly Film Bulletin, a publication for film enthusiasts, described it as “historical drama with a strong topical reference”. (5) After describing the plot, its critic “A.V.” continues: “The glorification of a medieval prince is, as such, a new departure; but he is represented as fundamentally a people’s leader, and the film retains a strong anti-clerical feeling”. Prokofiev’s musical accompaniment is described as “suggestively atmospheric”, and the critic concludes: “On the whole, an unquestionably interesting Russian film – from some aspects of particular value, though from others perhaps not quite up to expectation. Shown at the Film Society with a spoken commentary to interpret the dialogue, it would need sub-titling for ordinary exhibition”. It was considered to be suitable for an audience of adults and adolescents of sixteen or over.
   Having viewed the film, MacNeice agreed to write the script of a play “based on the film”, and in Bower’s words, they “proceeded to embark on what was to be the most ambitious radio feature to date”.
(6) The role of Nevsky was to be played by Robert Donat, a well-loved English actor, still remembered today for his Academy Award-winning role of the schoolmaster in the 1939 film, Goodbye, Mr Chips. He had just finished filming in The Young Mister Pitt, in which he, as Prime Minister Pitt, led his countrymen against another would-be invader in the form of Napoleon, this time propaganda aimed at the American market. The leading female role in Alexander Nevsky would be Peggy Ashcroft, married from 1933 to 1937 to Russian director Fyodor Komissarzhevsky (7), who, with his influential productions, had done much to popularise the plays of Chekhov in England in the inter-war years.
   An integral part of the film is, of course, the Prokofiev score and Bower knew that the composer had made a cantata of music from the film. According to Bower, the music was obtained from Paris and, of course, large musical forces would be required for the UK première of Prokofiev’s film music. On declaration of war in September 1939, the Music Division of the BBC had been evacuated to Bristol, but heavy bombing led them to re-locate, and in the summer of 1941 they were transferred to Bedford, 55 miles north of London, by special train travelling cross-country and avoiding the capital. This train was provided with that unheard-of luxury in wartime – a restaurant car. However the Director of Music, Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983), was not among the passengers. As he put it: “I missed the fun as I made the journey on a push-bike”
(8) – a distance of some 125 miles, no mean feat for a distinguished conductor in his early fifties. The normal venue for concerts in Bedford would be the Corn Exchange, although as Boult wrote: “When it was used as a Corn Exchange, we moved to the Great Hall of Bedford School. This place with its wooden galleries made a fine sound-box.” (9) The broadcast of Nevsky would be given there with Boult conducting the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chorus and Theatre Chorus (including an unnamed female soloist).
   As Bower wrote: “[…] The production was something of an advance technically. It was the first time such a programme had been done in an ‘open’ studio (in distinction to the multi-studio technique then common to features and drama) and a new film recording system [the Phillips-Hill] had been put into action to record the work.”
(10) Bower and MacNeice had also recorded an introduction from the Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky (1884-1975), to be broadcast before the transmission on the Home Service of the BBC.
   On Monday 8 December 1941, in a slot immediately following the regular News at 9 o’clock, which, for millions of listeners during the war, was the most important broadcast of the evening, all was now in place for the transmission. Suddenly everything was halted “for an indefinite delay”, while the “air-waves were cleared” for an important announcement. When the awaited bulletin came, it was to report the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. America was at last in the war. As well as Maisky’s tribute, there were now recorded messages from Roosevelt and Churchill, all of which added to the real-life drama of the occasion.
   The Nevsky broadcast was a great success.
(11) Grace Wyndham Goldie, perhaps not an entirely unbiased party, being drama critic of The Listener, waxed lyrical: “For nearly seven years I have clamoured for programmes like Alexander Nevsky. For nearly seven years it has seemed possible that one day we might get more feature programmes, better feature programmes, programmes written specifically for broadcasting, programmes in which poets would use verse to create new effects at the microphone and the microphone would bring poetry back into a living and necessary relationship with ordinary life. And here at last in Alexander Nevsky we have something of all that. […] In spite of its medieval setting, the programme was a direct expression of the struggle now being waged again by Russians against the Teutons. Here in fact is radio conquered at last and used at last for living purposes by a living poet. And if Alexander Nevsky, being larger than life, was impressive rather than moving, magnificent rather than poignant, timeless rather than in the emotional key of our own time, it was absolutely successful in its own key.” (12)
   Turning a film, with some of the most arresting visual images in the history of cinema, into a radio drama was a daunting assignment. Yet the necessary reliance on the spoken word, in place of image, compels the listener to turn to the imagination. In addition, the music’s contribution to atmosphere was even more important. It should also be remembered that in the months preceding the broadcast, Pskov and Novgorod, the two cities which figure in the Nevsky drama, far from being remote, barely identifiable place-names, had appeared on a regular basis in the reporting of the war news on the pages of Britain’s daily newspapers. In July The Daily Telegraph advertised “No. 6 in its series of War Maps – ‘The Russian Front’ (price 1/-)”, with the claim that the series had sold a million copies to date.
   As a result of Nevsky’s success, MacNeice and Bower were invited to find a subject for another feature for October 1942, this time to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the discovery of America. Donat was invited by the Ministry of Information to make a personal morale-raising tour of cinemas around the country, in what were rather curiously entitled “pageant-meetings” – on one occasion his audience numbering two and a half thousand. He would conclude these appearances with Alexander’s triumphal speech:

“People of Pskov! People of Russia!
Yesterday Pskov was under the heel of the Germans;
Today there is not a German alive in Russia
Unless he is on the run.
Yesterday, brothers, our future hung in the balance;
Today our future is decided. Russia survives,
Russia is great and will become greater.
We have learnt one lesson – to stand together;
No more internal divisions.
I, Alexander Nevsky, speak on behalf of Russia
And I say this to the rest of the world:
If you will come to us in peace, you are welcome,
But if you come with the sword or the threat of the sword,
Then remember the old saying
We proved it true once again yesterday,
Proved it true on the frozen lake against the might of the Germans –
Those who take the sword
By the sword shall they perish’.”

   Thirteen days after the radio première of Alexander Nevsky, the BBC broadcast from Bedford a concert of Russian music in honour of Joseph Stalin’s birthday on 21 December, conducted by Sir Henry Wood “in front of an invited audience of munitions workers and representatives of the Soviet Embassy”; it consisted of the Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila, Dunaevsky’s Land of Freedom, Shostakovich’s Salute to Life (soloist: Nancy Evans), Balakirev’s Russia and concluded with four movements from Prokofiev’s newly premiered music for the film Alexander Nevsky.
   1941 would come to be seen as decisive in the outcome of the war. One participant of the struggle put it into words just three days after the Nevsky’s première: “A year of historical significance is nearing its end. A year of the greatest decisions lies ahead” (Adolf Hitler, 11 December 1941). Thus, Alexander Nevsky, in this unusual format, played its part in making vivid the Russian cause and sacrifice, as well as helping to popularise one of the great classics of the cinema and Prokofiev’s stirring music.

   Interested readers may consult the script and listen to the play at the Serge Prokofiev Archive. Reproductions are not allowed. Both documents are also available from the BBC. [Editor]   (Back)