About this Recording
8.573537 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Soldier's Tale (The) (F. Child, McGuire, Biehl, Tianwa Yang, Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players, Falletta)

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947)
The Soldier’s Tale


Igor Stravinsky was the son of a distinguished bass soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, creator of important rôles in new operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was born, the third of four sons, at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1882. In childhood his ability in music did not seem exceptional, but he was able to study privately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a particularly important influence after the death of Stravinsky’s strong-minded father in 1902. He completed a degree in law in 1905, married in the following year and increasingly devoted himself to music. Stravinsky’s first significant success came when the impresario Diaghilev, a distant relative on his mother’s side of the family, commissioned from him the ballet The Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. This was followed by the very Russian Petrushka in 1911 for the Diaghilev Ballets russes, with which he was now closely associated, leading, in 1913, to the notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring, first staged, like the preceding ballets, in Paris. Although collaboration with Diaghilev was limited during the war, when Stravinsky lived principally in Switzerland, it was resumed with the ballet Pulcinella in 1920, marking the composer’s association with neo-classicism. The collaboration with Diaghilev ended with what the latter described as a macabre present, Oedipus Rex, with a text by Cocteau, intended to mark the twentieth anniversary of Diaghilev’s career as an impresario in 1927.

Stravinsky has been compared to his near contemporary Picasso, the painter who provided decor for Pulcinella and who, through a long career, was to show mastery of a number of different styles. Stravinsky’s earlier music was essentially Russian in inspiration, followed by a style of composition derived largely from the eighteenth century, interspersed with musical excursions in other directions. His neo-classicism coincided with the beginning of a career that was now international. The initial enthusiasm for the Russian revolution of 1917 that had led even Diaghilev to replace the crown and sceptre in The Firebird with a red flag, was soon succeeded by distaste for the new regime and the decision not to return to Russia.

In 1934 Stravinsky had taken out French citizenship but five years later, with war imminent in Europe, he moved to the United States, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death of his first wife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a long earlier association and the couple settled in Hollywood, where the climate seemed congenial. Income from his compositions was at last safeguarded by his association with the publishers Boosey and Hawkes in 1945, the year of his naturalisation as an American citizen. 1951 saw the completion and first performance of the English opera The Rake’s Progress, a work that marked the final height of his neo-classicism. The last period of his life brought a change to serialism, the technique of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg, a fellow-exile in California with whom he had never chosen to associate. In 1962 he made a triumphant return to Russia for a series of concerts in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Among his final compositions are the Requiem Canticles of 1965–6, which follow his Requiem Introitus for the death of the poet T.S. Eliot, but prefigure his own death, which took place in New York in April 1971. He was buried in the cemetery on the island of San Michele in Venice, his grave near that of Diaghilev, whose percipience had launched his career sixty years before.

The war years, between 1914 and 1918, brought inevitable difficulties, accentuated after the revolution of 1917 and the consequent loss of property in Russia and income. The year brought sorrow at the death of his beloved governess Bertushka (Bertha Essert), who had for him taken the place of a mother, and then, in August, of his brother Guri on the Romanian front. His wife was ill, her illness the original reason for residence in Switzerland, and there were four children to care for. It was in these circumstances that Stravinsky turned to the idea of composing a theatrical work on a small scale, something portable and compendious. In this he collaborated with the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz and his friend, the painter and designer René-Victor Auberjonois, creating Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), derived from the collection of Russian stories made by Afanasyev that had already served as a source for the burlesque in song and dance, Renard. There was further collaboration with Georges and Ludmila Pitoeff, who were to dance the rôles of the Devil and the Princess, and invaluable assistance from Ernest Ansermet, who conducted the first performances. The piece had its première in Lausanne, with two actors for the dramatic rôles of the Soldier and the Devil and a speaker recruited from the University. The whole production was only made possible by the generous financial support of Werner Reinhart, to whom the Histoire du soldat is dedicated. It had been intended to take the work on tour but an outbreak of Spanish influenza made this impossible. Stravinsky, in his autobiography, declares himself very satisfied with the Lausanne staging, but later came to make various changes in the score. Diaghilev, in Paris, was not amused, resenting, as always, any collaboration between a protégé of his and other people. The resulting coolness was brought to an end with their subsequent collaboration on Pulcinella.

The Soldier’s Tale is scored for an instrumental ensemble of seven players, violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion, the last including two unpitched snare drums of different sizes, a larger snare drum, a bass drum, cymbals, tambourine and triangle. The ensemble is to be on the stage, in accordance with Stravinsky’s expressed views on the physical dramatic nature of musical performance. A speaker, on the other side of the stage, tells the story, while the Devil appears as an actor and as a dancer. The Soldier himself is represented by an actor and the King’s daughter by a dancer. The story is that of a new Faust and strangely prefigures the later opera The Rake’s Progress in some of its elements, its account of a bargain with the Devil and in the card game in which the queen of hearts defeats the ace of spades, as the Soldier stakes all in a contest with the Devil.

A soldier returns to his village from the war. The Soldier’s March is heard [1], as the Narrator starts the tale, the rhythm of the words matching the marching step of the score, telling of the journey, for a few days’ leave. The curtain rises on a scene by the bank of a stream [2]. Here the Soldier stops, sits down and searches through his knapsack from which he takes a medallion, cartridges, a mirror, a picture of his sweetheart and a cheap fiddle. Now he tunes the fiddle, which always needs tuning, and starts to play [3]. The curtain is briefly lowered, to rise again for the appearance of the Devil, in the guise of a little old man with a butterfly net, who hides and watches, before coming forward, approaching the Soldier from behind and placing his hand on his shoulder. The Devil demands the Soldier’s fiddle, offering a magic book in exchange [4]. They must go home together, where the Soldier can teach him how to play the fiddle and he will show the Soldier how to use the book to win riches. The curtain falls. After the three days specified by the Devil, the Soldier is transported to his village in the former’s flying coach. The march is heard again, as the Soldier approaches the village [5]. Here, however, he finds that all shun him [6]. Three years have passed, his sweetheart has married another and his mother thinks him a ghost. The curtain rises to show the village, its church bell-tower in the distance. The Devil stands there, now dressed as a cattle merchant, waiting for his quarry.

The second scene, the scene of the knapsack, starts with a Pastorale [7]. The curtain rises to reveal the Devil standing as before [8]. The Soldier approaches him angrily, thinking himself cheated of his prized possession, his fiddle. The Devil imposes some military discipline on the boy and makes it clear that the precious book, which the Soldier eventually finds again in his knapsack, is his to use, while the Devil keeps the fiddle. The music of the Pastorale is heard briefly again [9], as the curtain falls. The Soldier knows now how to profit from the book, but is coming to realise the emptiness of material possessions [10]. To the sound of the earlier music by the stream, he remembers his happier past. The curtain now rises to show the Soldier at his desk, rich, but dead in his soul. The Devil approaches, dressed as an old clothes’ woman, and finally offering him the contents of the other’s old knapsack, including the fiddle, which is now silent when the Soldier tries to play it [11].

The third scene, the scene of the book, brings again the music by the river bank. The Devil has gone and the Soldier throws the violin away, returning to his desk, where he seizes the book and tears it into pieces [12].

The second part starts with the Soldier’s march resumed [13], as he tramps on, now without his possessions, seeking another country. He rests in an inn [14], where a fellow soldier tells him of the royal proclamation offering the hand of the King’s daughter, his only child, to the man who can cure her. He resolves to try his luck. The Royal March takes him to the palace [15], where the Devil now appears as a virtuoso violinist. The Narrator tells of the Soldier’s arrival and promise to cure the Princess [16]. The Soldier sits at a table, with two candles, a jug of wine and a glass, a reflection of the Narrator’s own table, and holds a pack of cards. Telling his fortune, he turns up hearts, even the queen, a sign of victory. The Devil appears, holding the violin over his heart and taunts the Soldier, who now challenges him to a game of cards, planning to defeat his opponent by losing everything and discharging any debt to his enemy. The Soldier loses and loses, finally drawing the queen of hearts against the Devil’s ace of spades. At this the Devil sways and falls, weakened still more as the Soldier forces glasses of wine down his throat. The Devil and the curtain fall, as the Soldier starts to play his Little Concert [17].

The curtain rises again to reveal the Princess lying on a bed [18]. The Soldier comes in and starts to play. The Princess, now cured, leaves her bed and before the lowered curtain dances the Tango [19], Valse [20] and Ragtime [21]. The curtain rises again on the Soldier with the Princess in his arms, while the Devil, in his own person, crawls in, seeking to snatch the violin [22]. The Soldier plays and the Devil, bewitched, is forced to dance [23], falling exhausted. They drag him away and return, embracing [24], to the sound of the Little Chorale [25]. The Devil is not defeated, and is prepared to wait for the Soldier to cross the frontier into his territory [26]. With the Grand Chorale the Narrator warns of the danger of seeking to add to the present the possessions of the past [27]. The Soldier resolves, however, to see his village again, taking the Princess with him. He goes on ahead, approaches the village, seeking the frontier post [28]. The Devil waits, dressed now in a splendid scarlet costume, and plays the violin that he has once more in his possession. The Soldier reaches the frontier and now meekly follows the Devil, while a distant voice is heard calling him. The tale ends with the Devil’s Triumphal March [29].

Keith Anderson

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