Alexander Nevsky and the Symphony of Psalms

6th May 2003.

All right, it's now sixty-five years after the event.  Has nobody else yet spotted this?

"Peregrinus expectavi pedes meos in cymbalis" means "I really don't like Igor Stravinsky".

It took me at least six performances of Alexander Nevsky and four of The Symphony of Psalms (with three different choirs) before the penny dropped, at a rehearsal for a 1994 BBC Prom performance of the Stravinsky piece.  I sent a letter about it to the Musical Times, which was duly published in the October 1994 issue, then forgot all about it.  Today, my curiosity piqued once more, I did an Internet search.  Quite a few people still asking what the heck Prokofiev's nonsense-Latin is all about, and nobody apparently having spotted the real source.  So, for all you Alexander Nevsky buffs out there, including the three guys who use the phrase in question as an email sig., here you are.

By the way, although I was a bit coy in the last paragraph below, I actually see no reason at all not to infer some malicious intent on Prokofiev's part.  He was certainly "having a go" at Stravinsky - his émigré status (enemy of Mother Russia?), his mechanical, backward-looking musical idiom (at least in Prokofiev's opinion), and in particular the percussive word-setting in parts of the Symphony of Psalms - and there doesn't seem to have been much love lost between the two of them over the years.

1st September 1994.

The Editor,
The Musical Times,
7 St. John's Road,
Middlesex, HA1 2EE.

Dear Sir,

Peregrinus - expectavi - pedes meos - in cymbalis.

These are the "nonsensical" Latin words chanted by the Teutonic knights in the 1938 Eisenstein / Prokofiev film Alexander Nevsky.  As a sentence the words are meaningless (A stranger - I waited - my feet - on cymbals), and the repetitive, monotonous chant is held to express the invaders' hypocritical, empty religion.  The choice of words, however, is extremely odd.  They are not sourced from any obvious religious text such as the Mass or the Vespers, in fact they are not even obviously religious.  Why did Prokofiev choose these particular words?  Where did he get them from?

Alexander Nevsky was written after the composer's return to permanent residence in the USSR, and was in effect a Soviet propaganda commission.  The Teutonic knights are classic one-dimensional baddies, "never more happily employed than when throwing a baby onto a bonfire", and in an article for children in the Pioneer in 1939 Prokofiev mentions that they sing "Catholic psalms" as they march into battle.  His original intention was to use genuine 13th century Catholic church music for this scene, but he found this was so alien to 20th century ears that he had to abandon the idea and compose "something better suited to our modern conception".  He seems to have assumed that listeners would identify the four disjointed words / phrases as being from the Psalms, but this is not in fact easy to spot and the connection is not generally remarked on.

In 1930, eight years before the filming of Alexander Nevsky, Igor Stravinsky published his Symphony of Psalms.  Stravinsky selected the text of this piece himself, choosing three passages from the Latin Vulgate.  The first movement is the end of Psalm 39 (verses 12 and 13), the second is the beginning of Psalm 40 (verses 1 to 3), and the third is Psalm 150.  In the first movement a phrase occurs "quoniam advena ego sum apud te, et peregrinus, sicut omnes patres mei" ("for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were").  The second movement begins "Expectans, expectavi Dominum, et intendit mihi" ("I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined unto me"), and continues later, "et statuit super petram pedes meos, et direxit gressus meos" ("and He set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings").  In the last movement we find "Laudate Eum in cymbalis bene sonantibus" ("Praise Him upon the loud cymbals").

If this had been a passage from a single Psalm one might perhaps surmise that Prokofiev had coincidentally hit on the same Latin text to cannibalise as Stravinsky had earlier chosen for his own setting.  However, although the texts of the first two movements are continuous (from two consecutive Psalms), the third, containing the "in cymbalis", is completely separate.  This is really stretching coincidence too far, and it seems as if Prokofiev is making a deliberate point here.

The two composers knew each other well, though they were not always on the best of terms.  They first met in St. Petersburg in 1913, when Prokofiev was 22 and Stravinsky was 31.  Prokofiev, who was not the most tactful of mortals, criticised the introduction to The Firebird, and Stravinsky was less than enchanted.  However when they met again in Rome in 1915 (at the instigation of the impresario Diaghilev) no grudges were borne, and they seem to have parted on good terms.  Hostilities were resumed in 1922, by which time both composers were working closely with Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes.  This time it was Stravinsky who criticised Prokofiev's music (The Love of Three Oranges), precipitating a quarrel, and thereafter relations were strained for several years.  Things seem to have improved before Diaghilev's death in July 1929, when Stravinsky mentions going with his sons to visit Prokofiev, who was then living near Echarvines, the Stravinskys' summer residence.  Nevertheless, in his autobiography Prokofiev expresses his disapproval of Stravinsky's "pseudo-Bachism", not merely referring to the Pergolesi settings in Pulcinella, but implying that the other composer's basic idiom was derivative and backward-looking.

I would speculate that when Prokofiev found himself required to write music in an archaic religious style for the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky he took the opportunity to have a little dig at his émigré compatriot - perhaps in relation to the "pseudo-Bachism" in general, perhaps referring more directly to the percussive word-setting in the Symphony of Psalms where, especially in the third movement, the text is often set with apparently little regard to the meaning of the words.  Without necessarily implying any malicious intent on Prokofiev's part, this is surely quite a good joke.  Has nobody else noticed it in over fifty-five years?

Yours faithfully,

Morag G. Kerr (soprano, BBC Symphony Chorus).


Further developments (1st August 2008)

Another five years, and another look round the Internet.

My Musical Times letter had acquired a semblance of an official web presence, in the form of a listing on the full-text archive service JSTOR.  (Unfortunately, this and other JSTOR links stopped appearing in search engines in October of 2008.)

On 4th March 2008, a query on Usenet regarding the meaning of the Crusader chant was answered by a Jerry Kohl, citing my letter and pointing out the Stravinsky connection.  Later, Jerry told me in correspondence that he'd simply Googled the phrase when he read the query, and had been able to access the JSTOR-archived text through his university subscription.

A follow-up post from a "Mr. D" contains a brilliant summary of Prokofiev's achievement with this stratagem, going far further than I judged prudent in my communication to the douce Musical Times, fourteen years earlier.

For, psychodynamically speaking, P[rokofiev] has actually found a way of having it all:
  1. He's jealous of S[travinsky], so he steals something of his;
  2. At the same time, he protects his own musical pride by stealing from the text rather than from Strav[insky]'s actual music;
  3. He also renders what he steals incomprehensible and meaningless, and so revenges himself upon the work it comes from;
  4. He then dangles his theft in front of people -- whose failure to spot its derivation inevitably reassures him: obviously "they don't really know" the great S[travinsky] work as deeply as he's afraid they will!;
  5. He blends his psychology with the film plot's psychology: Stravinsky and his massively successful masterwork are condensed with the invading Germans as 'the threat from the West';
  6. By associating Stravinsky with German culture he achieves the supreme Russian musical insult -- since for about a hundred years Russian music had been struggling to assert an authentically 'national' identity in the face of Austro-German artistic and theoretical domination. Thus Stravinsky even ends up as being a 'traitor' -- "and we know how the film says we should treat traitors, don't we...?", says Prokofiev's Unconscious. "And it's the film that says that, not me...!!"

Only a couple of days later, on 8th March, a similar query on Listserv was answered by a Will Ryan in almost identical terms, again citing the JSTOR archive as the source of the information.  A Geoffrey Chew also commented, agreeing with the Stravinsky interpretation.

Jerry Kohl and Geoffrey Chew are respected academic musicologists and Will Ryan is an expert on mediaeval Russia, and so their endorsement of my thesis was very gratifying.  It was also interesting to realise that there was still no sign of any reference to an independent discovery of the Stravinsky connection, and further correspondence with Jerry Kohl confirmed that there seems to be no record of anyone else having noticed it.

At the same time, the vast majority of discussions of the Crusader chant still either remark that the words are meaningless or attempt some sort of translation, and my little collection above has grown quite considerably.  I therefore decided to add a paragraph to the Wikipedia entry for Alexander Nevsky, summarising the above.  I also annotated the biographical article on Sergei Prokofiev, as a relevant point had been raised in that text.  I'm again indebted to Jerry Kohl and his Wikipedia editing expertise for keeping the citations correct.

Subsequently, on 3rd October 2008, a Mexican piano teacher (Ahmed Fernando Anzaldúa) wrote about the subject in his "Allegro Molto" blog.

On 8th November I received an email from a choir member from Alabama (Curt Lindsay), who had also noticed the Wikipedia article.  He reported that many of his 200-strong choir were cracking up, thinking about Stravinsky's feet in cymbals!

Finally, although my attempt to add a correction to the most egregious of the translation attempts listed above was largely fruitless, with the "expert" in question deleting my little essay about it every time it was submitted, a version somehow found its way onto the site's archives as an independent page.  Latin question follow-ups.

So, the information gradually disseminates.  However, it's a slow process.  Googling the Latin words still returns far more links to spurious translations and people simply quoting the phrase (for example as a sig line) than to the Stravinsky connection.  But at the same time, search engines have always held the key to the conundrum.  If no quotation marks are employed in the search, by the second page links to A Symphony of Psalms start to appear, and by the third page they are in the majority.  Later, some links to the original Latin text of the Psalms join them.  It's not that obscure!

Morag Kerr (