About this Recording
8.573538 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Soldier's Tale Suite / Octet / Les Noces (Tianwa Yang, Virginia Symphony Chorus, Virginia Arts Festival Chamber Players, Falletta)

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
The Soldier’s Tale – Suite • Octet • Les noces


Igor 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, 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.

The war years, between 1914 and 1918, brought inevitable difficulties, accentuated after the revolution of 1917 and the consequent loss of Stravinsky’s 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 the 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 Pitoëff, 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 first performance 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 the subsequent collaboration on Pulcinella.

The Soldier’s Tale is scored for an instrumental ensemble of seven players, violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, or trumpet, 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. The Concert Suite was first heard in London in 1920.

A soldier returns to his village from the war. [1] The Soldier’s March is heard, 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. [2] The curtain rises on a scene by the bank of a stream. 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. He tunes the fiddle, and starts to play. The narrative continues with the appearance of the Devil in the guise of a little old man with a butterfly net, demanding the Soldier’s fiddle, offering a magic book in exchange. 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. After three days specified by the Devil, the Soldier is transported to his village in the former’s flying coach, but here he finds that all shun him. Three years have passed, his sweetheart has married another and his mother thinks him a ghost. [3] The second scene starts with a Pastorale. In the ensuing drama the Soldier approaches the Devil angrily, thinking himself cheated of his prized possession, his fiddle. The Devil 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 Soldier knows now how to profit from the book, but is coming to realise the emptiness of material possessions and remembers his happier past. The second part starts with the Soldier’s march resumed, as he tramps on, now without his possessions, seeking another country. He rests in an inn, where a former comrade 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. [4] The Royal March takes him to the palace, where the Devil now appears as a virtuoso violinist. The action continues with the arrival of the Soldier, who promises to cure the Princess. The Soldier sits at a table. 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, [5] as the Soldier starts to play his Little Concert. The curtain rises again to reveal the Princess lying on a bed. The Soldier comes in and starts to play and the Princess leaves her bed and dances [6] the Tango, [7] Valse and [8] Ragtime, now cured. The Devil tries to take the violin from the Soldier, who starts to play his violin, [9] at which the Devil is forced to dance. [10] With the Grand Choral the Narrator warns of the danger of seeking to add to the present the possessions of the past. 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. 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. [11] The tale ends with the Devil’s Triumphal March.

Stravinsky’s Octet was written principally in the years 1922 and 1923, and first performed at the Paris Opéra in the latter year, conducted by the composer, his first such venture. It marked a new element in Stravinsky’s music, a turn to neo-classicism in its use of traditional forms. The work is scored for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and two trombones. A note from the trumpet starts the opening Lento of the first movement, leading to an Allegro moderato, derived, at least, from sonata form. The second movement is a theme and variations, the first variation returning after subsequent variations to create a form of rondo, with he second variation a march, the fourth a waltz, the fifth a cancan and the seventh a fugue. The third movement is based on the idea of a Russian circle dance, the khovorod, with the opening dance-theme reduced as it returns. The Octet was secretly dedicated to Stravinsky’s mistress, and later wife, Vera de Bosset.

The ballet score Les noces (The Wedding) was first performed by the Ballets russes in 1923, with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, and is based on Russian folk-texts for which Stravinsky had recourse to folk-songs collected by Pyotr Kirievsky. He had first conceived the work in 1913, to complete it in short score in 1917. Various possible instrumentations were finally rejected to be replaced by pitched and unpitched percussion instruments and four pianos, accompanying four soloists, soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass, with a mixed chorus. Evoking the world of Russia, the work was dedicated to Diaghilev, who broke into tears when he heard earlier parts of this very Russian composition. The four tableaux start with the Bride’s preparation for her marriage, her hair to be plaited. The second scene is at the Bridegroom’s and is followed by the Bride’s departure and the final wedding feast. The whole ballet cantata is impelled forward by the motor rhythms of the work, a composition of great significance in the body of Stravinsky’s music.

Keith Anderson

Close the window