To write about Igor Stravinsky, that giant of 20th century music, studied, analysed, dissected, attacked and admired by intellectuals, music lovers, critics, professors and self-proclaimed experts galore, might have you wondering why I should enter into such a prickly warzone of controversy and polarising opinions. It’s an area where honoured musicologists with Ph.Ds and esteemed researchers have dedicated careers to this man accumulating more information about Stravinsky’s music than I could ever dream of retaining. But beyond all that, there’s just one small thing – I like it. In fact, I love it and I’m not sure why, maybe I can’t express why, especially in proper terms but ever since I heard Petrouchka, followed by The Rite Of Spring, The Firebird Suite, Apollo, Orpheus and The Soldier’s Tale, I fell in love with the bizarre rhythms, the discordant harmonies, the innovation and the brutal thump of the instrumentation. Other less dramatic pieces of his music conceal a beauty but always seemingly one step away from imminent danger or a turn of fortune whether it be an orchestration or a ballet, it always feels like somebody is going to die.
Stravinsky wrote The Soldier’s Tale in 1918, two months before the end of World War One with the libretto by the Swiss, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (his likeness is on the Swiss 200 Franc note) and is based on a Russian folk tale collected by Alexander Afanasyev in the 19th century. The story has a soldier meeting the devil who convinces him to trade his violin for a book that predicts the future and will therefore make the soldier rich – it’s never going to end well. Its a Neo-Classical work inspired by Haydn, Mozart and Classical composers of the late seventeenth century but in true experimental form it also incorporates aspects of a new music called Jazz that Stravinsky had never heard but studied from sheet music. At the time he stated that this new music could finally break him away from the Russian school.
The piece is written for narration, dance and a seven piece ensemble and has been performed and interpreted using parts of or all of the intended. Having been written in time of war, the difficulty of performing with a full orchestra made it possible for a new work to be performed without great cost. This work could be performed in “modest conditions, village halls and the like”. All that was needed were three dancers, an actor and a narrator instead of a large troupe and of course musicians capable of playing Stravinsky’s awkward compositions in simultaneous keys with jagged time changes.
Below is another interpretation by The Prince William Symphony Players from Washington DC in 2012 with David Montgomery conducting. The stills are by Clive Hick-Jenkins. In case you are new to this kind of thing, I felt an interpretation that focuses on the music and on still art might be an easier transition into another realm. Modern dance, Ballet, Classical music, Opera isn’t for everyone but with this simple evocative art and only thirty minutes of music it may pique curiosity to dig deeper into the deepest of musical oceans.