Monday, July 2, 2018


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) created the music for this unique tale and C. F. Ramuz (1878-1947) provided the text. I am as intrigued by how and why this popular piece was created, as I have been by the staged versions I have experienced. Circumstances created by World War One caused monetary problems for Stravinsky and Ramuz which fueled their creation of The Soldier’s Tale.

Stravinsky 1925
Stravinsky claimed that the idea of creating a dramatic touring theatre piece had occurred to him at the beginning of the war. He envisioned a piece small enough to allow for performances on a circuit of Swiss villages—he lived in Switzerland during the war.  Stravinsky was still tied culturally to his birth country of Russia and he enjoyed reading folk tales; particularly those written by Alexander Afanasyev (1826-1871). It was while reading one of Afanasyev’s tales about a soldier and the Devil that he was inspired.

Stravinsky found more Russian folk tales featuring Devil-soldier episodes and he began to create a plot for his work using three different tales.  While Afanasyev’s stories were written about soldiers during the Russo-Turkish wars (a series of twelve separate conflicts commencing in 1568 and ending in 1918), Stravinsky envisioned transposing the basic story to the last years of World War One. Eventually he asked his friend Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, a prominent French speaking Swiss author, to create the libretto from his Russian notes which outlined the plot.

The creators knew that they had to limit the requirements for staging this piece since the war created numerous difficulties. It was hard to find experienced young musicians and actors.  The style of the production needed to be spare since the production would tour small towns.  Also it was difficult to acquire the materials to create sets and costumes.  Stravinsky determined that this dramatic piece would require a small orchestra—seven instruments and that the musicians would sit on one side of the stage. A Narrator would be seated on the opposite side of the stage and the actors would work in the center area.

The first tale in this piece relates to a World War One soldier walking home to enjoy a ten days leave, but he intends to stay home rather than return to his unit. The Soldier (named Joseph) sits down to rest and play his fiddle.  A little old man (the Devil) appears and he wants the fiddle. The soldier is tricked into trading the fiddle for the book which will provide him with great wealth. The soldier goes home with the Devil to teach him to play the instrument.

The Narrator describes the lifestyle that Soldier has while living with the Devil. When the Devil takes him home to his mother, Mrs. Grey.  No one recognizes Soldier.  He realizes that it is three years later and he is dead. He has lost everything he loved including his fiddle, but he is left with the Devil’s book.

The second part of the first tale reveals that Soldier is now “unbelievably rich,” but he is a ghost among the living. The Devil, dressed as an old woman who sells used jewelry, clothes, etc., enters and entices Soldier to look at her wares.  Soldier becomes interested in an old fiddle. When he tries to play it, the fiddle remains silent.

The second tale begins as Soldier enters a village on the frontier of another kingdom.  He learns that the Princess is ill and the King proclaims that any man who cures his daughter shall wed her.  Soldier goes to the palace, but the Devil taunts him. Narrator tell Soldier how to beat the Devil by playing cards with him. The ploy is successful and Soldier frees himself from the Devil. He takes back his fiddle and begins to play.

Next Soldier pursues the opportunity to cure the Princess. He plays a Tango on his fiddle. She rises from her bed to dance.  She is cured as she continues to dance to a Waltz and then she dances to Ragtime. The Devil reappears, but once again the Soldier plays his fiddle to vanquish the Devil. The Princess and Soldier can now marry. The Devil revives and he casts a spell on the happy couple. If Soldier and Princess ever leave their kingdom, they will be in his power.

The third tale takes place years later. Soldier is a happy man. One day the Princess wants to know about his family and then she desires to visit his country. They set out on their journey and eventually the Devil, who somehow regained possession of the fiddle, finally entraps Soldier.

The Soldier’s Tale was premiered at Theatre Municipal in Lausanne, Switzerland on September 28, 1918. The performance was a success since many fashionable Russian aristocrats living in Ouchy, Switzerland attended. But it only had one performance since Spanish influenza struck Lausanne the next day. This disease was rapidly spreading throughout Europe and Stravinsky’s plans to tour this production were dashed.

The Soldier’s Tale was not performed again in its entirety until 1923 when it was produced in Frankfurt, Leipzig and Weimar. By 1925 performances of this work were being produced across Europe.  In 1926 Edward Clark (1888-1962) an English conductor presented the British premiere of The Soldier’s Tale in Newcastle upon Tyne and in July,1927 he presented three fully staged performances in London. 
Stravinsky also created a concert version of The Soldier’s Tale. Since 1920 there have been performances of the Concert Suite consisting of nine designated instrumental segments. Stravinsky conducted recordings of the Suite in 1935, 1950 and 1961. He also conducted live performances such as the one on March 13,1940 in New York City.  The musicians for that performance were from the Boston Symphony.

Over the one hundred years since the first presentation, the theatrical as well as the concert version of The Soldier’s Tale have been favored by audiences across the world.

      1. The version of The Soldier’s Tale that I read was translated by Michael Flanders     
          (1922-1975) and Kitty Black (1914-2006). It was published in 1987 by Chester Music                              (London) and edited by John Carewe (1933-    ) a British Conductor.

      2. Photo: Memories and Commentaries. Stravinsky, Igor and Craft, Robert. London:
          Faber & Faber, 2002.

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