The Music of Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale

Before World War I, Stravinsky shocked the world with a series of three ballets written for Parisian premieres, the most avant garde and famous of the set being The Rite of Spring. One might wonder how five years later, at the close of the war, Stravinsky’s musical style had metamorphosed from that of grandiose violence to satiric and cutting simplicity. That’s not to say that A Soldier’s Tale is simplistic or without complexity but rather that a newfound diatonic parody of popular, religious, and folk tunes dominates the sound of his writing in a completely unexpected way.

The reasons for the drastically new sound of Soldier’s Tale could partly be described as economic, as both the war and Russian Revolution cut off the composer from access to funds and resources from home, “and I found myself, so to speak, face to face with nothing.” In his autobiography of 1934, Stravinsky goes on to describe the assembling of the work: “So we worked at our task with great zest, reminding ourselves frequently of the modest means at our disposal to carry it to completion. I knew only too well that so far as the music was concerned I should have to be content with a very small orchestra.”

It is perhaps ironic to think that the choice of a dry, acerbic instrumentation for A Soldier's Tale was a decision not simply driven by artistic ideals but mainly by forces beyond the composer’s control. Here was Stravinsky concocting a new revolution, not a monumental one as witnessed in his earlier ballet scores, but one where the musical ingredients of music we know (Tango, Ragtime, Lutheran hymnody) are mutated and displaced as are the facial features of a Picasso portrait.

Stravinsky and his librettist, C. F. Ramuz, planned A Soldier’s Tale as a stage work for a traveling theatre troupe. It remains unclear who the creators wished for an intended audience. Stravinsky writes of a work that would be easy to produce even in small villages, but in the end, we’ll never be quite sure as a tour scheduled after the premiere of the work in 1918 was cancelled when everyone in the cast and orchestra contracted the Spanish influenza. The full work was not performed again until 1924, by which time the neoclassical and diatonic elements of Stravinsky’s new compositions had already reached Parisian ears.

While Stravinsky later excerpted the main musical movements of A Soldier’s Tale for a concert suite, the theatrical conception of the original maintains a unique place in the repertoire. Music and spoken word are interdependent as they together drive the action of the story forward in the telling of that classic tale where a man gives his soul to the devil in return for fulfillment of his earthly desires. A special thanks to our collaborative partners at Plan-B Theatre for the dedication, expertise, and passion they bring to this project.

JH, 9.27.13

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series


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