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In 1918, with the first World War raging, Stravinsky and his friend, the novelist C.F. Ramuz, were safely – but pennilessly – living in Switzerland. The composer had been cut off from royalties collected by his publishers in Russia and Germany, and with what was left of the Diaghilev company stranded and broke in Lisbon, performances of the ballets which had provided the principal source of those royalties were at any rate non-existent.
So, in 1919 the two conjured up a portable musical work, one that could be performed in virtually any space, in or out of doors, requiring only a handful of instrumentalists and actors in this French-language story of a fiddling soldier who makes a bargain with the devil for his violin, in a sense bringing the Faust story back to its simple, rustic roots.
Histoire du soldat, with which the composer, many years after its creation, claimed to have made his “final break with the Russian orchestral school” (see Aaron Copland’s note, below), was bankrolled by the Swiss financier and amateur clarinetist Werner Reinhart, and in appreciation of his generosity Stravinsky created for him his Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo as well as the present Histoire suite.
This trio for violin, clarinet, and piano comprises five movements from the original suite scored for seven musicians (violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion) and it remains wonderfully effective in conveying the jazzy snap and sauciness of the original.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.