On Sunday, November 11th, I attended a performance of L’Histoire du soldat by Igor Stravinsky by a group of student performers. I was not familiar at all with the piece so this was my first opportunity to experience it. Stravinsky composed L’Histoire for a group of instruments, including violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussionists, narration and movement. According to Grove Online, Stravinsky originally intended for the work “to be read, played, and danced.” It was originally scored for twelve musicians, two speaking parts and two danced parts and then condensed into a suite of eight movements with an septet of instruments and narration.
The performance on Sunday was narrated by one speaker and played with the septet of instruments, with only one percussionist playing all of the percussion parts. The work also had a conductor, which historically some groups choose to do with or without. In classic Stravinsky style, the piece was riddled with time and tempo changes. The narrator in this performance performed all parts through voice changes, and had to act as the soldier, the devil and various other characters that in other performances are acted or danced by separate people.
The words tell of a soldier that is coming home from war and is anxious to see his fiancé, his mother and his hometown of which he misses. He stops by a river and pulls out fond things from his pack, which includes a violin, and begins to play. The devil sneaks up on him disguised as an old man and offers to trade the soldier the violin for a book that will give him infinite wealth. The soldier is tricked by the devil’s words and makes the trade, and the devil offers to show the man how to read the book for three days at his residence. After the three days, the soldier walks to his hometown and discovers that he has actually been gone for three years, and believe to be a ghost. His mother doesn’t recognize him and his fiancé has a husband and children. He confronts the devil in the town, who claims that the book will solve all of his problems after the soldier realizes he just wants happiness instead of wealth. When the soldier is not comforted, the devil tries to sell him his old fond belongings from his pack back, including the violin. When the soldier buys it back, he can no longer play it and destroys it.
The soldier walks to a nearby inn, feeling lost, and hears that the princess of the king cannot be wakened from her sleep; whoever wakes her will be married to her. The soldier goes to the palace and is confronted by the devil, disguised. He taunts the soldier by playing the violin and claiming that he will wake the princess before the soldier gets a chance. The narrator tells the soldier that the reason the devil has so much power over him is because he still has the devil’s money. By tricking the devil through his greed in a card game, the soldier rids himself of the devil’s money and wakes the princess through violin playing, in which she begins dancing. The devil attempts to interfere, but the soldier defeats him with music and he and the princess drag the devil away. The devil warns him that if he leaves the castle, he will lose everything and the devil will have control back. The narrator issues the moral of the story of: “No one can have it all, that is forbidden. You must learn to choose between. One happy thing is every happy thing: Two, is as they had never been.” The soldier passes through the forbidden boundary, and the devil controls him again as the soldier follows him when he tries to return to his hometown.
The story is told very easily through the narration, as it tells every action that is happening very simply without large words or any textual metaphors. The virtuosity of the violin part in the work is demanding, as it seemed to contain many of the musical motifs throughout the piece that suggest the action. The work ends strangely, with the narrator stating that the soldier is following the devil and the solo percussionist playing a rhythm on four drums and crescendoing to silence. It felt unfinished and awkward, but I believe this is how Stravinsky intended for his audience to feel after such a tragic end to the story told. A link to a professional performance done by the La Jolla Summer Music Festival performers can be seen here. This performance is how Stravinsky intended with dancers and narration. All in all, this was a very well-told and put together piece, easily understood by the audience and very enjoyable.