In his very first attempt at writing film-music, Prokofieff produced an out-and-out masterpiece, one of his best-loved and most bewitching scores, a feast of light-hearted and unforgettable melodies and sparkling orchestration, with a dark undertow to the music all of its own. The satirical plot was perfect for this so-often caustic and witty composer. A clerical error comes up with the name of a nonexistent soldier, Kijé. When the Tsar becomes interested in this peculiar name, terrified officials have to invent an entire life and death for him.
The original film-score consists of a fascinating sequence of very many short movements, each underlining or summing up a dramatic situation to perfection. For the ever popular symphonic suite, Prokofieff cut, altered and wove together these fragments into five longer movements, telling the story of the birth, adventures, marriage and eventual death of the fictitious lieutenant. The scoring makes plentiful use of the haunting sounds of the tenor saxophone. And the overall effect is to bring out not only the charm and humour, but also the underlying feeling of what Prokofieff called ‘tragedy’. What he meant was not the fate of the ridiculous Kijé, but that of a whole nation so frightened of its rulers that it is led ever deeper into absurdity.
Note by Gerard McBurney