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

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

Steven Schick and Xenakis

I spent this past summer delving into the music of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). Like many of the giants of 20th century music, Xenakis’s music is totally underrepresented in the concert life of Salt Lake City. I can’t think of a performance of his work here in town during the ten years that I’ve lived here. And actually, I don’t know what’s taken me, a lover of modern music, so long to get to him; probably the usual issue of too much great music vs. too little time.

At any rate, I originally programmed our NOVA 13/14 season opener to include three Xenakis works: the solo piano work Evryali flanked by two truly awesome solo percussion pieces, Rebonds and Psappha. Eventually I dropped the idea of Evryali in favor of a program that pitted solo violin music of Bach against the percussion works of Xenakis as a kind of prequel to the second half of the program, Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale. In some ways I am still not sure what I prefer. The original program was a very strong, intense statement that I truly believed in, but the revision better reflects what NOVA is all about at this moment in its own special history.

My time with Xenakis and Evryali has been a pleasure unlike any I have experienced with music in a long time, and I look forward to finding a venue for realizing all the work I put into the piece over the summer. I’m blown away by Xenakis’s ability to write music of such explosive emotional content, all the while exerting an intellect upon his creations that few composers can rival. One essay specifically influenced my entry into this new (to me, at least) musical world, written by our guest artist for Sunday’s concert, Steven Schick. I can’t think of a better person to introduce the NOVA audience to Xenakis, so I’ve included a couple of short excerpts from his essay “X is for Xenakis.”

When I first heard Psappha in 1977 in a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in New York everything changed. I was, for the first time in my young musical life, truly scandalized. The music seemed to come through my pores rather than my ears. And I, in turn, got inside this music not by thinking about it but by being within it. In fact the last thing I wanted to do was think about it. The immediacy of the rhythms and the clangor of the sound world did battle directly - unmediated by reflection - with every preconception I ever had about concert music. I was used to such a physical and core emotional reaction when I listened to other kinds of music, ranging from Beethoven to the blues, but hadn’t I just forsworn those feelings and that music as the price of admission to the pantheon of contemporary music?

Or take this paragraph on mathematical applications vs. compositional intuition and irregularities:

If what some people assert about Xenakis were really true- that his musical language is driven by rational processes of mathematics and ultimately strives towards a state of pure logic- I doubt I would be very interested in his music. Not to worry. Xenakis was aware that an unfiltered application of rational principals would lead to regularity and from there quickly to banality. His reliance on the enlivening presence of the irrational in part explains the many rhythmic and notational anomalies found in the scores. Irregularities within the accent patterns of pieces from Psappha to Okho to Rebonds seem illogical until you realize that such irregularities keep the surface of the music and therefore the ear of the listener alive.

 Or a subject that must always be dealt with in a discussion of Xenakis’s music, impossibility. (Reminds me of Dylan- “She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all…”)

However, the stories that percussionists talk about with each other do not deal with anecdotes, but rather with the nuts and bolts of the practical performance problems. Some of the biggest of those problems - and to me the moments that most outline the “Xenakis-ness” of these pieces - involve the many impossible passages in this music… These are not simply passages of extreme difficulty – there are plenty of those also. No, in almost every piece there is a small patch that is truly physically impossible…or nearly so. And each of the impossible passages coincides with a moment of maximum impact in the composition. The impossible music defines the space where the two tangents of Xenakis meet – the center point of his “X” – where a sophisticated rational process in the form of a poly-structural compositional moment meets the maximum of unified physical and emotional energy in performance. These instances call for extreme inventiveness on the part of the performer…

Whatever the solution, the attempt to play a truly impossible passage will, by definition, fail. A reasonable question follows: why did Xenakis compose music where failure is assured in the performance of passages of music with great emotional impact and compositional importance? Part of the answer lies in what you mean by failure. Each impossible passage forces a player to deal with the unknown – to leave the secure boundaries of a score behind and find an inventive and personal solution to an intractable problem. By doing so a performer necessarily combines the real with the imagined, the feasible with the fantastical. In every performance that I know, these are the moments of transcendence: they are fleeting glimpses of expressive fragility in the midst of the irrefutable Xenakis plan… In this light these are not moments of failure, but of grace.

 Excerpts from Steven Schick’s essay, “X is for Xenakis” from Performing Xenakis (2010, ed. Sharon Kanach, Pendragon Press), by permission of the author.

 JH, 9.25.13
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