Source Material for A Soldier’s Tale

When Stravinsky and Ramuz first began discussing the collaboration that would culminate in A Soldier’s Tale, Stravinsky suggested a Russian folk tale as told by the Russian author Alexander Afanasyev. While I believe Stravinsky and Ramuz adapted the story into a marvelous dramatic work, I find the changes they made to Afanasyev’s version of the story intriguing. Many of these alterations are relegated to the following categories:

  1. Dramatic details that enhance the central role played by the soldier’s violin.
  2. A weakening of the soldier’s cunning and masculinity; in the original, the soldier plays a role equal to that of the devil, outsmarting him several times and even beating him with an iron rod!
  3. A purging of themes consistently found both in Russian folklore and the literary giants of the 19th century Russia.

It is clear that Stravinsky and Ramuz wanted to portray a more sympathetic character than that of the Afanasyev soldier. Also at play was an idea that Stravinsky himself spoke of: creating a story that had universal qualities such that it would transcend national stereotypes and be applicable in all locales. Ramuz succeeded in transforming the soldier into a figure who always maintains free will but is inexorably hunted and manipulated by the devil. Ramuz’s soldier has moments of helplessness and frustration, so much so that the narrator of the story has to butt in and tell him what to do!

But what I miss most in the translation of the tale from Afanasyev to Ramuz is a reduction of the strange, fantastic qualities the original tale shares with writers like Gogol and Dostoyevsky. Some of the magical episodes remain, like the soldier’s ride from the devil’s house back to his village. The gambling scene, however, is much more compelling and humorous in the original. Ramuz has the soldier play the devil at cards in a clever and heroic attempt to rid himself of the devil’s influence once and for all.

While the result is the essentially the same in Afanasyev, there is little heroic about the soldier’s actions. Over the course of several nights, the soldier invites the devil to drink, carouse, and gamble. On the first night, the soldier gets the devil drunk enough on kvas to trick him into eating lead bullets (the devil asks for nuts to munch on). As they continue to play cards, the devil’s teeth all fall out- he is presumably too drunk to notice or care that he’s chewing lead instead of nuts.

The soldier does even better on the second night. After hours of drinking together, the devil notices an enormous vice in the soldier’s room. The soldier tells the devil it is for his violin students; many of them, like the devil, have crooked fingers that need to be straightened in order to play the violin properly. The devil, an aspiring violinist, wants his fingers straightened, so the soldier places the devil’s hand in the vice and tightens it as far as he can. Now trapped, the devil is mercilessly and violently beaten by the soldier. The devil, once free, vows never to come within 100 miles of the soldier. Should the soldier travel more than 100 miles from his home (which he inevitably does), he will belong to the devil.

The idea of a soldier tricking the devil and beating him relentlessly could come right out of a Gogol short story, with the moral of the story found beneath wildly surreal imagery and a dry, sarcastic tone. (Perhaps the most famous Russian story playing to the idea of surreal episodes starring the devil is Bulgakov’s novel of the 1930s, Master and Margarita.) I’m  very happy to have tracked down the original story- it doesn’t make me appreciate the Stravinsky/Ramuz any less. But maybe it’s time to pull the next Dostoyevsky off the shelf and revisit the world of 19th century Russian storytelling that I love so much…

JH, 9.28.13

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series


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