It is impossible to calculate how many performances of L’Histoire du Soldat [The Soldier’s Tale] by Igor Stravinsky there have been, such is its place in the canon of classical music and the universal appeal of this ground-breaking theatre-piece. Yet on average it receives around thirty each year in the UK alone. Now, this September, it turns one hundred years old.
The event of the centenary provides us with a wonderful excuse to share again the story of the work’s creation:
The events of the First World War and the October Revolution in Russia left Stravinsky in a financially and politically precarious position. He was stranded in Switzerland, his family were scattered, the country where he had made his living was closed off to him. He was receiving no royalties from his publishers Edition Russe de Musique. With very few concert performances of his work or stagings of his ballets, he resorted to help from friends abroad to sustain him in the early months of 1918.
Stravinsky was introduced to the Swiss novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz in 1915, brought together by their mutual friend and conductor Ernest Ansermet. They very quickly formed a creative partnership. Ramuz, who lived near Stravinsky, was invited by the composer to help create French versions of Renard and Les Noces. With that finished, both Stravinsky and Ramuz were in need of fresh income.
Ansermet and Ramuz proposed that, as a group, they should take matters into their own hands, that they should create a small theatre piece to be ‘read, played and danced’ with no singing, no large ensemble, no elaborate stage design - something quite rustic that could be toured round the theatres of Switzerland generating as much income as possible for the two of them. Ramuz, recalling the events in his Souvenirs sur Igor Stravinsky wrote:
‘Not being a man of the theatre, I had proposed to Stravinsky that we write, not a play in the strict sense of the word, but “a story”, persuading him that the theatre might be conceived in much broader terms than usual and that it could adapt itself perfectly, for example to what one might call the narrative style.'
Stravinsky translated for Ramuz several folk tales about a soldier and the Devil by Alexander Afanasyev (1826-1871) an author to whom Stravinsky had returned time and time again for inspiration. Between the two of them they singled out one tale in which a deserter tricks the Devil into eating a handful of shot, believing it to be caviar. Although undoubtedly elements from other tales would have influenced Stravinsky and Ramuz’s final variation, this Faustian story would form the basis for their new work together:
A brief synopsis
A soldier called Joseph on his way home from the front is accosted by the Devil in disguise. The Devil asks for the Joseph’s fiddle and offers in exchange a magic book that can make the soldier rich by foretelling the future. He convinces Joseph to return home with him for three days to teach him how to play. But, unbeknownst to the soldier, three years have passed. On his return home no one recognises him, and he finds his girlfriend has married - the wealth he eventually gains is nothing in comparison to what he has lost.
He buys back his violin from the Devil but finds he can no longer play. Whilst wallowing in a tavern, Joseph learns that the king’s daughter is sick: whoever can revive her will be offered her hand in marriage. Joseph tries his luck and marches to the court of the king. There the Devil plays as a violin virtuoso. The Devil explains to Joseph that if he loses all his money back to him in a game of cards then he will be free from his curse. Joseph does as advised and his ability to play the violin returns to him. The princess is miraculously healed by Joseph’s performance. However, the Devil is not done with the solider yet: he warns Joseph that, should he leave the castle, the Devil will regain control of him. The soldier cannot resist the temptation to return home, to ‘add to what he has’. He crosses the threshold of the castle but upon turning back, his new bride is gone.
The Soldier's Tale was a far more literary-minded work than anything Stravinsky had collaborated on before, alluding to societal themes which at that time were far closer to Ramuz's heart than the composer's. The story would be narrated (sometimes in measured time, sometimes freely) and the narrator would be the main character. The Devil and Joseph, two actors, would have spoken dialogue and act in tableau alongside a small troupe of dancers. The violin, of course a key character itself in the narrative, would play a concertante role in the ensemble. The score, fairly incidental at the beginning, would develop into a more realised musical entity in the second half.
It was decided early on that the music to this new project should be quite independent of the text, capable of performance as a suite following the show’s premiere tour. Indeed, the collaboration between Stravinsky and Ramuz was far looser than any of their previous endeavours, the story and the music being written concurrently and with independent schedules.
Bar Satie’s 1913 work Le Piège de Méduse, which wasn’t published until the early twenties, The Soldier’s Tale’s instrumentation was unique for the time. Curiously, it bears some resemblance to the American jazz bands of 1910s and 20s, but despite the small influence of jazz upon Stravinsky documented by the composer himself, the similarities seem more coincidental than anything else. The reality was that the orchestration size needed to be small to minimise costs. Stravinsky chose an upper voice and lower voice from each orchestral family of instruments: violin and double bass; clarinet (for its range of characters across its registers) and bassoon; cornet and trombone. To this he added a percussion part with a vast array of instruments, for which Stravinsky taught himself to perform – no mean feat considering the virtuosity of the part. It was an ensemble that could give the greatest range of colours possible for its size. With that in mind, it might seem odd that a piano or another polyphonic instrument wasn’t called for, given the restraints; Stravinsky, however, was quite sure that piano would not do:
‘I had to avoid it for two reasons: either my score would have seemed like a piano arrangement – and that would have given evidence of a certain lack of financial means, not at all in keeping with our intentions – or I should have had to use it as a solo instrument, exploiting every possibility of its technique. In other words, I should have had to be specifically careful about the “pianism” of my score and make it into a vehicle of virtuosity in order to justify my choice.’
From A Chronicle of my Life, 1936
Besides this, the piano would have taken away from the peripatetic, rustic feel of the ensemble so engrained in the conception of the project (at least in Ramuz’s mind). Inevitably what resulted is a soundscape in which the middle timbres of orchestra are diminished, leaving (intentionally or not) a somewhat caustic sound perfectly suited to the devilish tale set in war-torn Europe.
The Soldiers Tale was Stravinsky’s self-professed ‘final break with the Russian orchestral school’ and a transitional work, foreshadowing some of the techniques that would feature prominently in his ‘neo-classical period’. It's a magpie’s nest of musical idiom and cultural allusion. It’s a score in which Lutheran chorale meets sultry tango, where bright marches meet fiddle music and jazz. Stravinsky was fascinated with reimagining the music of the streets: be they in America, Switzerland, Paris or Spain. According to Stravinsky, he had never heard jazz, he had only encountered it through sheet music brought back from America by Ansermet. But Stravinsky felt so inspired by it that he fancied a go at writing his own Rag-Time in 1918, and another work Piano Rag Music in 1919. Rag or pseudo-rag music was common in the American cafes around Paris, so it is quite possible that Stravinsky’s assertion was a wilful act of misremembering. So too was tango heard throughout the dance halls of Europe. The Spanish influences, most notable in the pasodoble-styled ‘Royal March’, can be attributed to a memory of Stravinsky standing in the streets of Seville with Diaghilev and hearing a ‘bullfight’ band (consisting of a cornet, trombone and bassoon) playing a pasodoble being drowned out by a big band marching by.
Stravinsky, however, was not in the business of pastiche – a trap into which lesser composers may well have fallen. Through his trademark liberal use of shifting time signatures, melodic prolongation and elision refracted these musics and incorporated them into Stravinsky’s own language, one which subverted expectation - surprising and delighting.
…and to an extent it did delight. The premiere in Lausanne on September 28, 1918 went ahead without a hitch. The press was a little baffled, but Stravinsky later remarked that he never since saw a performance that had satisfied him to the same degree. Ramuz noted later that the more intellectual sections of the audience had found it hard to contextualise the ‘hypermodernism’ of the product and the appeal of the rustic conception; there simply had been nothing like it before in Switzerland.
For all that the circumstances of war had done to create this work and for all it was the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 which brought the idea of a tour to an end. Stravinsky, Ramuz, Ansermet were just three of 500 million people (one third of the planet’s population) who caught the virus. All the public halls in Switzerland were closed. Geneva’s hall was ready to host the second performance on October 16, but two instrumentalists fell drastically ill the night before. With the tour over before it began, the rising costs of producing the show, and all the effort invested having been wasted, the venture had left Ramuz and Stravinsky worse off than when they started. Their financial backer Werner Reinhart had underwritten the production, but the pair only had enough to grant themselves a very modest salary. Reinhart was gifted the manuscripts in return. They now reside in the Stadtbibliothek Winterthur.
It wasn’t until 1924 that The Soldier’s Tale was staged again, this time at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Serge Diaghilev had taken exception to the fact the whole project had gone ahead without his involvement and was in no real hurry to stage it himself. The first two of the Paris performances were disastrous; the German productions later that year more successful.
Initially, because of the work’s unusual size, it didn’t fit easily into the repertory of Europe’s ballet companies. As the popularity of summer festivals and special productions increased, so did the demand for Stravinsky’s unique masterpiece. In recent decades the affordability of The Soldier’s Tale has made it an extremely attractive piece for amateur groups, but the sheer quality and ingeniousness of the music itself has ensured that professional groups have continued to stage productions. Artistically speaking, it is a work of timeless appeal, creative flexibility and of rich historical context, a work which at its core captures the mood of disarray and turmoil in Europe at the closing stages of The Great War.