An Historic Return
10/09/21 at 08:00pm
Histoire du Soldat
clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin, bass
notes by Anthony Suter
Composed 1918 to a libretto by C.F. Ramuz.
First performance: September 28, 1918, Lausanne, Switzerland. Ernest Ansermet, conductor.
It was the economy, Igor.
Stravinsky’s masterful L’histoire du soldat found its beginnings in the exigencies of the material world. Despite the success of his ballets, by 1918 Stravinsky’s life was less than perfect. He had suffered numerous personal losses (including the death of his brother) and was fighting to stay afloat financially. The idea of creating a theater piece that could tour economically by using only a handful of performers was born out of these financial realities. Despite having considerable financial backing from a wealthy patron who funded the premiere of the work, the bookings for the tour were all canceled due to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
In contrast to the economic failure that befell L’histoire, the piece is now regarded as one of the most important and influential chamber works of the early twentieth century. The odd ensemble has inspired a number of pieces with near or exact instrumentation (Martinů’s work on this program or Wynton Marsalis’ A Fiddler’s Tale come to mind) and, more importantly, tracks to the idea of small ad hoc chamber groups becoming primary arenas for new music. This trend, famously instigated by Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, is still alive today.
The story of L’histoire is a Faustian tale of a young soldier who makes a deal with the Devil. Walking down a lonely road, the soldier stops to play his fiddle, and the Devil (in disguise) listens. Approaching the young soldier, the Devil offers him a trade: the fiddle for a book that can tell the future. The Devil suggests a trade of three days, and eventually the soldier relents. Of course, the Devil has deceived the young man; upon his return to his village, everyone is terrified of him, as they think he is a ghost. It has, in fact, been three years, not three days. The Devil appears as an old woman selling wares, one of which is the violin. The soldier buys back his instrument, but it no longer plays. He tosses the fiddle away and tears up the future-telling book.
The second half of the drama unfolds with the soldier hearing about a sleeping princess; the king has offered her hand in marriage to anyone who can awaken her. The Devil is there as well, but the soldier breaks the Devil’s hold over him by losing all of his money to his demonic overseer in a game of cards. The soldier plays the fiddle and awakens the princess, but the Devil cautions him that, should he leave the confines of the castle, his soul will once again be taken. The soldier, however, ignores the warning and leaves the castle in search of his mother, wishing for her to live in luxury with him and his new royal wife. The piece ends with the “Triumphal March of the Devil”, signifying his ultimate win over the human. The narrator offers the following as the moral of the story:
Why do we yearn to add what we once had to what we’ve got?
Why do we turn from what we are to what we were when we cannot?
Why not account our joys twice blessed with each new day begun?
Why, having some, seek to have it all, then find that we have none?
Rhythm is the primary focus of the music, and Stravinsky is certainly the master in this arena. The clever use of asymmetrical meters, incredibly complex syncopation, and intricate cross-rhythms lends a disjointed and incredibly interesting sense of time to the work. Given the emphasis on rhythm, it is no wonder that Stravinsky chose to deal with dances and other forms that deal with movement to the extent that he did in the piece. The opening of the work, appropriate for a traveling soldier, is a march. Part Two opens with a suite of three dance movements: an infernal tango, a waltz, and a ragtime number. In contrast to the dance forms, Stravinsky also composed two chorales as celebratory moments that herald the soldier’s temporary victories over the Devil. Perhaps the most famous dance in the work is the delightfully demonic “Dance of the Devil”. This section foreshadows the final number, the so-called “Triumphant March of the Devil”, which ends the piece with the percussionist “fading out” to signify the soldier crossing the boundary and losing once again to his adversary.