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Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)

December 15, 2019: Benjamin Luxon, narrator; Benjamin Beilman, violin; Chris Coletti, trumpet; Demian Austin, trombone; Inn-Hyuck Cho, clarinet; Frank Morelli, bassoon; David J. Grossman, bass; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion; Anni Crofut, dancer-choreographer

Exiled in Switzerland against a backdrop of WWI, the Bolshevik revolution, and personal hardship, Stravinsky had to think creatively. Early in 1918 he and writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz hit on the idea of a little traveling theater production that could tour cheaply. As a novelist rather than a playwright, Ramuz suggested fashioning a “story” rather than a play, held together by narration. They agreed that Stravinsky would compose music that could be performed separately as a concert suite. The composer showed Ramuz some Russian tales by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, and Ramuz began modeling his narration on The Runaway Soldier and the Devil. The story was to be “read, played, and danced” by a troupe consisting of the Narrator, actors in the roles of the Soldier and the Devil, a silent dancing Princess, and a small mixed chamber group.

Working separately, Stravinsky began composing his ingenious musical numbers, drawing on Russian folk idioms and parodying popular modern dances, occasionally imparting touches of international flavor. He achieved novel sonorities by including a high and low instrument of each family—violin and bass, clarinet and bassoon, trumpet and trombone—along with various percussion instruments played by one player.

The first performance of Histoire du soldat took place in Lausanne on September 28, 1918, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. Its great success augured well, but the tour had to be canceled owing to a sweeping flu epidemic. Ansermet also conducted the first performance of the Suite, in London on July 20, 1920. Stravinsky’s memorable music has always attracted instrumentalists because each individual part is extremely rewarding to play. As a full theatrical production, Histoire is most often performed at festivals and on college campuses where its special demands can be met more easily than by regular dance companies.

Organized as a series of tableaux, the action takes place during the dance and mime scenes, which the narration connects. Part One begins with a jaunty introductory march as the Soldier heads home on leave (The Soldier’s March). In Scene One, the Soldier stops to rest by a brook and plays a fiddle tune (Little Tunes Beside the Brook), based on a Russian street song fashioned into one of Stravinsky’s signature ostinatos (repeating patterns).

The Devil, disguised as an old man with a butterfly net, sneaks up on the Soldier and convinces him to trade his fiddle for a magic book that foretells the future. When the Devil finds he can’t play the fiddle, he tempts the Soldier with images of luxury to come home and teach him. After three days, the Devil magically whisks the Soldier back to his home village.

A reprise of the Soldier’s March introduces Scene Two, in which the Soldier comes to the eerie realization that he has been gone three years, not three days—even his mother thinks he’s a ghost, and his fiancée is now married with two children. He berates himself and wonders what to do (Pastorale). The Devil, now dressed as a cattle merchant, reappears to remind the Soldier that he can make a fortune by using the magic book (Closing Music).

Scene Three begins as the Soldier, having accumulated great wealth but finding it meaningless, throws the book aside. Disguised as an old woman, the Devil sells him back his fiddle, but the Soldier can’t make it sound and hurls it into the wings. To a reprise of Little Tunes Beside the Brook, he tears the book into pieces.

A modified reprise of the Soldier’s March opens Part Two as the Soldier trudges along aimlessly. He finds himself in another country, where a king has promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can cure her illness (Scene Four). Arriving at the palace—accompanied by the Royal March, replete with Spanish flavor—the Soldier meets the Devil, dressed as a virtuoso violinist.

While waiting to see the Princess, the Soldier purposely loses his money to the Devil in a card game (Scene Five), all the while plying him with drink until he falls unconscious. The Soldier recovers his fiddle and plays the triumphant Little Concert over the Devil’s insensible form.

In the Princess’s chamber, the Soldier plays three dances—Tango, Waltz, and Ragtime—to which she dances as she is restored to health (Scene Six). The Devil enters undisguised, and the Soldier makes him dance to exhaustion (The Devil’s Dance). The Soldier and the Princess drag him off, then embrace to the music of the Little Chorale, based on that most famous of Lutheran chorales, “A Mighty Fortress.” The Devil interrupts with a dire warning (The Devil’s Song) that the Soldier must not cross the border to his native village or he will be reclaimed—much like Orpheus. The Great Chorale, accompanying the Narrator’s moralizing, completes Stravinsky’s “Mighty Fortress” parody, which imparts a sense of mock grandness with its delightful sprinkling of dissonance.

Eventually the Soldier and the Princess decide to visit his native village (Scene Seven). As they cross the border, the Devil, again in possession of the fiddle, repossesses the Soldier, who follows him unresisting as the Triumphal March of the Devil resounds.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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