Check out this passage from Stravinsky’s autobiography of 1934. He is writing about Ernest Ansermet, the conductor at the premiere of “Histoire du Soldat” on September 28, 1918 (our NOVA performance yesterday celebrated the 95th anniversary of this event almost to the day- Happy Birthday, L’Histoire!).
Ansermet is one of the conductors who emphatically confirm my longstanding conviction that it is impossible to grasp fully the art of a bygone period, to penetrate beneath the obsolete form and discern the author’s meaning in a language no longer spoken, unless he has a comprehensive and lively feeling for the present, and unless he consciously participates in the life around him. For it is only those who are essentially alive who can discover the real life of those who are “dead.”
Musicians and artists are almost always taught that to understand the art of your contemporaries, you must be thoroughly versed in works of the great artists and composers of history. Stravinsky felt the same ideal applied in reverse, that you can only understand the art of the past if you are truly alive and sensitive to the present. Perhaps NOVA concert programs are onto something by placing the music of the past and present in dialogue with each other…
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:
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…
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.