Langston Hughes wrote a poem about the Mississippi. “My soul has grown deep as the river,” he says, invoking the memory of the slave trafficking and transport up and down this massive waterway. Memories of rivers often stir up emotions ranging from pain to pleasure to nostalgia. The very name of a river invokes a cultural identity and sense of place. Mention the Nile, the Seine, the Rhine, or the Volga and a whole bundle of mental associations falls into place. Say “Danube” and think “blue” and “waltz” and “Vienna.”
Rivers give themselves to metaphorical readings as well. In “Deep River, my home is over Jordan,” the popular Negro Spiritual that stays with us, the river’s name invokes a wished-for peace, lying on the other side of death and a troubled life.
Rivers convey the encompassing totality of time, as they flow toward and away from us, disappearing from our line of vision, continually carrying by us the very stuff of life. Rivers are said to be always the same and never the same, like time, that medium in which we float through our lives.
Music, a fluid art form, lends itself to mimicking the paths of streams and rivers
In The Moldau, Smetana evokes the sounds of one of Bohemia’s great rivers, starting with two gentle springs that join to form a strong current that swirls and widens on its way toward Prague, before vanishing into the distance.
In Schubert’s trout quintet, water is sensually conveyed as if rippling through meadows and valleys. The piece invokes the burbling brook, the pastoral Austrian countryside and leisurely forays out of the city.
Lakes, apparently, do not lend themselves, so readily to musical rendition. I Google this question and come up with a short list: Sibelius’s The Swan of Tuonela, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Dvorak’s The Evil Goblin about a water goblin who lives under the waters of an unnamed Czech lake. From what I can tell, these are more or less fantasy lakes, suggestive of myth and fairy tale. (It should be noted that there are examples in popular songs, although also fairly rare.)
All the more interesting that Prokofiev and Eisenstein feature two actual lakes as well as a river in their collaborative work of music and film. The film flashes the names of the lakes on the screen to make clear that we know where we are. Waterways feature so prominently that they function as characters, helping to inspire the music and drive the plot.
I recommend seeing the film to understand the progression of the music along with the plot–from the plains with the visit by the Mongols, to the song of the Neva sung on the shores of Lake Pleshcheyevo, then to the prosperous Novvgorod city center, followed by the devastated center of Pskov, to the battle on the ice on another lake, Chudskoye, then back to Novgorod for the celebration. In many scenes, including the one in Novgorod’s busy shopping district, you see water either foregrounded or in the background, a frequent reminder of its importance as a source of food and trade.
The cantata eschews any romantic depiction of rivers as rippling or coursing through the countryside or lakes as pastoral settings for swans. Nevsky captures the solidity of water, its capacity for defining and shaping the land around it, forming immutable divisions between peoples and cultures.
Nevsky, then, is all about the geopolitical nature of rivers and lakes, as boundaries and historic markers. Throughout this piece, loud instrumental clashes and forceful singing, often in unison, suggest a untied front; we don’t hear the Neva flowing; we hear it as a hard line, a uniting idea.
The Neva River was the geographical dividing line that separated Novrogod from the invading forces of the Swedish in 1240. This battle, a foundational moment in Russian history, was captured in the hero’s name of Nevsky, At the time of Prokofiev’s composition, the Neva’s banks had seen numerous other major Russian defining moments, including the founding of Saint Petersburg in 1703 and the Swedish invasion of Russia in the Great Northern War.
Interestingly, the two major scenes of the film take place on two lakes, not rivers. In the first, Alexander Nevsky is fishing on Lake Pleshcheyevo with his comrades, enjoying the fruits of his success. We hear about Alexander’s successful battle with the Swedes on the river, as a background memory, as Alexander contemplates the likely invasion of the Teutonic Knights. (He always refers to them as Germans, portending the invasion of the Germans in World War II.)
Next to this lake is the town of Pereyslavl-Zalessky, where Alexander was born in 1220. According to legend, when Prince Yaroslav of Pereslavi was coming back through Novgorod after a successful military expedition in the 1230s, he left his two sons Alexander (later to be known as Alexander Nevsky) and Fyodor to rule in Novgorod. This arrangement apparently did not sit well with Novgorod, which had always desired independence. The citizens rioted and Alexander and Fyodor fled Novgorod back to their home town of Pereslavl. In the movie, Domash of Novgorod declines to lead his people into battle, saying, “Alexander, son of Yaroslav is the only one who can lead us. Summon Alexander.” It appears to me that this reference suggests an earlier leader, Yaroslav the Wise of Novgorod, who is still today highly revered by the Russian people.
On Lake Pleshcheyevo’s shore lay a legendary twelve-ton boulder, the “Blue stone“, which was worshipped by pagans in ancient times. (According to one source, the stone is still a venue for celebrating Russian Orthodox holidays According to another, the stone now lives in the Pereslavl town square.) A large boulder called Raven’s Rock appears in the battle scene of the movie, but located on the shores of Lake Chudskoye, where Alexander plans to engage the enemy.
A Wikipedia source tells me that, when Yaroslav learned that his two sons had returned to Pereslavl, he closed all the river ways to the town, completely blocking it off. In 1239 the Mongols invaded the town and laid waste to it. Alexander came back to his home town and started to rebuild and restore it. In second scene of the movie, we meet Alexander fishing in Lake Pleshcheyevo, while the story of the Battle of the Neva is recalled.
The setting and the lines we sing in Part II, “Song of Alexander Nevsky,”reflect the bardic tradition; the exploits of the hero are recounted as they have been many times before, to inspire and unite the gathered listeners. Our hero Nevsky would much rather be fighting than fishing. In the movie’s early scene he rips apart a fishing net, as if it were a literal entrapment; like other storied heroes, he chafes against a life of inactivity. As a heroic figure, he is defined by a life of action.
The rivers and lakes of Russia also embody metaphorical associations with sustenance and fertility. The opening section of Prokofiev’s cantata, with its depiction of the pallor and aridity of life under the Mongols, contrasts powerfully with the almost lyrical tone of the opening lines we sing in section 2 (even it the text is about chopping boats), visually represented in the movie as a gentle fishing scene.
At moments in the movie Alexander resembles a fertility god. The film underscores the people’s dependence on the waters of Russia for work and sustenance; we first see them pulling in the nets that extend out into the lake. Nevsky intervenes in a skirmish between the locals and visiting Mongols, with the admonishment to quiet down and not bother the fish. He also presides over the marriage of peasants, benignly smiling on their plans to be fertile and procreate with godlike aloofness. He speaks to his people, standing under a bas relief sculpture featuring sheaves of wheat and animals.
The cantata’s “Song about Alexander Nevsky,” includes a striking line of text reads: “We laid down the Swedes and Germans as feather grass on dry earth.” In addition to heroic braggadocio, these lines offer a strong image of drought and sterility, the fate of those who lose access to water. The Neva and other waterways in Russia must call up complex emotions in the Russian people, at once nurturing natural resources and markers of a long history of frightful invasions.
The film actually conflates images of the waters of the Neva River and Lake Pleshcheyevo. We are looking at the lake, but hearing about the exploits on the Neva. Both bodies of water were known for excellent fishing. In later years large fisheries abounded in the Neva, providing food throughout the seasons to peasants and wealthy alike; for centuries fishing this lake provided major sustenance to the Russian people.
Lake Pleshcheyevo was also formerly a resort for Russian tsars, including Peter the Great. The lake was known in the middle ages for its yield of vendace or “freshwater herring” (ryapushka in Russian). Pereslavl exported smoked ryapushka, which was the favorite fish at the Tsars’ table. Pereslavl‘s coat of arms shows two golden ryapushka on a black ground.
The big battle on the ice occurs not on the Neva or on Lake Pleshcheyevo but on Lake Chudskoye, fought between Novgorod and the Teutonic Knights in 1242. This lake is actually the northern section of Lake Peipus, which is the largest trans-boundary lake in Europe, on the border between Estonia and Russia. Like other bodies of water in Russia, Peipus separates cultures and nationalities. invoking feelings of nationalism and the need for constant vigilance.
Chudskoye is the fifth largest lake in Europe; Lake Ladoga from which the Neva River emerges is the largest. Although I have never seen it, I have seen Lake Vännern in Sweden, which is Europe’s fourth largest lake. If you have ever seen any one of these lakes, you will know that their size is overwhelming, stretching to the horizon and resembling inland oceans. Both rivers and lakes can be capricious; the Neva is known to flood its bnnks; winds whip across the waters, and lakes freeze in the winter. In the movie, we see two boats frozen in place on the lake, unusable until the spring thaw.
The Russians, of course, are familiar with subzero temperatures and can cope with the inhospitable conditions to their advantage over the enemy; the cold and watery fate of the enemy is a kind of pathetic fallacy made real: nature, with her harsh intentions, cooperates with the fierce resolve of the Russian army. In the film, the iced-over lake in works as a symbol of unity as well as a literal collaborator, as the remnant of the retreating army is finished off, crashing through the ice into the freezing water. The river literally helps the Russians take a more satisfying revenge for the slaughter of the people of Pskov, as well as the battle casualties. There is also a devilish irony here: the very water that sustains the Russian people brutally drowns the enemy.
Deep inside this music is the knowledge that history will repeat itself, requiring vigilance and readiness. Rivers and lakes are not only features on a map; they are sources of vulnerability as well as sustenance. Loss of these resources to the enemy would cut off major food sources for the people as well as economic potential for trade. Rousing refrains calling the people to battle burst out throughout the cantata, serving as reminders that Russians must stay on guard to protect the waterways as well as the land.
While Prokofiev’s cantata relies on militaristic lyrics that are hard to digest, the film helps understand the Russian connection to their land and people and what made it worth fighting for. The film dialog features folk wisdom, conveying an earthy and grounded culture. Proverbs and sayings, sometime humorous and bawdy, sometimes wise and cunning, are interjected throughout, spoken the mouth of the uneducated Russian peasant. We see the human side of the Russian soldier, as Vasili swings his belt with a lusty gesture, approaching the young maid, Olga, with thoughts of love not war.
If the movie is propaganda, it also has a soft, sensual side that conveys a sense of countryside. The vast plains in the opening scenes, with a slight wind rippling the cloaks of the Mongols; the gentle lake waters into which the fishermen wade with their carefully tended nets; long vistas where water and land meet, and the profuse fields of rye growing thickly by the wayside—all of these work to provide a broader context of an enduring and gentler side of Russia.