Sergei Prokofiev: Scythian Suite

Context

Sergei Prokofiev composed his Scythian Suite in 1915. The music was originally composed for the ballet Ala i Lolli – a story that takes place alongside the Scythians. Prokofiev received the commission from Sergei Diaghilev, he actually rejected the score before Prokofiev could even finish it. The whole ballet was then scrapped, but Prokofiev saw the potential in his score. He then went away and created a four-movement suite entitled the Scythian Suite. This new work premiered in January 1916 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg with Prokofiev conducting. 

 

The Music
Movement I – Invocation to Veles and Ala 

Depicting the barbaric and harsh dances and rituals undertaken by the Scythians. The rip-roaring brass and fluttering strings set the scene for this opening movement. Big climactic chords make up the first epic climax of the movement, with the orchestra uniting on pertinent parts of the theme. Prokofiev’s use of percussion here creates the grandeur and power that supports the rest of the orchestra. 

As the music begins to simmer down, a solo flute emerges. Accompanied by the bare minimum of strings, this more mysterious middle section is very different in character to the opening thwart of sound. The music slowly grows, with Prokofiev adding more instruments on every repeat before the movement ends quietly.

 

Movement II – The Evil God and the Dance of the Pagan Monsters

This movement depicts the Scythians making a sacrifice to Ala, with the Evil God performing a violent dance surrounded by monsters. After a big timpani roll, this militaristic-style movement opens with a bang. Led by the brass, the powerful block chords are accompanied by the percussion. Prokofiev’s use of dissonance here stands out, especially after the wall of sound is broken off into a string interlude. The energy from the opening is heard again near the end of this movement, this time accentuated with syncopated crashes. 

 

Movement III – Night 

Here the Evil God has harmed Ala, and now the Moon Maidens descend to console her. Unlike the previous two movements, the third begins quietly and is full of intensity. The music fluctuates between ethereal and mysterious. The twinkling percussion represents the Moon Maidens and their dainty movements. This movement also ends quietly.

 

Movement IV – The Glorious Departure of Lolli and the Cortège of the Sun

The hero of the story, Lolli, comes to save Ala with the Sun God, who defeats the Evil God. The two Gods battle it out through this movement, with the Sun God and Lolli triumphant in their efforts. The second half of this movement depicts a musical sunrise to showcase their victory. The intricate woodwind and string interludes create excitement in this movement which all leads to the glorious conclusion of this story. 

 

Final Thoughts

Interestingly, the Scythian Suite did not receive wholly positive reviews. The magazine Music commented that the premiere was “A scandal in high society. The first movement was received in silence. The last called forth both applause and stormy protests. Despite this, the composer, who had conducted his own ‘barbaric’ work, took a number of bows.” 

 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

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