The Soldier’s Tale

The liner notes to this 1954 recording of L’Histoire du soldat describes the work as “a child of necessity.” Nearly any introduction to the work will likely describes Stravinsky’s despondent status at the time it was composed. He hand his family had settled in a small town near Lake Geneva a few years before the theatrical work was debuted in 1918. The outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution prevented Stravinsky from returning to Russia — he would not see his homeland again for decades.

He was unable to collect royalties for some of his earlier works, so even though he had enjoyed enormous success with his works for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company (the celebrated tryptic of The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring) he was forced to ask for help to fund the production of L’Histoire du soldat. A Swiss musician and patron of the arts, Werner Reinhart, helped Stravinsky and received a dedication in return.

The form of The Soldier’s Tale is certainly set by the circumstances. Stravinsky wrote for a small ensemble, and this provided an opportunity to express his interest in jazz. The score calls for a seven piece group featuring violin, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, bass and percussion. There are three actors who read parts.

The story is based on a Russian folk tale, with text by a Swiss poet named C.F. Ramuz. It tells of a soldier who is tempted by the devil, only to lose everything he has. Using his ill-gotten knowledge the solider earns wealth and success only to encounter the devil again and lose.

There are many re-tellings of what we call a Faustian tale, in which a bargain is made with the devil in exchange for knowledge — this name comes from an alchemist and scholar, Johann Georg Faust, who became the subject of folk tales after his death.

Christoper Marlowe’s 16th century English play solidified the relationship between the historical figure and the prince of darkness, and an early 19th century play by Goethe is considered a monumental achievement of German literature. This inspired three operas — first Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust (1846) and second Charles Gonoud’s Faust (1859). A third, darker interpretation by Arrigo Boito, Mefistofele, was met with poor reviews at its debut in 1868.

There have been several symphonic tellings of the tale as well, and of course the story became entwined with the “Crossroads” legacy of the enigmatic blues guitarist Robert Johnson. A crossover country hit by the Charlie Daniels Band has been attributed by the fiddling bandleader to a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét, who also wrote a short story on the subject (“The Devil and Daniel Webster”) which has long been a favorite.

Unlike Johnny, the fiddling hero of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the soldier Joseph is eventually tricked by the Devil in the Stravinsky/Ramuz story. One of the last numbers contains the story’s moral:

No one can have it all, that is forbidden. 
You must learn to choose between.

A graphic in this month’s National Geographic traces the roots of several folk tales, and follows ones such as these to a 6,000 year old Mesopotamian story of a blacksmith who exchanges his soul for the power to weld any materials together. In this story the hero uses his power to stick the devil to the dirt on the ground until he is released from the bargain.

The Solider’s Tale was adapted into a feature length cartoon by R.O. Bleachman in 1984. It was also the subject of a controversial re-write by Kurt Vonnegut which focused on the violence of war. Vonnegut praised Stravinsky’s score and retained it, but felt in interviews the text by C.F. Ramuz lacked depth. Although Vonnegut’s version received harsh reviews, its certainly true that The Soldier’s Tale is largely remembered as one of Stravinsky’s most interesting works.

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