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Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Suite: “Lieutenant Kijé”

In revolutionary Russia, whilst the “Whites” and “Reds” were slugging it out, Prokofiev tried blushing a pale shade of pink. When things got too hot he fled to America, going east via Vladivostok to avoid the hazards of war-torn Europe. For years after the war, he drifted between America and Europe, apparently baffled that his pungent music should attract anything other than universal admiration. You could say that Prokofiev hankered after a quiet life, ever seeking the ideal existence of a creative artist in harmony with an appreciative public. On visits to his homeland he found himself fêted: all his heart’s desires combined into a carrot made all the juicier by the offer of a Moscow apartment and a car. However, once he had finalised his return to Russia (1936), the iron door of the USSR slammed shut behind him. The carrot vanished, the stick appeared: Prokofiev, the home-grown conqueror of the wild West, was now required to conform. 

Even if he didn’t know how severe the strictures really were, he must have had some inkling because he had worked in Russia during his transition from the West. To one already steeped in theatrical music, the burgeoning film industry must have seemed a God-send. In the “realism” of a film your music could hardly be accused of “formalism”. You could, comparatively, get away with murder - especially with a Czar-slagging scenario. So, was it simple coincidence that his first “Soviet” work (1933) was the score for the film Lieutenant Kijé

The concert suite broadly follows the plot, a loopy variation on The Emperor’s New Clothes

1. Kije's Birth: Reading a report, the Czar mistakes “parootchiki je” (“the lieutenants, however”) for “Parootchik Kijé”. Czar-contradiction being a capital offence, his royal interest must perforce be satisfied. Panic-stricken, Admin. must invent a “paper lieutenant” . . . 

2. Romance . . . and make it convincing, by giving the ghost romanticised substance. Their difficulties are neatly encapsulated by a double-bass, creaking and groaning its way through a tune that a cello could eat for breakfast! 

3. Kije's Wedding: The Czar likes his heroic lieutenants to be wholesome family men, so a “wedding” must be arranged. Kijé may be merely paper, but the vodka is all too real! 

4. Troika: A festive frolic on a three-horse open sleigh, or maybe at some deeper, more meaningful level a subtle symbol of the madcap paper juggernaut, or just Prokofiev showing off - conjuring sleighbells by sleight of hand? 

5. Kije's Burial: The aides, rapidly running out of steam, brilliantly resolve their problem: the Czar is naturally saddened to learn of Kije's untimely death. After the eulogies, sighs of relief all round, and blissfully dull normality is restored. Of course, any similarity between the Czar and the Soviet is entirely coincidental. 


© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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