L’histoire du soldat, or, The soldier’s tale by Igor Stravinsky

L'histoire du soldat, a soldier's tale. program noteIgor Stravinsky didn’t set out to write a masterpiece when he composed L’histoire du soldat (or The Soldier’s Tale).

The popular cliché of the starving artist came too close to home for him when World War One broke out. He needed cash.

For that purpose, the piece utterly failed.

He was living in Switzerland. The Ballet Russe, his main source of commissions, had its headquarters in Paris. Stravinsky could no longer easily go there. The company was stranded in Lisbon, anyway. He couldn’t easily get money from his German publishers or any of his interests in Russia either.

His landlord, the young Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, introduced him to Swiss author Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. Ramuz and Stravinsky collaborated on several important projects.  Stravinsky provided literal French translations of Russian texts. Ramuz crafted literary French texts from them.

Composition of L’histoire du soldat

Igor Stravinsky by Picasso. A soldier's tale program notes

Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso, December 31, 1920

Four years into the war, Stravinsky conceived the idea of a small theatrical troupe that could visit Swiss villages. He gave Ramuz a Russian story about a soldier who makes a trade with the devil: his fiddle for a magic book.

Eventually dissatisfied with the bargain, the soldier plays a card game with the devil. He deliberately loses all his money and wins back his fiddle. Then he marries a princess and prepares to live happily ever after.

But the devil warns the soldier never to leave the castle. Later, the soldier decides to go visit his mother. And finds himself again in thrall to the devil.

Since the whole idea was to make some money in villages, Stravinsky couldn’t write a ballet or an opera. He had to write on a small scale.

There would be three actors (the soldier, the devil, and a narrator) and a non-speaking dancer. For accompaniment he chose seven instruments: violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion.

Stravinsky took pains to de-emphasize Russianness in the music. His dances include a tango, a waltz, and a ragtime. He composed 11 musical numbers:

  1. The soldier’s march
  2. Soldier at the brook
  3. Pastorale
  4. The royal march
  5. The little concert
  6. Three dances: Tango, Waltz, Ragtime
  7. The devil’s dance
  8. The little chorale
  9. The devil’s song
  10. Grand chorale
  11. Triumphal march of the devil

Stravinsky had recently bought some jazz sheet music. He never in his life got a real feel for jazz, but he insisted that jazz had influenced how he conceived L’histoire du soldat. Later, he told Robert Craft, “as I had never heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written.”

His study of jazz also inspired his choice of instruments.  He used pairs of high and low instruments from the string, woodwind, and brass families. Except he substituted one of his favorite instruments, the bassoon, for the more authentic saxophone.

Eastman Wind Ensemble – Igor Stravinsky: Octet; L’Histoire du Soldat CD

Performance history of L’histoire du soldat

Common [Burmese] soldier. The soldier's tale program notes

Common [Burmese] soldier

The world premiere of L’histoire du soldat took place not in a Swiss village, but at a concert hall in Lausanne on September 28, 1918. Ansermet conducted.

Even with so few performers and the extreme simplicity of presentation, Stravinsky had no money to finance the performance.

A Swiss financier and amateur clarinetist from Winterthur, Werner Reinhart, paid for the entire production.

Stravinsky gave him the score, composed his Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo for him, and made a trio version of L’histoire for him. More on that later.

The Lausanne performance pleased Stravinsky like no other performance of any of his works. The audience also enjoyed it. If all had gone according to plan, subsequent performances would have taken place in Geneva as well as various Swiss villages.

Then the international flu epidemic rolled through Switzerland. Musicians, actors, and stage hands all came down with it. The Swiss government ordered the closing of every public performance venue.

The small-scale plan that should have brought in some money during the war worked against getting other performances after the war ended. It doesn’t fit comfortably in the repertoire of either a ballet company, opera company, or orchestra.

So the next performance didn’t happen until 1924, in Paris. Three performances there went badly. Performances later in the year in Berlin and Frankfurt were more successful. The piece finally found a home in music festivals and other ad hoc performances.

Stravinsky’s other versions of L’histoire du soldat

From the beginning, Ramuz and Stravinsky agreed that the music should be playable on its own as a concert suite, without the actors or dancer. In this form, it is usually played in nine movements:

  1. The soldier’s march
  2. Soldier at the brook
  3. Pastorale
  4. The royal march
  5. The little concert
  6. Three dances: Tango, Waltz, Ragtime
  7. The devil’s dance
  8. Grand chorale
  9. Triumphal march of the devil

Stravinsky prepared a trio for violin, clarinet, and piano as his gift to Reinhart. This version comprises only five movements.

  1. The soldier’s march
  2. The soldier at the brook
  3. The little concert
  4. Three dances
  5. The devil’s dance

In this form, the music becomes character sketches of the principal characters rather than accompaniment to a narrative. This version received its first performance in November 1919 in Lausanne. Reinhart played the clarinet part.

A new story for Stravinsky’s music

More than 20 years after Stravinsky’s death, the New York Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble performed Stravinsky’s music, but not Ramuz’ story. Instead, it presented an entirely new text written by Kurt Vonnegut.

Vonnegut apparently thought that a work written in war time ought to be more related to the horrors of war. He took Stravinsky to task for setting words that had so little to do with the carnage taking place all around him.

So instead of a fantasy about human propensity to fall for the devil’s wiles, Vonnegut told the story of a real person. He replaces a credulous and clueless soldier with Eddie Slovik, podrtrayed as a wisecracking cynic.

Slovik deserted from the American army at the end of World War Two. He was imprisoned and executed in 1945. No other American has received the death penalty for desertion since the Civil War.

Although the critic for the New York Times clearly disapproved of Vonnegut’s version, it has received subsequent performances in front of friendlier critics.

L’histoire du soldat remains one of Stravinsky’s best-loved pieces, whether performed as a drama, a concert suite, or a trio.

L’histoire du soldat concert suite (1919), for clarinet, violin, and piano / Joseph Way, Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes
Kavafian-Shub-Shifrin Trio program notes / Chamber Music Houston. November 11, 2014
Review/music; Kurt Vonnegut’s reinterpretation of “L’histoire du soldat” / Allan Kozinn, New York Times. May 8, 1993
Stravinsky: the composer and his works / Eric Walter White (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984): 235-36

Photo credits:
Soldier’s tale. Source unknown
Stravinsky portrait. Drawing by Pablo Picasso in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Common soldier. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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