Kevin BARTIG  


The Lieutenant Kizhe Suite


In his short autobiography, Prokofiev admits an odd detail: he spent more time composing the Lieutenant Kizhe Suite (1) (Op.60) than he did composing the work on which the suite is based, his score for the 1934 film Lieutenant Kizhe (Poruchik Kizhe). Creating the suite entailed a significant reworking of material from the original film score, which included “searching for a form, re-orchestrating, polishing, and even combining themes”. (2) Unlike in many of the composer’s other suites, the path from parent work to suite was not a straightforward one with Kizhe, given that peculiarities of the film project dictated an unorthodox film score that made for a complicated transition to the later suite. (3) The suite was also one of the first works of Prokofiev both to appear under the banner of his “new simplicity” and to receive its première in the Soviet Union, thus carrying a great deal of consequence for the composer’s blossoming career in Russia. Given the relative obscurity of the Lieutenant Kizhe film score, however, the connection between the Kizhe suite and its parent work has received little attention.

The Lieutenant Kizhe film score was Prokofiev’s first work for the cinema, written for a production directed by Alexander Faintsimmer at the Belgoskino film studios in Leningrad. The film’s darkly satirical plot, set during the reign of Tsar Paul I, concerns a scribe’s slip of the pen that inadvertently adds a nonexistent lieutenant by the name of “Kizhe” to the ranks of the Imperial army. (4) None of the tsar’s courtiers has enough courage to incur the wrath of the irritable monarch by pointing out the true nature of “Lieutenant Kizhe”, and in a satire of bureaucratic incompetence (as well as of the tsar’s legendary neuroses), the invisible Lieutenant manages to have himself banished to Siberia, return triumphantly, marry the belle of St. Petersburg and ultimately attain the rank of general before perishing from a mysterious illness, all absurdly engineered by members of the tsar’s court for their personal gain.

The film’s sardonic plot appealed to Prokofiev, and after meeting Faintsimmer during a visit to the USSR in December 1932, he agreed to compose a score for the film. (5) Work initially proceeded at a quick pace: an official contract appeared in March 1933, and by the end of June Prokofiev had completed a majority of the projected score. But disorganisation eventually plagued the film’s production, resulting in delays and revisions that hindered Prokofiev’s progress. After an initial burst of activity, the composer did not complete the final numbers of the score until early October. Prokofiev’s permanent residence in Paris, however, prevented his continuous presence on the set, and he thus wrote nearly the entire Kizhe score for a film he had never seen, guided wholly by descriptions of the scenes that the music would accompany (and in a few instances by an exact timing). He compensated for this by composing separate, miniature numbers that could be repeated as needed – or in some cases cut – to fit a specific scene. The completed film used seventeen such brief numbers, and notwithstanding the fact that some of these numbers appear several times during the course of the film, their general brevity (often as short as a few bars) means that a majority of Lieutenant Kizhe’s approximately 90 minutes runs without musical accompaniment.

Following the film’s successful Moscow première on 7 March 1934, Prokofiev almost immediately began work on a suite, a task that occupied him during his extended Russian tour during spring and early summer. In June Prokofiev and his wife were the guests of artist Piotr Konchalovsky, who found Prokofiev’s habit of unexpectedly dashing off to the piano to test his progress on the suite especially amusing. (6) The work was completed not long after the composer’s stay with Konchalovsky, and when Prokofiev departed Russia for France mid-summer, he left his manuscript in Moscow to be copied. (7)

The impetus behind the composer’s concentrated work on the suite was an invitation from the Moscow Radio Orchestra to fashion a suite from Kizhe’s music that would receive its première on Soviet radio. This came as part of a larger project engineered by Boris Gusman, a major Muscovite critic, the assistant director of the Bolshoi Theatre, and Prokofiev’s indefatigable supporter. On behalf of the All-Union Committee of Radio and Film Affairs, Gusman negotiated a series of radio concerts during 1934 intended to introduce the composer’s music to a wide Soviet audience (and this venue allowed Gusman to avoid the increasingly unpredictable Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra). (8) Gusman arranged for two sets of programmes that coincided with Prokofiev’s visits to the USSR during 1934: in April and May, programmes featured, among other works, the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Symphonic Song. While the first work had been a favourite since Prokofiev’s days at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the latter proved to be a dismal failure. In December, in addition to performances of the Symphony No.1 and the Piano Concerto No.2, the composer himself appeared on the podium on 21 December to lead premières of the Egyptian Nights Suite (Op.61) and the Lieutenant Kizhe Suite. The enthusiastic response garnered by the new suites helped ease some of the bitter taste left by the failure of the Symphonic Song. (9) Prokofiev offered the Lieutenant Kizhe Suite to his publisher in Paris, Gutheil, and the work appeared in print the following year. Dealing with a non-Russian publisher dictated the outcome of the suite on several fronts, not the least of which was Prokofiev’s own French-coloured transliteration, “Kijé”.

Prokofiev performs to the Belgoskino team in Leningrad: spring 1933.

Creating a suite from the Lieutenant Kizhe film score, however, was a demanding enterprise. Perhaps the trickiest of the several challenges facing Prokofiev was the brevity of many numbers in the film score, which prevented single selections from being used verbatim in the suite. In the majority of suites composed prior to Lieutenant Kizhe – such as the Suite from Chout (Op.21bis) and the Suite from Sur le Borysthène (Op.51bis) – Prokofiev had incorporated large sections of the parent work as movements in the suite with a minimum of editing. (10) Prokofiev continued this trend with his later suites, including those from Cinderella (Op.107, 108 and 109) and Romeo and Juliet (11) (Opp.64bis, 64ter, and 101). In addition to the brief nature of the individual numbers in the Lieutenant Kizhe film score, the music he composed for the film lasted only about fifteen minutes overall. If the challenge with the composer’s suites from his operas and ballets lay in extracting suitable material from the larger work, here the hurdle consisted of simply finding enough material to constitute a suite. (12) Finally, Lieutenant Kizhe’s scoring for small chamber orchestra dominated by winds, brass, and percussion needed to be expanded and refashioned if the suite were to be a viable option with standard symphony orchestras.   8



(1) Throughout this article I use the transliteration “Kizhe” rather than the French-influenced spelling “Kijé”. All translations are my own.
(2) Prokof’ev, S. S., “Avtobiografiia”, in Shlifshtein, S. (ed.), S. S. Prokof’ev: Materialy, dokumenty, vospominaniia, 2nd ed. (Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe muzykal’noe izdatel’stvo, 1961), 191.
(3) In the discussion that follows, my use of the term ‘suite’ refers to the composer’s works for orchestra that are based on a single work (i.e. not the numerous suites for piano or works that were created from multiple parent works, such as the Waltz Suite Op.110).
(4) The tsar’s scribe errs by accidentally entering “Poruchik kizhe” (“Lieutenant Kizhe”) rather than the intended “Poruchiki zhe” (“Lieutenants,” where the “zhe” is an intensifier) on a list of soldiers to be added to the Preobrazhenskii regiment. Before he can correct his mistake, the tsar’s assistant enters and demands the list for the tsar’s approval. Upon examining the list, the tsar immediately notices the name “Kizhe” because his title “Poruchik” is lacking the necessary final hard sign (a diacritical mark used in nineteenth-century Russian at the end of masculine nominative nouns). The tsar humorously adds this mark himself, thus participating in Kizhe’s “birth”.
(5) Preliminary agreement between Prokofiev and Kino-fabrika “Sovetskaia Belorus”, signed 3 December 1932 (Serge Prokofiev Archive XXXII/II/03.12.1932). Prokofiev signed a full contract with Belgoskino on 16 March 1934. This document is preserved at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (hereafter RGALI), f. 1929, op. 1, ed. khr. 804.
(6) Robinson, Harlow, Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002), 289.
(7) A letter from Miaskovsky to Prokofiev dated 1 August 1934 mentions that Prokofiev left a completed copy of the Lieutenant Kizhe Suite in Moscow when he departed for France earlier in the summer. See Kabalevskii, D. B. (ed.), S. S. Prokof’ev i N. Ia. Miaskovsky: Perepiska, (Moskva: Sovetskii Kompozitor, 1977), 425. It appears that Prokofiev’s friend and assistant Pavel Lamm copied the score eventually used for publication (RGALI, f.1929, op.1, ed. khr.1929). However, in November 1935, Prokofiev mentioned that “Derzhanovsky’s sloppy work” on the suite was preventing its publication in Paris (see Kabalevskii, 1977: 440). Prokofiev refers to Vladimir Derzhanovsky, the editor of the journal Muzyka and the director of the music section of the State Publishing House. Lamm and Derzhanovsky both assisted Prokofiev with score copying during the second half of the 1930s.
(8) Nice, David, Prokofiev: From Russia to the West 1891-1935, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 316. The fact that Prokofiev’s new premières were given to the Radio was noticed by the Moscow Philharmonic, and Prokofiev suggests in a letter to Miaskovsky in January of 1935 that he was ready to appease them by offering the première of the Suite from Sur le Borysthène or the Overture (Op.42). See Kabalevskii, 1977: 430.
(9) During Prokofiev’s first visit to the USSR during 1934, concerts of his music were broadcast from the Great Hall of the Conservatory in Moscow on 18 April and 15 May. Details of the programmes are preserved in letters from Prokofiev to Levon Atovmian dated 15 January and 12 March (State Central Glinka Museum, f.33, Nos.1305 and 1308).
(10) Besides the extension of the “Dance of the Buffoons’ Daughters”, Op. 21 was created directly from numbers of the ballet manuscript (with only minor alterations to some final cadences), see Nice, 2003: 189. Prokofiev composed Op.51 in 1933, selecting the “more symphonic numbers” of the ballet score to appear in the suite. See Shlifshtein, S. (ed.), S. S. Prokof’ev: Materialy, dokumenty, vospominaniia, (Moskva: Gosudarstvennoe muzykal’noe izdatel’stvo, 1961), 187-188. The Scythian Suite, Op.20 remains very close to its parent work, the ballet Ala i Lolli – see discussion of this relation in Press, Stephen D., Prokofiev’s Ballets for Diaghilev, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 131-133. The suite from the ballet Le Pas d’acier (Op.41bis) contains two movements that are taken directly from the ballet and two movements that represent a more significant reworking of sections of the ballet.
(11) For a discussion of Suite No.2, see: Mann, Noëlle, “Recycling or new work: Romeo and Juliet Suite No.2”, Three Oranges, No.10, (November 2005), 11-17.
(12) David Nice makes this point in his biography of the composer, see Nice, 2003: 308.