Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Music that has significantly changed my life...

1. Marche du soldat
2. Petit airs au bord du ruisseau
3. Pastorale

4. Marche royale
5. Petit concert

6. Trois danses (Tango, Valse, Ragtime)

7. Danse du diable
8. Great Chorale
9. Marche triomphale du diable

Ensemble de l'Orquestra de Cadaques
Dir. Vasily Petrenko

Igor Stravinsky - The Soldier's Tale (L'histoire du soldat)

Igor Stravinsky's life (1882-1971) spanned a world of musical change, and probably no other composer wrote in as many styles as did he.

His early compositions mirrored the nationalist ideals of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, but he quickly moved on to develop his own style. With his trio of ballets Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring Stravinsky almost single-handedly invented modernism. He later went through a neoclassical period, and finished his career embracing the serialism and twelve-tone principles of Schoenberg.

The Soldier's Tale comes from 1918, a lean post-war time when jazz was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream. Stravinsky was broke, deprived of his royalties because of the Revolution, and his other source of income, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was also going through lean times.

Stravinsky invented a new style, pared down to essentials, in melody, rhythm and instrumentation. The Soldier's Tale is scored for just seven instruments: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass and percussion. The concert version also features four speaking parts, those of the Devil, the Soldier, a Princess and an unseen Reader. The Devil and Princess are also required to dance.

The story is a dark Faustian fable about a deserting soldier and the Devil who eventually possesses his soul. The soldier's violin becomes a symbol of both the soldier's soul and the Devil's wiles.

The story is based on an old Russian folk tale but the music is as far removed from Russian traditionalism as possible, making it a lesson for all cultures and times.

The most obvious sound here is jazz, a form of music that Stravinsky had never actually heard. He was familiar with it through scores that his friend Ernest Ansermet had brought from America.

Stravinsky also uses tango rhythms, marches, a waltz and a chorale, never faithfully but more as an artisan uses tools to fashion something new.

The Soldier's Tale opens with the "Soldier's March," a stiff parody of militarism, as befits a deserter.

Next come the "Soldier's Violin," rhythmic, repetitive, driving and typically Stravinsky. Then come the "Little Concert and Three Dances - Tango, Valse and Ragtime," the most musically elaborate of the works.

The Suite ends brilliantly with the "Devil's Dance," triumphant and diabolical. The violin theme now belongs to him and he owns the Soldier's soul. The Devil celebrates his victory.

The Soldier's Tale is a masterpiece of the miniature, dry and acerbic, dark yet witty, threatening but tongue in cheek.

There are lavish productions of The Soldier's Tale played by a full orchestra. To me, this misses the entire point. The starkness of the instruments, the dryness of the melody is what creates the mood of the piece.

[Source: The Good Music Guide]

Note: I shall forever be grateful to Peace Corps Volunteer Duncan S. Catling (who taught us English Literature from 1964-1965) for introducing me to the supreme musical inspiration of Igor Stravinsky. That's right, I started listening to Stravinsky as a horny adolescent and it has totally changed the way I view reality!

[First posted 19 March 2012]