Stravinsky, Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat (for violin, clarinet and piano), (1919)

Igor StravinskyBy 1919, just barely into his first decade as a professional composer, Stravinsky was well on his way towards becoming one of the most important and sensational new composers of the 20th century. His successful partnership with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in Paris yielded three stunning ballet scores for massive orchestra, the works for which Stravinsky is most famous today: The Firebird (1910), Petroushka (1911) and the Rite of Spring (1913). Despite his stunning achievements, 1919 found Stravinsky stranded in Lausanne, Switzerland in rather dire financial straits. WWI had made a desperate shambles of Europe sapping any hope for staging large concerts or obtaining new commissions while the Russian Revolution cut Stravinsky off from his family fortune as well as any hopes for ongoing royalty payments. Rising to the occasion, nonetheless, Stravinsky and his French-speaking, Swiss writer friend Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz schemed a new work to be “narrated, performed and danced” by a small troupe that could easily be mounted in small, makeshift venues, even outdoors, all with modest costs. The scenario was derived from Alexander Afanasiev’s collection of Russian folk tales, a story about a soldier returning home from the front with a magic violin that he foolishly trades with the devil for a book promising great riches in what proves to be an ill-fated Faustian bargain.

Despite their best efforts, they failed to stage or tour L’Histoire du Soldat due to yet another crisis: the virulent Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919 that exacted a toll on members of the troupe. Eager for yet more flexibility as well as the copyright and royalties on another distinctive arrangement, Stravinsky transcribed a selection of five numbers comprising a purely instrumental suite without narrator, actors or dancers, and an even smaller ensemble for just violin, clarinet and piano. Ultimately premiered in 1919, the Suite from The Soldier’s Tale has become Stravinsky’s most popular chamber work. Werner Reinhard, a philanthropist and amateur clarinetist financed the premier, and performed the clarinet part.

While an intimate chamber trio suggests a profound contrast to Stravinsky’s gigantic orchestral scores, his bold, new musical personality remains essentially intact albeit in miniature. The very first bars of the opening march reveal some of Stravinsky’s chief technical traits: bitonality (two voices, each in different keys), rhythmic disruption, dislocation and asymmetry, as well as the telltale prevalence of a diversity of short motifs repeated in layered ostinati of shimmering stasis. The first piece, Marche du Soldat, finds our soldier tramping back from the war. Le violon du Soldat highlights the lynchpin of the entire drama: the soldier’s violin (complete with little cadenza), a metaphor for the soul that he will ultimately lose. After beating the devil in a high stakes card game, the soldier temporarily reclaims his violin inspiring the bright, jubilant Petit concert. Goaded by the devil, the soldier attempts to cure and thereby win the hand of a bedridden princess playing three dances titled Tango, Valse and Ragtime. He succeeds. Stravinsky is particularly chic and topical with his own distinct, yet uncannily accurate evocation of Argentine Tango and American Ragtime, both sensationally in vogue in 1919. The suite ends before the original work’s ultimate dark denouement. Here, the soldier, still in possession of his violin, performs the Danse du diable that torments the devil into contortions and physical collapse, a temporary victory for the soul.

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