A Musical Conversation in a Time of War

Sting released an accoustic version of his 1980s solo hit Russians in light of the war in Ukraine. It is, I think, a decided improvement on the original.

This new version, stripped of the lyric about President Reagan, is a bit more one-sided, but the message of universality remains the same. Perhaps this is why Sting’s melody was lifted wholessale from the great Soviet composer Sergei Prokoviev. There will be much more to come about Prokoviev later in this blog, but I do find it telling that Sting’s song is grounded in Russian music.

Specifically, the main theme can be found in Prokoviev’s Lieutenant Kije score. Originally composed for a silent film, the score was reworked as an orchestral suite. The theme opens the second movement–Romance–for which Prokoviev wrote an optional vocal part for baritone. Here are both versions, first with the baritone and then with the cello subbing in, as it does in Sting’s version.

One final note: In considering how composers borrow themes and ideas from each other, it is important to note that this theme did not originate with Prokoviev–he lifted it from a Russian folk song, a common practice that stretches all the way back to the Baroque Period at the very least.

A somber Conversation for a somber time.

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