On August 10, The Glimmerglass Festival will present The Soldier’s Tale, a one-act theatrical chamber work by Igor Stravinsky.
What would you do if a mysterious stranger offered you untold power and riches in exchange for something insignificant? In Igor Stravinsky and C.F. Ramuz’s The Soldier’s Tale (1918), the price doesn’t seem all that great. Just a cheap violin, one of the few possessions in the soldier’s pack. But, like most deals with the Devil, this exchange comes with strings attached.
The Soldier’s Tale is adapted from a Russian folk tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev. Afanasyev made his career out of a series of high-profile articles that detailed the everyday lives of Russian peasants. He then went on to spend the majority of his life gathering Russian fairy tales in an eight-volume set, a work that earned him the moniker the “Russian Brothers Grimm.”
The concept of encounters between Satan and human beings was a common trope in music, art and literature in the 19th century. But though stories that contained Faustian elements were frequently found on European stages, Stravinsky chose Afanasyev’s tale for his new chamber work because he wanted to explore the idiom from a distinctly Russian perspective. Somewhat paradoxically, he chose a Swiss librettist and they agreed that the work should be written in French. Despite the nationalist motivations for the work, Stravinsky was a cosmopolitan composer at heart and he felt that these international elements were not in conflict but rather would contribute to a better piece of art overall.
The ballets Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1910-11), which were also based on stories by Afanasyev, had earned Stravinsky great success early in his career, but after the infamous premiere of Rite of Spring in 1913 and the outbreak of World War I, dance commissions were slowing down. The composer was looking for a new project that would be lucrative but still artistically fulfilling. During his unofficial exile in Switzerland from 1914-1920, he became friendly with a circle of French-Swiss intelligentsia. It was in this group that he encountered C.F. Ramuz and they hatched the idea of an original theater piece that would feature narrator, dance and orchestra.
Stravinsky wrote The Soldier’s Tale nearly 20 years before Sergei Prokofiev’s beloved Peter and the Wolf (1936), and at the time the combination of spoken-word acting and instrumental music was unusual. Given the strong narrative focus of the work, however, Stravinsky’s choice not to set the text to music makes sense in context. The violin’s enticing music is a recurring refrain throughout the piece, and its wordless song is juxtaposed against the narrator’s spoken words. Ultimately, the contrast between the narrator’s speech and the violin’s song emphasizes the distance between reason and emotion, allowing the audience to see the full effects of music’s irresistible power.