Though it may be hard to conceive almost a hundred years later, when sound film technology premiered it was avant-garde in a way that subsequent technological breakthroughs (3-D, digital animation, digital compositing, steadicam) have not been since. While the avant-garde had been experimenting with film since the nascence of the medium, sound brought a new group of artists into the cinematographic world: musicians and composers.
The Soviets, always at the cutting edge of cinema, made their first sound film in 1931, but composers had begun composing film soundtracks even before that (which would be performed with the film or recorded and played to accompany the film), including Shostakovich, who composed his first film score in 1929. In 1932, Prokofiev was commissioned to write the soundtrack for Lieutenant Kijé, based on Russian formalist and Pushkin authority Yuri Tynyanov's novella. It would be the first of several film scores by the composer, which would include Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky. Prokofiev had the reputation of a radical, as far as his music was concerned, but he was an inspired choice. Lieutenant Kijé tells a story that is equal parts comedic and tragic, tracing a lineage from the elegance of Pushkin and the irony of Gogol: a clerical mistake results in the nonexistent Lieutenant Kijé to catch the eye of Tsar Paul I and the officials of the court, too frightened to admit their error, soon find in their accidental creation the perfect scapegoat and the perfect hero. If the Tsar is angry, Kijé did it; if a princess needs a husband, Kijé marries her; if the army needs a commander, Kijé rides at their head. When in the end, Kijé cannot be produced, the Tsar is told that the Russian hero has died and Kijé receives a lavish funeral. Rather than end on a note of triumph for the ephemeral lieutenant, when a scapegoat is required again, the deceased Kijé is posthumously accused.
Prokofiev wrote about fifteen minutes of incidental music, scored for a chamber orchestra, for the actual film, but it is the later suite, of about twenty minutes, scored for full orchestra, that became a beloved concert piece. The suite exemplifies two tendencies in Prokofiev's music: an entranced love for the 18th century (also evident in his Classical Symphony, his first, and the score for Cinderella) and a thoroughly modern experimentalism, most obvious in his use of the saxophone, which had acquired some popularity among the Parisian composers with whom Prokofiev associated, but was almost unknown in the USSR. These two approaches are entwined in the story, for, while is set in the decidedly 18th century world of the despotic tsardom, with all its labyrinthine bureaucratic ceremony, its pomp, its sudden, fateful changes in favor, its modernity is marked: its tragic irony, its Beckettian hero who is there and yet not there, its moral vapidity, its refusal to define absolute realities. The creation of Kijé is not the literal handiwork of folk tradition, like the Jewish Golem, nor the scientific monster of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Kijé exists because he is said to exist; he is a post-factual being.
The suite has five movements, which narrate the tragicomic "life" of the chimerical Kijé. The "Birth of Kijé" introduces Kijé's theme with a fanfare. This is followed by "Romance," in which various instruments, including notably the saxophone, develop an increasingly complex rendition of a folk tune about a dove, "Kijé's Wedding," which intertwines a solemn theme of brass and winds with the playful, rakish melody of the lieutenant's theme, and then the "Troika," an exquisite aural vision of a sleigh-ride in deep winter, in which tinkling sleigh-bells accompany our ephemeral hero on his merry way. The "Troika" is based on a traditional Hussar song and is often extracted and recycled in pop music, particularly Christmas-themed songs. The final movement, "The Burial of Kijé," mingles the various themes, in an elegiac reflection on Kijé's fantastic, if decidedly fictional, life.
Prokofiev demonstrated a fascination throughout his career with Russian folk tradition (Peter and the Woolf, The Tale of the Stone Flower), a celebration of heroic (if perplexingly so) figures of Russian history (the score for Alexander Nevsky, the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, the Stalingrad piano sonata), fairy tales (Cinderella), and literature, especially but not limited to Russian literature (War and Peace, Romeo and Juliet, the Pushkin Waltzes). Many of these interests are apparent in the pageant-like Lieutenant Kijé Suite. The piece is unique, however, for it, more than any other of Prokofiev's compositions, is a work about itself. Since Kijé is a purely imaginary man, his story is metafictional, fictional not only to us, the listeners, but to the flesh-and-blood characters, who have created him in their own (fictional) world. In this sense, the suite reflects upon itself, upon the flights and visions that, within the mind of the artist, are the fertile material of his compositions. It tells us the story of creation, of its own composition, as it tells the story of the creation of a man who was and yet was not. Kijé's existence is bounded by belief in him, just as the suite that brings him to life is bounded by our hearing it.