According to the great Russian film director, Sergei Eizenstein, Prokofiev's music “is national… but not in the customary Russian pseudo-realistic spirit. His national character derives from true sources which formed the national consciousness of the Russian people; and which is reflected in the folk wisdom of the ancient frescos of Andrei Rubliov. This is why the evocations of the antique sounds so authentic in Prokofiev's music – he does not use antiquated and stylised devices but approaches it with a virtually hazardous daring by using the most extreme, ultramodern compositional methods.”
With these words in mind , it is no surprise that Eizenstein asked Prokofiev to compose the music for his film Alexander Nevsky. Co-operation between the two artists went like clockwork. Not only did the composer adapt his music to the rhythms of the finished film, but the music was often sufficiently inspired to make Eizenstein recut the film so it would fit the music better. The Hungarian music aesthete János Maróthy has described the film as being virtually a film ballet.
The action of the film is set in the 13th century. For the Russians under the Mongol yoke, the Novgorod princedom is their only hope. This is then placed under sustained attack from the West. Alexander first dispatches the Swedes alongside the river Néva, but then also defeats the German Christian knights in a battle on the ice of the river Csud. This event is placed in the centre of the film, and formed the theme of the Cantata that Prokofiev later wrote recycling the film music. This was premiered in Moscow in 1939 on May 17th, conducted by the composer. The cantata divides the story of the film into seven sections. The first paints the events leading up to the film “Russia under the Mongol yoke.” The next three introduce the positive hero (“Song about Alexander Nevsky”), and then the hated enemy (Knights in Pskov), and finally the people rising up together. The fifth movement is the “Ice battle”, while the final two scenes are vocal. The first mourns those who fell (“The field of the dead”) and the last praises the triumphant leader (“Alexander marches into Pskov”)