Interesting Times, no. 3: Mysteries of the Macabre, Part 1

In this mini-series of articles written for the Ligeti Transylvanian festival on a program about war, death, destruction, and transformation in classical music, I explored works by Stravinsky, Crumb, Daugherty, and Ligeti.

This is the first installation, which features Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.

The Future will be the child

of the Past and the Present”

– George Crumb

Stravinsky (1882-1971)’s L’Histoire du Soldat, or A Soldier’s Tale was born of economic constraints and marketability in the very uncertain final year of the Great War. Originally conceived of as a touring theater piece for a shoestring budget, A Soldier’s Tale could easily travel and be produced as its slim pit orchestra required only seven musicians, and its onstage performers numbered three narrators, a dancer, and two actors. 

The content of the story was crafted with savvy as well, offering a well-worn favorite tale of Faust but told through the exotic lens of Russian folklore, “The Runaway Soldier and the Devil”. The story also sets the soldier, a zeitgeist hero of 1917, as the main protagonist. Furthermore, the deliberate separation of narrative text from musical numbers meant that translations for tours could be easily and quickly written, and that the musical numbers could also be played separately as a purely instrumental suite. In short, it was a genius theatrical concept conceived for success during extremely volatile times. 

Indeed, the first performance of the work in Lausanne was very well-received. Despite the very difficult circumstances, A Soldier’s Tale was well on its way to greater success, with subsequent performances in Switzerland programmed. And then, a coup de grace stopped cultural life dead in its tracks: the 1918 flu pandemic. In an effort to contain the menacing virus, the Swiss government shut down all performance venues for the year. An eerily familiar fate, which is repeating itself a century later…

A Soldier’s Tale is also remarkable for another, more personal feature: woven within its musical DNA are the crossroads of the composer’s earlier folk nationalist and future neoclassic periods, against the backdrop of then-current pop cultural trends. The listener can simultaneously identify the Russian nationalist compositional techniques and ethno- musicological influences as found in earlier works such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) and Petrouchka (1911), while detecting forebodings of his neoclassic style which would inspire other theater pieces to come such as Pulcinella (1920) and Apollon Musagète (1927-8). Occasional American riffs taken from the popular music of the time, including a US ragtime and an Argentinian Tango, vacillate between nonchalance, seduction, and the grotesque.

In this trio adaptation reworked by Stravinsky himself, the story of the soldier’s trials through damnation is condensed into five selected movements:

I. Marche du Soldat, depicting the Soldier’s leitmotif as he marches through life

II. Le violon du Soldat where the Soldier plays his prized violin by a stream in the woods

III. Petit Concert, describing the Soldier recuperating his violin from the Devil after a thrown card game and playing triumphantly upon it

IV. Tango – Valse – Rag, the dances the Soldier plays to a bed-ridden princess, successfully rousing her from her illness and thus winning her hand

V. Danse du Diable, the Devil’s ultimate victory dance as he reclaims the Soldier’s soul.

The fable’s moral, as recited in the original full-length version by the narrator during the final Lutheran-inspired chorale, is this:

“You must not seek to add to what you have, what you once had;

you have no right to share what you are with what you were.

No one can have it all, that is forbidden.

You must learn to choose between.”