Prokofiev: Nevsky Cantata



1.1 Plato's views on art

It was after meeting Socrates that Plato devoted himself entirely to philosophy. We know that he received a good art education before choosing a life devoted to philosophy. He was interested in fields such as music, painting; He wrote love poems and a tragedy. It is possible to see all the elements in life in Plato's philosophy. Not only in epistemological and metaphysical issues; He also made approaches on subjects such as ethics, politics and philosophy of art. We can say that the philosophy of art he developed is a first in the history of thought.

The theoretical part of the philosophy of art developed by Plato is aesthetics. It is used as a tool with the aesthetic philosophy of art and enlightens us on what beauty is. As he established the systematic philosophy of art, the first and fundamental question about aesthetics, "What is beautiful?" Plato was the first to ask the question.

Plato devoted the entire dialogue of “Hippias the Great” to the concept of beauty. Through aesthetics, a connection is established with fine and fine art. Inquiries on fine and fine art emerge thanks to Plato. Plato talks about two different beauties in his speeches about beauty in the Great Hippias dialogue.

One is the "Beautiful Idea", which is beautiful in itself, and the other is those that are beautiful one by one. The appearance of the beautiful ones one by one is beautiful, but this is because they carry and reflect the beautiful idea of ​​each of them.

Plato cared about art, but because he was afraid or even afraid of the effects of art, he had a negative view of art in general. It approves the use of art in education, but imposes certain regulations and restrictions, saying that the possibility of art corrupting morality is considered.

For example, he says that it is wrong to read Homer, that this poet mocks the gods. Plato says that the ethical and metaphysical order of the world should be given correctly by art, and that a work of art can be valuable if it gives this order correctly. For him, art is a moral condition.

Plato does not include poets and painters in his ideal state, and he has no confidence in these artists. However, if the artist does what he imitates in a way that encourages goodness and virtue and creates good feelings in people, he can have a place in the state.

1.2 Plato's views on the art of music

Before dwelling on Plato's views, it is necessary to touch upon the music culture of Ancient Greece. Etymology of the word music “Mousiké Tekhne” It is based on the word (Μουσική Τεχνη), meaning “The Art of the Moses”. The Musas are the daughters of Zeus and they convey the knowledge of the gods using music.

In fact, music is an important part of daily life in the Ancient Greek period, as it is in every era and state. Like the vast majority of Mediterranean nations, the Greeks are a fun-loving nation. We often see the three main instruments in shows in daily life. These "Lyre" "Kithara" ve “Aulos” named instruments.

The lyre and the Kithara are stringed instruments and the Aulos is a wind instrument. Aulos is a kind of pipe and according to Plato, this instrument is not pleasant to use because the shape of the face looks bad when played.

One of the most important points to be mentioned when talking about Plato's views on music is Plato's admiration for music from different geographies; Influenced by Far East and Egyptian music.

In fact, he was so influenced by the music in Egyptian culture that; Based on the knowledge of this music, the inventor of which was the god Osiris, which remained unchanged for hundreds of years, he says that the rules of music should never change, and there is no need for this. According to Plato, music, like all other arts, is a simple imitation.

Everyone has to accept that the works given in the field of music are for imitation and description purposes. The artist has no knowledge of reality. At least, the craftsman who has mastered the function and purpose of the copy of his ideas is ahead of the artist. The artist only makes a copy of the copy of the ideas. By using the imagination of people, the artist can lead them to immoral behavior, and deceives the public with his imperfect imitations. art mimesis, art mimesis so is music.

1.3 Aristotle's Views on Music and On Catharsis

The word catharsis is a word taken from Aristotle's book called “Poetics” and its equivalent in our language can be given as “Purification”. We see this word in Plato's state book in a very different sense, as an adjective dedicated to honorable, brave and just rulers.

We will examine catharsis in art. Katharsis is one of those rare terms whose meaning has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, and its use in philosophy of art is not much different from its everyday usage.

However, the concept of catharsis in the philosophy of art is a necessary condition for the creation of the work. Even though this necessity seems to have come to an end as the postmodern era has taken over our world, making a work of art come into being in a feeling is still a priority for most people.

Aristotle classifies three different sciences in Metaphysics. These are theoretical, practical and poetic sciences. Poetic sciences have different "poiesis", that is, the desire to create and each product is the result of a creation. The concept of catharsis, which is related to the poetic sciences, especially to tragedy, is explained in the Poetics as follows: "The duty of tragedy is to cleanse the soul of passions with the feelings of pity and fear it evokes." 

The tragic element becomes pleasurable only when it is brought to artistic quality. For this reason, the presence of the tragic desire for pleasure is an important element of poiesis. It is essential that the tragic effect does not create disgust, the elements that will create disgust cannot be brought to the stage. Tragedy and catharsis are one, their purpose is to make the evil good in the story.

Feelings such as pity for the character experienced by the audience, sadness and fear by comparing them with their own experiences are feelings that cause catharsis. The audience under the cathartic influence uses the 'Polyanna Mechanism' in gratitude for their own situation. 

Thanks to the Polyanna mechanism, the person realizes that he is not alone in his sufferings and thinks that it is God's will to suffer these pains, is thankful that he is not in a worse situation and completes his purification.

Aristotle does not mention what imitation is in his views on art. He got the information about the concept of imitation from his teacher, Plato, and he himself thinks that art is a mimesis, imitation. However, Aristotle points out that the desire to know, to know, to understand, to learn – or even curiosity – lies at the basis of liking works of art, which are a product of imitation.

In fact, according to him, imitating is a natural impulse and is completely normal. I think it would be appropriate to quote Aristotle's views on music as follows: “Of course, music has its own unique pleasure; All ages and all kinds of people like and enjoy it. But we must do more than share the general pleasure that everyone finds in him; We need to explore whether music has any effect on character and mind. (…) And, of course, it is clear from many examples that music does indeed have such an effect. (…) Again, while listening to Seyirlik performances, all people are influenced by the performance beyond the melody rhythms used. Since music falls under the category of pleasurable things, and virtue therein is to enjoy right, to like right things, it is clear that there is no habit to be acquired (through music) (…) but to enjoy right judgment and good morals and noble actions.”

1.4 Reflection of Katharsis in Music

We can find the reflection of catharsis in music in many different ways. First of all, works with a tragic story and the main subject of Ancient Greek tragedies create the cathartic effect. But music is such a superior art that it processes many emotions in our minds through melodies, even without words and images. Therefore, in the author's view, music does not need words and stories to create a cathartic effect. A single piece of music can evoke different emotions in hundreds of people at the same time.

Situations that are possible to live in a temporal universe, not because of a figure, put people in a cathartic effect thanks to the "mental" reminder of music. Music is art that makes the tragic feel most profoundly and with the least effort. I think it would be appropriate to give music therapy sessions to the indirect use of the cathartic effect in music.

Music therapy is a method that has been used since ancient times in people's mental treatment or as an aid in the treatment of physical ailments. We can explain the positive change in a person's mental state through music in line with the psychological effects of catharsis.


2.1 History of the creation of the work examination as

The invaluable Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev is the composer of more than ten operas and many vocal works. In the year the calendars showed 1938, Prokofiev was generally interested in film scores. 1938 was an important musical year for Prokofiev, he went on tour in Europe and America. Especially the American tour was very impressive for the composer, as he studied Hollywood movie soundtracks. In this period, more mixed music, which usually accompanies silent films, became fashionable in Europe.

At the request of the director Sergei Eisenstein, he wrote the music for the film Aleksander Nevski and rearranged it in 1929 in the form of a cantata.

The success of the work that Prokofiev started to compose in 1936 cannot be ignored, it was a work that was popular with everyone from children to the elderly at that time. When Prokofiev returned to Russia in 1936, he ended his 18-year personal exile.

Only because of the censored communist regime, he could not carry out any new work for almost three years. Eisenstein made his mark with films such as "The Strike" and "The Battleship Potemkin": The two Russians are trapped under the piercing gaze of the communist regime. Prokofiev was seen as "Western and Cosmopolitan" and was not left alone by the censorship and bureaucracy until his death.

When Prokofiev and Eisenstein were making the movie, they had to make sure that Stalin supported it with his interest in this movie - we know that Stalin wanted this film to be directed by Eisenstein - Prokofiev was a composer with an incredible attention to detail. For this reason, he fascinated Eisenstein. Prokofiev later wrote the music for "Ivan the Terrible", another Eisenstein film in 1942.

2.2 Subject and format of the work

Alexander Nevsky was a prince of Novgorod who lived from 1220-1263. It became known as such after winning the war with the Swedes around the Neva River in 1240. The Russian Orthodox church Nevski was proclaimed Saint on the frozen Lake Peipus in 1242 because it had won a victory over the German Teutonic knights during this period.

The movie was released to encourage the soldiers when Germany attacked Russia in the Second World War, and was removed from the vision when Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact.

Prokofiev used coarser and thicker sounds, repetitive and aggressive motifs for the Teutonic knights, while he described the Russian soldiers with optimistic and broad melodic motifs. When the soundtrack was arranged as a cantata, it was arranged in 7 parts. These sections are as follows:

1- Russia in the Mongolian Yoke
2- Song on Alexander Nevsky (Describes the events on the Neva River. He tells how the Russian people smashed the Swedish ships, did not spare their blood for the Motherland. “The place where the big ax landed was empty, the place where the sharp spear landed was opened, the Swedes were uprooted like weeds)

3- Crusaders in Pskov (in Latin it means the Crusaders)

4- Revolt O Russian People

5- Battle on ice

6- Field of death

7- It is Alexander's Entry into Russia.

Cantata arranged for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and choir. In the work, instruments (such as clarinet, horn, etc.) that are normally written to parture by transposing are written without transposing. This situation created a great change in the orchestral writing technique and made it easier for the piece to be read by the conductor. Prokofiev realized that he had difficulties in the parts he read and used such a technique.

3.1 Examination of the work in line with Plato's approaches

I have mentioned Plato's views on music in the previous sections. Now, by combining the information we mentioned, we will make inferences about our main subject.

Work, II. As mentioned in the episode, it tells the story of a hero. This hero is Alexander Nevski, a brave and talented soldier. The story of Alexander Nevski has been revealed in many different ways.

Plato argues that music is imitation, mimesis. The quality of the work in question is a reflection of real life, considering that the listeners already know that what is described in the work is a reflection of real-life events, the work complies with Plato's view, Plato will confirm this.

If we examine the work in different ways; The work, especially in Chapter 4, dictates that the people of Russia should wake up and take action, and emphasizes the courage of the Russian people.

Words can arouse the Russian people by going against the historical facts. Moreover, the part and the related movie II. We know that there was indeed such a use in World War II.

Works that would disrupt such peace and trust can be seen as immoral by Plato. Plato is also famous for his theoretical approaches to music, and he also argues that music should not change.

The work in question has nothing to do with the kinds of music that Plato thought should not change, but we should know that music and philosophy should be studied in their own time. I think that such an interpretation would not be appropriate.

In the relevant work, I can say that there is no situation that we can argue that Nevski's life and Russia are not explained correctly or that he is not within the moral rules, and I can say that it complies with the morality of music and art dictated by Plato.

There is no part in the work that aims to exploit people's imagination and shift them to different thoughts, and its main purpose is to provide information. For this reason, it is a work that can take its place in Plato's ideal state model.

3.2 How Does Catharsis Occur in the Work?

I have mentioned what the concept of catharsis is and how it is formed in the relevant sections. The Alexander Nevsky Cantata tells a heroic story. The concept of catharsis can occur here over Russia. Russia is an occupied and bleeding country at the beginning of the work.

In this part, the listener realizes the plight of the country and is grateful that he does not live in a country that is under this situation or when his country is under occupation.

Chapter 3, which describes the Crusaders' entry into Pskov, is indeed very impressive musically, the listener relives the emotions given in the previous sentence in this occupation.

At the end of the work, Alexander Nevski saved the country with his heroism, the tragic situation is over. The listener experiences a sense of relaxation.

3.3 Analysis of the Work in the Line of the Catharsis Phenomenon in Aristotle

Aristotle associates the concept of catharsis with tragedy in his Poetics, which is the only and greatest source he wrote about catharsis, and describes it as a concept that emerges with the tragic.

This means that there must be a tragedy in the work for catharsis to occur. 3.2. As I mentioned in the previous section, the tragedy of a country is told in the plot of this work.

The concept of tragedy, of course, is a little different from the meaning of Aristotle in his lifetime. Ancient Greek tragedies are still used in classical works today.

Aleksander Nevsky cantata describes the occurrence and end of a tragedy, even if it is not an Ancient Greek tragedy. The author argues that the concept of tragedy should be examined by adapting it to the present, that the meanings of words are changing, and he also argues that the tragedy that will create catharsis may be out of the Ancient Greek tragedies.


Today, some concepts do not form similar expressions with their meanings in the past. For this reason, the author should write his articles by taking into account the temporal changes of the concepts.

The phenomenon of catharsis is a philosophy of art concept that is included in very few concepts whose meaning does not change by challenging history.

The philosophy of art started with Plato and Plato's detailed views were also included in the article. When Prokofiev's Aleksander Nevsky Cantata was examined in terms of related concepts and approaches, it was seen that these concepts and approaches met their demands to a certain extent.

No comment was made on the instrumentation of the work, because the author did not find it correct to associate it with musical instruments in the period when the philosophers studied.

Katharsis is an important concept that has a great share in the emotions reflected by the work of art today, and it is seen that different purification methods are used in the works created throughout history.


AKAN, Understanding of Music in N. Platon, Istanbul 2009

AKTUZE I. Reading Music, Volume 4

ARISTOTELES, Poetics, Can Publications, 2018

Aristotle, Poetics, 1987, trans. İsmail Tunali, Remzi Bookstore

PLATO, Laws, 1998, Trans. C. Şentuna, S. Babür, Kabalcı Publishing House

PLATO, The State, 1998, trans. S. Eyüboğlu, MA Cimcoz, İşbank Cultural Publications;

CAN, The Concept of Catharsis in H. Aristotle

YETİŞKEN, H. The Function and What of Art in Aristotle

DÖNMEZ, B. Mutsan, The Appearance of Katharsis, a Psycho-ethical Phenomenon, in Music

GUILLAUMIER, Christina K, Ambigious Modernism: The Early Orchestral Works Of Sergei Prokofiev, Tempo Vol 65, No 256, April 2011, p. 25-37

BRAUN, William, Prokofiev's Choral Works, The Choral Journal Vol 31, No. 10, May 1991, p. 17-25

MERRITT, Russell, Recharging “Alexander Nevsky”: Tracking the Eisenstein- Prokofiev War Horse, Film Quarterly, Vol 48, No 2., 1994-1995, p. 24-37


Your email address Will not be published.