Close Encounters With Music

Stravinsky and The Soldier’s Tale

Let’s go back to 1910, three years before the premiere of The Soldier’s Tale, four years before the cataclysm of a world war.

It is the premiere of The Rite of Spring in the elegant Theatre des Champs Elysees. The opening notes evoke nervous twitters in the audience. Ladies dressed in pearls and ostrich feathers shift nervously in their box seats. As the music continues (“Music?" many in the audience wonder!), several patrons hiss; others follow with catcalls and loud whistles. Still others join the uproar with shouts of “Quiet, please!” and others with shouts of outrage at the percussive dissonance and the insistent hammer-like rhythms. A group of standees rush into the aisles. Fists fly. Blood flows. Nijinsky rushes backstage. Cocteau sees him standing on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers who do not hear the orchestra above the din. The riot police arrive and attempt (in vain) to quell the uproar.

“Just what I wanted,” a triumphant Diaghilev exclaims!

The Rite of Spring electrified the musical world and confirmed the status of Igor Stravinsky as a presiding genius. A year later, the young standees who had rushed into the aisles of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees rushed, with equal fervor, into the trenches. From the Baltic to the Balkans, from the steppes of Asia to the jungles of Africa, the world was convulsed in an orgy of blood-letting.

Four years and thirty-seven million wartime deaths later, Stravinsky found himself an exile in Switzerland, nursing a tubercular wife, caring for four children, cut off from his normal funds, his royalties from concert performances severely diminished. Dead was his beloved brother Gury, killed in the last year of the war on the Rumanian front. Gone was his country estate with its precious library of folk poetry and folk music. (Many years later, the conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky discovered in a Moscow bookstall the title page of Debussy’s Preludes, inscribed by Debussy “to entertain my friend Igor Stravinsky.”) To this most Russian composer, gone was his homeland, a wellspring for his creativity. Far from the bustle of cosmopolitan city life, he now lived in rural seclusion.

“The greatest single crisis in my life as a composer," Stravinsky was later to write, “was the loss of Russia and its language not only of music and of words.” They were to be regained when Ernest Ansermet introduced him to the Swiss poet and writer, C. F. Ramuz.

Stravinsky and Ramuz were, on the face of it, opposites. Ramuz wrote,
[Stravinsky lived] in a very great city, with a court, with palaces, with a king who was more than a king: a tsar (no less); me, I lived in a tiny town, in a small republic… he, the son of a court singer, a musician born into music; me, the son and the grandson and the great grandson of vintners and peasants…who never dreamed that one could write as a profession; he, a catholic, an orthodox catholic holding to his religion; me, a protestant, not holding to it at all… and yet, all the distances were abolished, all the distances eliminated as if they never existed at all.
The writer, Robert Siohan, summarized their symbiotic relationship during the war and its aftermath:
The friendship of the Swiss writer Ramuz was a godsend to Stravinsky during those years of exile in the Vaud. As a man of letters Ramuz was devoted to his native tongue, the language of the Suisse Romande; and this was well suited to express the popular raciness of Stravinsky’s Russian folk texts. Not only did Ramuz provide an incomparable translation of these works, but he also became a close friend of Stravinsky’s, sharing with him the difficulties, anxieties, and bitter disappointments of those wartime years.

Cut off from his beloved homeland, Stravinsky attempted to return by means of art. He introduced Ramuz to a Russian folk tale, the story of a soldier who sells his soul, in the form of a fiddle, to the devil. The devil first appears in the guise of a lepidopterist, net in hand, ready to trap butterflies, an apt symbol for the human soul. (In the Sixties, an extraordinary graphic novelist, Vaughn Bode, personified death as butterflies leaving the mouths of his dying characters.)

The Soldier trades his fiddle for a talisman that brings him untold wealth, but in the end, he finds his riches hollow and unsatisfying. He rejects the talisman, and is transported to a royal palace where he cures an ailing princess. His reward is marriage to the princess… and happiness. But happiness—that is not enough. The Soldier dreams of revisiting his native village. Despite the Devil’s warning that crossing the boundary of his new kingdom (and of his happiness?) will bring tragedy, the Soldier attempts a voyage home. The Devil snares him.

The overarching moral to The Soldier’s Tale was provided by Ramuz in his text: “A single happiness is happiness complete: a second happiness cancels out the first.” In other words, “Don’t push your luck.”

The Soldier’s Tale mixes the most heterogeneous musical forms—waltzes and jazz, marching tunes, ragtime and tango, a paso doble and a Dies Irae, and even (to my ear) a hint of Bach—all the various musical forms meant to stress the story’s universality. (For the same reason, in the initial performance, the Soldier wore a nondescript Swiss army uniform.) Just as the interweaving of disparate musical forms creates a sense of dislocation, so the overlapping use of actors, musicians, and a dancer (portraying the Princess), makes for a surreal atmosphere of dissonance and alienation—the very qualities associated with the Soldier and with the exiled Stravinsky.

Ramuz and Stravinsky planned to take their Soldier from town to town, with performers, props, sets and costumes, all packed in a small van—but fate intervened. The plague of World War One was followed by an equally deadly plague: the Spanish flu. The pandemic infected one-third of the world’s population, killing an estimated 50 (some say 100) million people. One after another, the members of the company succumbed to the disease. Even Stravinsky suffered symptoms. Abandoned in its shed, the van never took to the road.

Perhaps the Devil, triumphant in The Soldier’s Tale, triumphed in life.

But tonight … the Soldier returns.

--R. O. Blechman

(R.O. Blechman, an animator and illustrator, animated the Great Performances version of The Soldier's Tale, and is the author of Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator, Simon and Schuster, 2009)