It has been snowing hard here today. As we endure/enjoy the season in the midst of an appalling pandemic, I’ve been thinking of some music most commonly associated with at this time of year and which contained a memorable classical music tune about a sleigh ride. I’m talking of Prokofiev’s “Troika”.
For a youngster in the 1980s with a Napoleonic uniform obsession, I’d be delighted whenever television would rare occasions throw up something of interest. One Christmas, Prokofiev’s “Lieutenant Kije” suite really caught my imagination when an animated version appeared on television in the early 1980s. Decades later, I still remember certain parts of it and the pleasure I took in seeing animated Napoleonic soldiers appear on screen.
What was this animation?
It was an animation made in 1979 for the BBC and featuring some notable actors (Leo McKern as the Tsar, Patricia Hodge, Tony Robinson and narrated by Peter Settelen). The BFI site lists the puppets as being made by Bob Bura and John Hardwick, (more famous amongst middle-aged people in the UK as being the animators of the Trumptonshire series of programmes, amongst others). However, writer and broadcaster Tim Worthington’s very informative and amusing blog corrects this, citing regular BBC Schools contributor Alan Platt as being the maker of the puppets. His blog mentions how this animated story was shown initially in short instalments in a schools music programme series called Music Time, as part of a noble attempt to ‘make learning fun’, but later combined them into one longer stand-alone animated story.
The plot sees the name of Lt Kije being conjured up after four individual soldier names were put forward for a decoration by the Tsar’s squabbling generals who were unable to agree on a single candidate. The capital letters of each name collectively spelt out KIJE and the short-sighted Tsar, who could only see the capital letters, enquired who this soldier “Kije” was. No one dared point out his mistake and unwilling to risk the terrible wrath of the Tsar, the generals began to bluff and bluster the mythical Lieutenant Kije into existence. They extolled his tremendous exploits and told invented tales of his great bravery. There are some stills from the animated film available on the internet, one of which can be seen below, (featuring the scene of Kije’s creation).
And so the mythical Lieutenant Kije was born. In my searches, I found the lyrics to a song about Kije, the verses of which track his rise through the ranks; in this case from a hussar, via a captain, eventually through to a general and then a hero.
Oh, Kije was a hussar bold, a hussar bold was he.
The bravest soldier of the tsar, the pride of the Cavalry.
Oh, Kije was a captain fine, a captain fine was he.
So fearless in the cannons roar, he led his company.
Oh Kije was a Colonel fierce. A colonel fierce was he.
His soldiers never paused for rest till they routed the enemy.
Oh Kije was a general brave, a general brave was he.
His army always lead the van to gain the victory.
Oh, Kije won a hero’s fame, a hero’s fame won he.
The bravest soldier to serve the Tzar in the ranks of Muscovy.
Now Kije never lived at all the Tzar’s mistake was he.
But as the Tzar could do no wrong, a myth he had to be.
Mindful of those wonderful animated soldier puppets, I was interested in some of the depictions of the mythical Kije on the LP and CD covers of Prokofiev’s music, seeing the myth brought to life (so to speak), one of which pleasingly used model soldiers (see below – looking curiously like Austrian grenadiers…).
Here, on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s recording, Kije is now shown (as in the song), as a hussar. His dress includes a red shako with green pelisse and dolman.
This Kije on an RCA Victor LP at least appears altogether more distinctly Russian. He is dressed, it appears, as a guard Cossack of Tsar.
The Chicago Symphony’s recording of Kije has a more abstract cover combining a Nightingale and other figures, but Kije can be seen in another red Guard Cossack uniform. This time he sports a tall shako with a strange multi-coloured feather plume arrangement.
The mythical Kije is (suitably enough) absent in the BIS release, leaving just a blue uniform with red facings and a black bicorne. Riding boots and gauntlet gloves suggest an equally invisible horse.
A very colourful artistic rendition for Capitol’s recording twinned with the Hary Janos Suite. The choice of coupling Hary Janos with Kije is appropriate as Janos was an old hussar in the Austrian army who would tell outrageously tall tales (in the manner of Baron Von Munchausen) including single-handedly beating Napoleon! The question from the cover below is – who is whom? Neither look particularly Russian, more Hungarian, but my money is on Janos being the figure on the right with a hussar’s pelisse, which puts our Lt. Kije (with hearts at his feet) in a very curious – and very decorated – uniform indeed.
Decca describes its label as being “the world of great classics”, and this seems to extend to military history judging by this cover. From a uniform as outrageously fantastic as one of Janos’ tales, we return to an identifiable classic Russian army uniform. Kije’s back in the infantry here, apparently now an officer in the guard from the Napoleonic period.
Once again, those two military men of myth and fabrication, Hary Janos and Lt Kije, are brought together in this next release. They sit together sharing a drink and swapping outrageous tall tales with Janos dressed in a peasant outfit and Kije more identifiable this time in another Guard Cossack uniform. The cover even appears to use models, in the manner of my animated film.
Next we have on of the original theatrical posters for Prokofiev’s first production. Kije is shown in outline only with an officer’s bicorne hat, as suitable a way as any to depict a man that never was. I believe it’s the Tsar shown to the foreground in a blue coat with the Russian soldiers wearing a very un-Russian red mid-18th century uniform!
The Soviets also produced one of the earliest sound films made in the Soviet Union using the plot of Lt. Kije. The court officials are forced to cover up Kije’s repeated non-appearance at court by announcing that “General Kijé” has, unfortunately, died. This leads to a lavish funeral, his tomb thereby literally becoming a cenotaph (the Greek word ‘cenotaph’ literally meaning ’empty tomb’). Set in the time of Tsar Paul I (1796-1801), a still below shows a really fabulous scene at the beginning of the film where (in a remarkably adept piece of early film editing) the soldiers parade, march and drill in time to Prokofiev’s memorable opening movement in the suite – ‘the birth of Lieutenant Kije’!
And – returning to the subject of sleighs – the most famous part of Prokofiev’s score is undoubtedly the “Troika” movement, used most memorably in the late Greg Lake’s Christmas hit “I believe in Father Christmas”. A troika is a sleigh pulled by three horses, and it’s the bells jingling on their tack which provides this music with it’s particularly Christmassy vibe.
All of which brings me nicely back to my own current Russian sleigh painting efforts. Preparations for an immanent house move have limited painting activity and may well do so for a while to come. In the meantime, I aim to keep up to date with the blogging and painting efforts of others as much as I can. In the interim, I offer best wishes to all visitors for the season and a hopefully much happier and healthier 2021.
POST SCRIPT: I am pleased to announce that this has been Suburban Militarism’s 500th post! Hoorah!