Nearly 90 years later, "A Soldier's Tale" Marches On
Left: Igor Stravinsky in 1921. Right: Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra's Associate Conductor, Kim Roy. Photo by Jason Tang.
Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale Marches into the Millennium
by Geoffrey Larson
Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs L’Histoire du soldat by Igor Stravinsky conducted by Kim Roy at the Chapel Performance Space, Saturday, October 26 at 2:00 PM. For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Not unlike Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky went through three successive periods of composition whose musical variety would propel him into the pantheon of immortal composers. His first period, commonly known as his Russian, or “Primitivist” period, saw him achieve international fame with his revolutionary ballets: The Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring. The composer embarked on a new approach in his second period, writing music for smaller ensembles in a new aesthetic now referred to as Neoclassicism, emulating the counterpoint and traditional formal organization of his Baroque and Classical predecessors, notably Johann Sebastian Bach. It was before he moved on to a total breakdown of tonality and form in his final, Schoenberg-influenced Serialist period that he produced one of his most beloved and enduring works: L’Histoire du soldat, or A Soldier’s Tale. This Neoclassical chamber work for seven musicians is one of the few successful programmatic works in the chamber repertoire, telling the story of a soldier who does a deal with the devil. Its staying power as a contemporary classic derives from its charming musical creativity, its conveniently pocket-sized yet odd instrumentation (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion), and curious storyline. The original version features a narrator and two actors accompanied by a dancer.
At the beginning of L’Histoire du soldat, a soldier marches home on leave toting a violin. The music starts off with an appropriately stately march full of jovial interjections from the various instruments of the ensemble (Marche du soldat). The soldier stops to play his fiddle and the devil appears, disguised as a man with a butterfly net. The devil asks to buy the soldier’s instrument, offering a book that predicts the economic developments of the future, essentially offering the owner unlimited wealth. Having sold his violin to the devil in exchange for the book’s insider trading advice, the soldier becomes very rich but soon loses all he holds dear: the love of his community, family, and fiancée. A mournful clarinet melody intones the soldier’s lament at this realization (Pastorale). Finding no solace in his book, he flings it away and the music marches on. He hears news that the king’s daughter is sick and whoever can cure her will gain her hand in marriage. He eagerly travels to the king’s palace, where he is met with the devil disguised as a virtuoso violinist. Suddenly understanding the gambit, the soldier challenges the devil to a game of cards and loses all the money gained from the book, breaking the devil’s power over him. The ensemble plays a merry ditty (Petit concert) as the soldier seizes his violin once more. Heading to the princess’ chambers, the soldier continues fiddling as she is miraculously cured and dances to a series of increasingly anachronistic dance forms (Tango, Valse, Ragtime). The devil once again appears but is forced by the soldier’s violin to dance a fiendishly fast, rhythmically uneven ballet. The ensemble members share the devil’s pain in this virtuosic Danse du diable. The soldier and princess embrace following the devil’s collapse, accompanied by the tender Petit choral, but are interrupted as the endlessly annoying creature revives and warns the soldier that he shall fall under the devil’s control once again should he leave the palace. The narrator austerely intones the moral of the story as the ensemble plays the stern Grand choral: cherish what you have and resist wanting more lest you lose everything. When the soldier finally succumbs, departing the castle in order to see his mother, his princess disappears. In the final music, the Marche triomphale du diable, violin and percussion spar in a sonic battle, with the drums finally crushing the violin and beating away to the end unaccompanied, sealing the devil’s victory over the soldier.
The capitalistic themes of L’Histoire are somewhat ironic, as Stravinsky wrote the piece in 1918 in hopes of making money from a traveling theater-troupe scheme. The composer was suffering from a shrinking post-war bank account and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes of Rite of Spring notoriety had also fallen on hard times. Though it was not a tremendous success in financial terms, the great musical achievement of L’Histoire ensured its place among the most popular chamber works of the enduring repertoire. Ensembles choose to perform it either with narration, acting and dancing, or let the music tell the story quite evocatively on its own. Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra has chosen the latter, transporting each character’s personality and fate into the instruments of the septet.