Igor Stravinsky: L’Histoire Du Soldat

My favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky, was born on in 1882, the same year as the author, James Joyce, who revolutionized literature almost as much as Stravinsky did music. After his great score for the ballet, Petrushka I love his L’Histoire Du Soldat, which he wrote in 1918, above all his works.

Stravinsky collaborated on this work with the Swiss poet, C.F. Ramuz, and the conductor, Ernest Ansermet, while living in Switzerland during the First World War. They wanted to create a musical theater piece that they could easily transport and perform in front of small audiences. For the subject they chose a story from the Russo-Turkic wars about a soldier who tries to cheat the devil. Stravinsky chose a small set of instruments-violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet and trombone and a number of percussion instruments. These lend themselves quite effectively to this little morality play. In many ways this piece owes its roots to the commedia dell’arte of the middle ages. The music, however, I find timeless.

I discovered this work at the library in my dorm complex in the Fall of 1975. Since the Spring of that year, I had been on a Stravinsky jag, after having heard The Firebird, Pretrushka, and Rite of Spring. When I picked the album out of the bin I was amazed at the group of performers they had assembled, among them Jean Cocteau and Peter Ustinov. Sometime that year, since I was a French major, I had seen two of Cocteau’s surrealist films–Orpheus and Blood of a Poet. These films amazed me, and so the Cocteau link was enough to make me listen to the album alone. Then there was Ustinov, that amazingly intellectual polyglot comedic and dramatic actor. Ustinov plays the devil in L’Histoire which calls on him to play the bored effete as well as an old woman who fools the soldier.

I fell in love with this album on first hearing and soon after hearing it I introduced it to my dorm mate, Bennett Morrison. He started out a piano major, but he had practiced so much that he destroyed his hands. During his second year he changed his major to conducting and spent hours studying musical scores and techniques of the great conductors. Bennett had bought himself a baton and he once showed me the various ways different composers held their batons and how you beat out the various time signatures.

Bennett was an extroverted neurotic who loved to talk and tell stories, often quite funny self-deprecating ones. He became obsessed with L’Histoire Du Soldat, and having an ear for language–as all musicians do–he quickly memorized the lyrics and come to my room and recite them to me. He especially liked Ustinov’s Devil and the smarmy craftiness his voiced conveyed. I can still see him standing there and saying “La cuisine est au beurre, et de tout premier qualite.

Cocteau himself had a theatrical voice and must have been one of the most stimulating people of the 20th century. He wrote plays and poetry, made films, composed music, and painted to boot! His performance as the narrator was perfect and he spoke in the exact cadence of the music.

Of course, I loved Stravinsky’s music as well, which he matched so well to the action and emotions of the story line. The piece starts with a wonderful, parade-like march, in which the narrator tells us that the soldier is on his way home for a two-week vacation. Despite its upbeat mood, this march has a derisive feeling about it–almost sounding like circus music meant to accompany clowns.

When the soldier stops, he takes out his worldly possessions from his bag, which shows his poverty. His name is Josef, and his one joy is playing his second-hand violin which he pulls lastly from his bag. He then plays an extended melody on the violin, accompanied from time to time by the other instruments. This little melody is one of my all time favorites by Stravinsky. It is a magical blend of sad and happy, quiet and raucous, pensive and ebullient.

As Josef finishes, the devil appears, dressed as an old lepidopterist holding a net. He asks Josef to sell him the violin. After arguing for a while, he eventually convinces Josef to trade it for a magic book. “I don’t know how to read,” says Josef. “It’s a book that reads itself. All you have to do is open it and you will have jewels, money and gold.” It also can predict the future. The soldier gives up his violin and then accepts an invitation from the devil to come to his house for three days, where he promises to wine and dine him.

At the end of his stay, Josef continues on the path to his village. When he gets there, the town people shun him, he finds his fiancée married with three kids, and his mother afraid of him. He then realizes that the Devil had enchanted him, and he hadn’t been a guest for three day; it was actually three years.

He is disconsolate, but the Devil reappears and shows him how to use the book to become fantastically rich, which he does. But after a few years, he realizes he is still sad and lonely. He has an insight: if he loses all his riches, he will be free from the Devil’s spell. He challenges the Devil to a game of cards and loses his fortune. The Devil is perplexed to see that Josef is happy after doing so, and Josef manages to recover his violin. Free once again, Josef starts off for his village.

On his way he passes through a sad kingdom and by a dreary castle. He learns that the beautiful princess is sick. What’s more the King has declared that who ever can cure his daughter will win her hand and the kingdom. Josef says he can cure the princess and begins to play his violin for her. This violin solo starts out as a slow tango, which captures the dolorous essence of the scene. Little by little Stravinsky changes the tempo and the signature to a fast waltz. By the end, the princess is dancing and has completely recovered. The devil reappears, but Josef plays a fast frenetic piece that makes the devil dance until he collapses from exhaustion. The two lovers throw him out of the castle, but not before the Devil warns them that if they set foot outside the Kingdom, he will have Josef’s soul.

After their exchange of love vows, accompanied by a very ethereal and sacred melody, the princess starts to inquire about Josef’s home and mother. Eventually she convinces him to take her there to meet his mother. As they cross the border from her kingdom to his old one, the Devil appears with the violin and now makes Josef dance to his playing. The curtain falls on the princess who stands by with arms outstretched as the devil leads Josef off to hell.

Back in 1975, when I first heard the piece, I made a mono recording of it on a cassette tape, because I couldn’t find it in any record store.  I tried to listen to other recordings, both in French and English. None compares with the one with Ustinov.  The English ones are unlistenable. The poetry of the French is gone, lost in the Anglo-Saxon dust. (One is narrated by Christopher Lee!) Fortunately, several years ago, a friend of mine moved to Paris, and I had him check to see if he could find a CD of the original Cocteau recording.  He did, and I was in bliss. When you’ve had Dom Perignon, how can you go back to Cold Duck?

Buy CD or Download MP3s of Stravinsky: Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)

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