L'HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT

(THE SOLDIER'S TALE)

A BRIEF HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

                                                                          

 

          This paper will discuss Stavinsky's  L'HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT.   It will be concerned with the following: facts about the work; information about the instrumentation; facts about the story and a synopsis of the story; information concerning the genesis of the work; and a short analysis of the music and how it relates to the story.  

          L'HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT   does not fit exactly into any set genre.  It could be called: a ballet d' action  with a story told in narrative by the characters and a narrator[1]; "a play with music and dance"[2]; a miniature theatre piece, full of experiments.[3]  It is also interesting that this work is included in Loewenberg's Annals of Opera 1597-1940. [4]  However you choose to label it, L'HISTOIRE  represents many innovations in music and theatre. 

          The facts on L'HISTOIRE  are as follows:  it was composed at Morges in 1918 and dedicated to Werner Reinhart; the full work was published by J & W. Chester in 1924.  It was also arranged into a suite for clarinet, violin, and piano in 1919 (Werner Reinhart was an excellent amateur clarinetist).  And, a suite featuring the original instrumentation was arranged in 1920.  A rehearsal version, the composer's piano reduction, is also available. 

          L'HISTOIRE's  libretto, in French, is by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz.  There are English translations by (1) Rosa Newmarch and (2) Michael Flanders and Kitty Black.  Hans Reinhart produced the German translation.

          Instrumentation for this work represents treble and bass in each instrumental family.  It consists of: violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion (played by one player).  This instrumentation closely resembles that of the New Orleans Dixieland Jazz band that was traveling through Europe during this period.  Stravinsky however, did not hear this band in person until 1919.[5]  It can be said that he was aware of the instrumentation in that he studied many jazz and ragtime scores, and is quoted as saying that he could hear them in his head.  However, the rhythms of this work allude more to jazz than the harmonies or melodies.  This is one of the first times that the jazz influence appears in the music of Stravinsky.

          Primitivism made it vogue for Europeans to be interested in Jazz, as it was descended from African rhythms and melodies.[6]  The memory of W.W.I caused an even more serious need to rid music of romanticism.  Stravinsky said "Rhythm and motion, not the element of feeling, are the foundations of musical art." [7] 

          The bassoon was a substitute for the saxophone; Stravinsky did not care for the instrument.  The percussion instruments approximate those of a trap set or dance drums.  The set up includes: a bass drum, cymbal, side drum with snares, two side drums without snares (different sizes), small drum with snares, tambourine and triangle.  Although the drums were to approximate a dance drum set, a pedal bass drum was not admissible.  In a letter to Robert Craft dated October 7, 1947, Stravinsky states that the pedal bass drum will not work for this piece.[8]  The part calls for the bass drum to create different timbre effects with the use of different implements.   Great care was given to the percussion writing in L'HISTOIRE; Stravinsky even bought his own set of percussion instruments in Lausanne and learned to play them.[9]

          This work does mark one of the first times that Stravinsky uses the violin as a solo instrument.  Also, the percussion writing is virtuosic throughout this piece.  These two featured instruments assume the roles of the soldier's soul (violin), and the "Diablerie" (percussion). 

            The story for L'HISTOIRE was one from a collection by Alexander Afanasiev.  Afanasiev collected "soldier stories" from peasant recruits of the Russo-Turkish War (1827-1829).   Stravinsky says:

 

We were particularly drawn to the cycle of legends dealing with the adventures of the soldier who deserted and the devil who inexorably comes to carry off his soul.  This cycle was based on folk stories of a cruel period of enforced recruitment under Nicholas I....[10]

 

More symbolically, it is a story about a deserter who barters his violin, his soul, for the rewards of the devil.

          What follows is a brief story synopsis, as taken from White's Stravinsky The Composer and his Works [11]:

 

Part One, Scene 1 -- ('Scene au bord du ruisseau'--  'The Banks of a Stream'.)  The Soldier, returning to his native village with a fortnight's leave, is accosted by The Devil disguised as an old man with a butterfly net.  The Devil obtains the Soldier's fiddle           in exchange for a magic book and invites him to spend three days of his leave with him.  The Soldier accepts.

 

Scene 2 -- ('Scene du sac' -- 'A crossroads in the open country, showing a frontier post and the village belfry in the distance'.)  On reaching his native village, the Soldier finds he has been away not three days but three years.  The Devil appears disguised as a cattle merchant and explains that with the help of the magic book the Soldier can make his fortune.

 

Scene 3 -- ('Scene du livre' -- 'A room'.)  By now, the Soldier is thoroughly disillusioned by his wealth.  The Devil disguised as an old clothes woman calls on him and displays her wares, including a fiddle which he recognizes as his.  He wants to buy it back, but finding he can get no sound out of it, hurls it into the wings and tears up the book in despair.

 

Part Two, Scene 4 -- ('Scene du jeu de cartes' -- 'A room in the palace'.)  The Soldier, who has now lost his wealth, comes to a town where the King's daughter is ill and the King has promised her hand in marriage to whoever succeeds in curing her.  The Soldier meets the Devil disguised as a virtuoso violinist and plays         cards with him.  He goes on losing and plying him with wine, until the Devil falls unconscious, and he is able to  recover his old fiddle.

 

Scene 5 -- ('Scene de la fille guerie' -- 'The        Princess's room'.)  The invalid Princess is lying on a couch.  The Soldier enters and plays his fiddle.  The Princess rises and dances a tango, a waltz and a ragtime, at the end of which she falls into the Soldier's arms.  During their embrace, the Devil enters dressed as a devil (with forked tail and pointed ears).  The Soldier fiddles him into contortions and with the help of the Princess drags his body into the wings.

 

Scene 6 -- ('Scene des limites franchies' -- same as Scene 2.)  Sometime after their marriage, the           Soldier and Princess decide to visit his native village; but as soon as he crosses the frontier, he falls into the power of the Devil, who appears in gorgeous scarlet apparel, and has got hold of the fiddle again.  He follows the Devil very slowly, but without resisting.

 

The libretto carries the following introductory note concerning the staging:  A small stage mounted on a platform.  A stool (or barrel) at either side.  On one of the stools the Narrator sits in front of a small table on which there are a carafe of white wine and a glass.  The orchestra is placed on the opposite side of the stage.

 

          In his book, The Music of Stravinsky[12], Stephen Walsh parallels the 'Soldier's Tale' to Stravinsky's own situation in 1918.  There are similarities in that Stravinsky is in semi-exile and many people felt that he had deserted his roots (he would become a French citizen in a few years).  Walsh states that he is playing foreign tunes to keep his soul.  Also, Stravinsky does state that he found the Peace of Brest-Litovsk humiliating.[13]  Many do not agree with Walsh's view, but it is worth noting.

          A final point on the story is that although the story was originally Russian, Stravinsky and Ramuz decided to broaden it into a worldlier tale.  Some have compared it to a miniature Faust. 

          The genesis of L'HISTOIRE was in 1915 when Stravinsky and Charles Ferdinand Ramuz (b. 1878) met through the introduction of a mutual friend, the conductor Ernest Ansermet.  Ramuz was a French novelist who, like Stravinsky, lived in Switzerland during the war.  The duo worked together to translate Reynard (1916) and Les Noces (1917) into French.  Because Ramuz knew no Russian, He and Stravinsky had to work closely together.  From this work, their friendship grew. 

          After the completion of Les Noces, They looked for a new project to work on together.  Both men were in need of money due to the war.  Stravinsky could no longer receive funds from his estate in Russia.  Also, he was receiving no royalties from his publishers.  Ramuz, a novelist, was also subject to the financial devastation of the war.  With this mutual lack of money, their interests pointed towards something that would be very simple to produce.

          This "small production," would have a small cast, a small orchestra, and require a small space.  It would also need to be very mobile.  Since Ramuz was a novelist, he suggested that he should write a story rather than a play. 

From these beginnings, their miniature theatre piece was born.  It was a way for the duo and their friends to make some money.  In concept, it was a traveling theatre, easily moved because the stage sat on saw horses with a barrel on each side.  There was a small orchestra on one side of the stage while the action took place on the other.  The stage divided into three portions, with the inclusion of the narrator.  This was visually appealing in that they could lead the eye where it needed to go; left, right, center, all at once or nothing at all.   

          The first performance of L'HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT, conducted by Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969), took place on September 28, 1918, at the Theatre Municipal de Lausanne.  Werner Reinhart sponsored, and underwrote to a large degree, this performance. This performance was a great success but the tour had to be canceled because of the Spanish Influenza epidemic.  It would later be revived and performed on numerous occasions. 

          Although a complete theoretical analysis of this work is beyond the scope of this paper, some theoretical points deserve consideration.  This work marks a consolidation of the past four years of Stravinsky's work.  L'HISTOIRE also leads to Stravinsky's next composition, Ragtime for eleven instruments (1918).  The Ragtime of L'HISTOIRE is, in particular, a precursor to this piece. 

          The pitch relations in this work are predominantly diatonic.  A juxtaposition of major and minor mode is fairly common and some chromaticism is apparent.  However, it is the rhythm and the motion of the music that contributes most to the drama.  The opening of Part 1 is The Soldier's March.   In spite of many changing meters, the bass maintains an almost constant march feeling.  To achieve this march feeling, Stravinsky employs a rhythmic pattern that is always of quarter note value (although notated eighth note, eighth rest).  Furthermore, the implied harmony of I, V, I, V, leads to a feeling of motion as well. 

          The Music to Scene One   also has a bass ostinato that stays constant while the melodies are in multimetric form. 

Metrical ambiguity continues in The Royal March when the opening measure is in 5/8 moving the original downbeat to the upbeat in the accompaniment.  The resolution occurs with a second 5/8 bar in the ninth bar.

The structure of this march is much freer and this signifies the Soldier's new freedom.  If the first march was full of military memories, this march speaks of the freedom of the future.  But, it is also in this march that we meet the Devil posing as a virtuoso violinist; with freedom comes the responsibility of guarding your soul.  With a return to the original trombone melody, this march ends. 

          The Little Concert is the climax of this portion of the work.  The motives contain parts of the preceding pieces.  They work against each other to break up all continuity of rhythm.  At rehearsal 7, the clarinet and trumpet are moving from 7 to 6 to 5 while the violin is in 6 and the bass in 4. 

From here the piece works toward a large tutti and then back to the recapitulation (it is almost in sonata allegro form).  This piece represents the Soldier attaining all that he has dreamed of in spite of the trials that he has encountered since we met him. 

          The Tango is performed by the violin and the percussion.  The clarinet is added when the princess begins to dance.  It is in this piece that we see the "soul" dancing above the constant of the "Diablerie". The percussion in this portion is treated "organically".  That is, it is not being used as a color but rather, it is a functioning part of the music and the music would not be the same with any other treatment.  

          Waltz is a continuation of the dance.  It is notable in that the rhythm stays in a "3" feel the entire time.  Also, the percussion drops out in this piece, signifying safety from the devil and stability.  This piece was approached attacca with a rhythmic modulation and it segues to Ragtime in the same manner. 

          The modulation into Ragtime is a bit more tricky.  It moves from a fast "3" feeling, to a medium "4" feeling.  This, and the reappearance of the percussion, foreshadows the entrance of the Devil at the conclusion of this piece. 

          The Devil's Dance is a furious dance with incredible motion.  It combines the aspects of a solid beat under an ambiguous meter like many of the previous pieces, but does this at a terrific rate.  It is in fact the violin playing the Devil to death.  At this point, the Soldier and Princess unite to pull the Devil off stage.  Then they fall into each other's arms at the strains of The Little Choral that follows.

          The Devil's Song is a warning of the Soldier's impending doom.  But, he and his bride are not listening.  The narrator continues this prophesy in the Great Choral.

          The music to both Chorals is said to come from Lutheran Hymns.[14]  Also, the theme of The Great Choral is said to have been given to Stravinsky in a dream.[15] 

          The final piece, The Triumphal March of the Devil, signifies the Devil's victory.  There are many instances where the violin and percussion are playing by themselves.  This is again the contrast of the Soldier's soul over the Devils constant rhythm.  In the end though, the only sound left (last thirteen measures) is the percussion.  The Devil has won.  This last bit is controversial in that Stravinsky notated a decrescendo; this perhaps signaled the Devil descending into Hell.  However, many performers prefer to end with a steady crescendo, thereby heightening the excitement and drama of the work. 

          In conclusion, though based on a Russian folk tale from the first quarter of the nineteenth century, L'HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT is still a moving work of art today.  Its combination of stage, story, dance, symbolism and music is unique. 

 

 

 

Sources Consulted

 

 

Craft, Robert ed.  Stravinsky, Selected Correspondence V1. 

New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

                                   

Leonard, Richard Anthony.  A History of Russian Music.

New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.

           

Loewenberg, Alfred.  Annals of Opera 1597-1940. 3rd ed.

Totowa, New Jersey: Rowan and Littlefield, 1978.

 

Machlis, Joseph.  Introduction to Contemporary Music. 2nd ed. 

New York & London: WW Norton & Company, 1979.

 

Randel, Don Michael ed.  The New Harvard Dictionary of Music.

Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.

           

Stravinsky, Igor.  Igor Stravinsky an Autobiography.

London: Calder & Boyars, 1936.

 

Walsh, Stephen.  The Music of Stravinsky. 

London & New York: Rutledge ,1988.

                       

White, Eric Walter.  Stravinsky The Composer and His Works. 

Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

         

 

ROBERT BRIDGE

MAY 17, 1994

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



                        [1]Don Michael Randel, ed., The New Harvard Dictionary of Music

(Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986),

           

            [2]ibid.

           

            [3]Richard Anthony Leonard, A History of Russian Music

(New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968),

           

            [4]Alfred Loewenberg, Annals of Opera 1597-1940 3rd edition

(Totowa, New Jersey: Rowan and Littlefield, 1978)

           

            [5]Eric Walter White, Stravinsky The Composer and His Works 

(Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966),

           

            [6]Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music 2nd edition 

(New York & London: WW Norton & Company, 1979),

           

            [7]ibid.

           

            [8]Robert Craft, ed., Stravinsky, Selected Correspondence V1 

(New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982),

           

            [9]Eric Walter White, Stravinsky The Composer and His Works 

(Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966),

 

            [10]Richard Anthony Leonard, A History of Russian Music

(New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968),

           

            [11]Eric Walter White, Stravinsky The Composer and His Works 

(Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966),

           

            [12]Stephen Walsh, The Music of Stravinsky 

(London & New York: Rutledge ,1988)

           

            [13]Igor Stravinsky, Igor Stravinsky an Autobiography

(London: Calder & Boyars, 1936),

 

            [14]Eric Walter White, Stravinsky The Composer and His Works 

(Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966),

 

            [15]ibid.