Igor Stravinsky and C. F. Ramuz first met in Switzerland in the autumn of 1915 and quickly became close friends while working on translations of Russian songs and on the French version of The Wedding. The fact that Ramuz did not know any Russian meant that he had to rely on Stravinsky’s literal translations into French, thus creating an unusually close collaboration during which the two men grew to like and esteem each other. After the score for The Wedding was finished, an important question arose – what next? At that moment both artists were suffering from the effects of World War I and the circumstances were forcing them to be practical in their creative endeavors. With the goal of not letting this dire financial situation hamper their artistic output, the two friends decided to write a new work that would be as simple as possible to produce and would not need a large theater, cast, or orchestra. The thought of composing for a théâtre ambulant had already occurred to Stravinsky several times since the beginning of the war, and he “envisioned a work that would be small enough to allow for performances on a circuit of Swiss villages, and simple enough in the outlines of its story to be easily understood.”
Stravinsky and Ramuz recruited their friends Ernest Ansermet and René Auberjonois as the conductor and the set and costume designer respectively, but still needed to find financial backing for this production. A search for sponsors in a time of war was not an easy task, but eventually they had the good fortune of meeting Werner Reinhart of Winterthur, who as Stravinsky put it, “entered into our plan with cordiality and sympathetic encouragement… He paid for everybody and everything, and finally even commissioned my music.” Thus, with the main elements in place, the artists set to work in the spring of 1918.
At the time, Stravinsky was enamored of Alexander Afanasiev’s famous collection of Russian tales and especially a cycle of legends dealing with the adventures of the soldier who deserted and the Devil who comes to carry off his soul. In the story that attracted the composer the most, “the soldier tricks the Devil into drinking too much vodka. He then gives the Devil a handful of shot to eat, assuring him it is caviar, and the Devil greedily swallows it and dies.” Although Afanasiev’s stories dealt with the cruel period of enforced recruitment for the Russo-Turkish wars under Nicholas I in the first half of the 19th century and were distinctly Christian in nature, Stravinsky’s idea was to transpose the period and style of the play to 1918 and in the same time to broaden and humanize its subject so as to give it an international appeal. Moreover, even before they had started writing, Stravinsky and Ramuz agreed that the music should be independent of the text so that it would be possible for it to be performed separately as a concert suite.
Even though the economic circumstances and the “portability” of the production had required writing for a small ensemble, Stravinsky did not find that a limitation, as in his own words his “musical ideas were already directed towards a solo-instrumental style.” His choice of instruments was influenced by a very important event in his life at the time – his discovery of American jazz through some scores brought to him from the U.S. Although he had never actually heard any jazz music performed, Stravinsky studied those scores with interest, and as he says in Expositions: “I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written… Jazz meant a wholly new sound in my music, and Histoire marks my final break with the Russian orchestral school in which I had been fostered.” The composer also admits that the Histoire ensemble resembles a jazz band in that each instrumental category – strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion – is represented by both treble and bass components and the instruments themselves were part of the traditional jazz band, except the bassoon, which was his substitution for the saxophone. If we consider the emphasis on the soldier’s fiddle in the play, it is not surprising that the violin plays a very important role in the chamber orchestra and as Stravinsky himself has acknowledged, his new enthusiasm for jazz led him to place a special concentration on the percussion as well.
The eleven musical numbers of the score follow Stravinsky’s new direction of breaking from the Russian orchestral school already noticeable in some pieces he had written in the previous four years. The music of Histoire displays the composer’s condensed, dry, almost burlesque style with a wide range of musical influences and references. The first conceived thematic idea for the piece was the cornet/trombone melody in “The Soldier’s March” and Stravinsky admitted that it may have been influenced by the popular French song “Marietta.” The idea for the “Royal March,” which is in the style of a Spanish pasodoble, was suggested to him by an incident he had witnessed in Seville during the Holy Week processions of 1916. He was standing in a street with Diaghilev “and listening with much pleasure to a tiny ‘bullfight’ band consisting of a cornet, a trombone, and a bassoon. They were playing a pasodoble, when suddenly a large brass band came thundering down the street in the Overture of Tannhäuser. The pasodoble was soon drowned out.” The “Three Dances” also display Stravinsky’s broad musical interests and influences with a tango, which at the time was very popular in the dance halls of Western Europe, and an American ragtime, which was an even greater novelty. The “Little Chorale” and the “Great Chorale” were based on German Lutheran chorales, and one of the main motives of “The Soldier’s March” is very close to Dies Irae and came to Stravinsky in a dream in which “a young gypsy was sitting by the edge of the road. She had a child on her lap for whose entertainment she was playing a violin. The child was very enthusiastic about the music and applauded it with his little hands.” The composer was very pleased to be able to remember the motive after awakening and joyfully included it in the piece.
Performer-composer Milen Kirov teaches at Chapman University and California Institute of the Arts, and maintains a busy composing and performing schedule. For more information, please visit milenkirov.net.