Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Soldier’s Tale is nearly an hour long and was written at the end of the First World War. The work’s genre is hard to categorise because it is intended for a unique collection of instruments: violin, contrabass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet (trumpet), bassoon, and percussion. The instrumental septet accompanies two spoken roles (the Soldier and the Devil), a mime role (the Princess), and a dancer. According to Stravinsky: “My choice of instruments was influenced by a very important event in my life at the time, the discovery of American jazz. The Histoire ensemble resembles the jazz band in that each instrumental category—strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion—is represented by both treble and bass components. The instruments themselves are jazz legitimates, too, except the bassoon, which is my substitution for the saxophone. My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written.”
According to the subtitle, the work is “to be read, played and danced”. It tells a Faustian tale of a young Soldier who makes a deal with the Devil, and that agreement ultimately leads to his doom. Stravinsky began working on the idea of creating such a composition in the spring of 1917, and his plan was to create a staged work for small forces that could be produced by a small travelling theatre company during times of war and economic uncertainty. The period of the First World War was a very difficult time for Stravinsky. He suffered several professional failures as well as personal misfortunes. As war raged in Europe, performances of his music were limited, and in isolation in Switzerland, where he had moved his family, he repeatedly faced difficulties with earning a living. The Soldier’s Tale was designed for taking on concert tours that were meant to be profitable. The composing of The Soldier’s Tale and its premiere were sponsored by the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart, to whom the work is dedicated. Plans and preparations for the tour came to nothing, however, because of the devastating Spanish flu epidemic. Although the hoped-for financial success did not materialise, Stravinsky succeeded at creating an extraordinary composition that is regarded as one of the finest and most influential chamber works of the early 20th century. Its importance is comparable to that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. The modernism of The Soldier’s Tale can be seen mainly in its unique choice of instrumental and vocal forces. Ensembles of this kind proved capable of realising the newest ideas of avant-garde composers throughout the 20th century.
The author of the libretto was the French-speaking Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. The story, or rather some of its episodes, are taken from Russian fairy tales that Stravinsky found in a collection by the Russian Slavicist and ethnographer Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev. Ramuz wove the motifs into a continuous narrative, an allegory of a soldier who has sold the Devil his magical violin and his ability to play, which brings everyone pleasure (and is therefore a symbol of the soul and of happiness), in exchange for material comfort and wealth. Stravinsky’s friend the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet led the premiere on 28 September 1918 in Lausanne. Soon after the war, Stravinsky arranged The Soldier’s Tale as a purely instrumental five-movement suite.
The Soldier Josef is on his way home. He stops by a stream and rummages through his pack. He takes out his violin and begins to play. The Devil appears in disguise and listens to him playing. After a while, he asks the Soldier to sell him the violin in exchange for a magical book from which one can read future events. He offers Josef that he will teach him how to read the book in exchange for being taught how to play the violin. The Devil invites the Soldier to his home for a three-day visit, but when the Soldier returns home, he finds that instead of three days, he was gone for three years, and meanwhile everything had changed. His return to his native village is sad; everyone thinks he is the ghost of the dead Soldier, and his beloved has married someone else. With the aid of the magical book and of the Devil, the Soldier earns a great fortune, but this does not bring him happiness or fulfilment.
The soldier leaves home with nothing. Along the way, he learns that a Princess at a castle is ill, and her hand will be given to the one who cures her. At the castle gates, he meets the Devil, who is dressed as a violin virtuoso. On the advice of the Narrator, the Soldier lets the Devil win all of his money, thereby ridding himself of the Devil’s influence. Then the Soldier cures the Princess by playing the violin. His music also overpowers the Devil. At the same time, however, he discovers that he cannot leave the castle, or the Devil will regain power over him. The Soldier leaves despite this, and by doing so loses everything including the Princess. The narrator gives the explanation:
No one can have it all, that is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.
One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.
The narrator’s part is of great importance to the whole work in a dual role: it is an intermediary between the individual characters, and it accompanies the listener through the episodes of the story. Stravinsky added a dancer afterwards because feared that the action on stage would be too monotonous without dancing. Like in all of Stravinsky’s music, rhythm is very important in The Soldier’s Tale. The music is full of asymmetrical rhythms, jazz-inspired syncopations, and many other rhythmic ideas that give the work its own peculiar conception of time. Repetitions and variations of important melodic and rhythmic passages play an important role in the perception of time, and dance is used for characterisation of various situations in the story. The Soldier’s Tale is a timelessly modern composition that can still move listeners.