L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)
Toward the end of World War I, Stravinsky was facing the harsh realities of economic deprivation: payments from his German publishers were being held back, and the Russian Revolution had cut off his income from the family estate. Sensing disaster, Stravinsky, ever a pragmatist, formulated with his friends, writer C.F. Ramuz and conductor Ernest Ansermet, a plan to get himself out of this vexing situation.
As he explained it: “Ramuz and I got hold of the idea of creating a sort of little traveling theater, easy to transport from place to place and to show in even small localities.” Thus out of necessity came the chamber-sized neo-classic orchestra. As for their first project, Stravinsky recalled, “We were particularly drawn to the cycle of legends dealing with the adventures of the soldier who deserted, and the Devil who inexorably comes to carry off his soul.” Armed with the fool-proof dramatic stuff of the Faust story, the two created The Soldier’s Tale, “to be read (Narrator, Soldier, Devil), played, and danced (Princess).”
Stravinsky and Ramuz plunged into their tasks of creating, respectively, music and libretto, with the composer assisting considerably in the latter. The score emerged a marvel of economy and ingenuity, foregoing the large ballet orchestra of The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The composer reasoned that he would have to select a group of instruments that could include the most representative types, in treble and bass, of the different instrumental families. Stravinsky’s own trio arrangement of the work seems to have evolved as something of a sentimental/ economic compromise, having been made for the benefit of Werner Reinhart, an amateur clarinetist who had “paid for everybody and everything, including the music” involved in the work’s first production, in Lausanne in September 1918.
In his Chronicle, Stravinsky explains that he had considered using the piano in his original scoring, but decided against it for a number of reasons. His motive for the transcription aside, the Suite in trio form has clearly afforded the music the opportunity for extensive exposure. Either in its original version for seven musicians or the trio arrangement, the music itself has a raw, biting edge that slices away any and all vestiges of Romanticism, exposing a sardonic heart that beats with constantly shifting rhythmic accents, is propelled by obsessive ostinatos (a device to which the composer was dedicated throughout his life), and sets up dissonances that crackle abrasively within an essentially diatonic harmonic structure. — Orrin Howard