The Soldier’s Tale by Igor Stravinsky is unfailingly popular, because it combines music, theatre and dance in a genre of a fable, which can be understood by all. Because it is timeless, the work adapts to the time in which it is staged – the title soldier today can be a greedy businessman, unwise politician, naïve dreamer or any one of us who believes in advertising.
We will see and hear a story of a soldier. On his way back from the war he meets the devil and is persuaded by him to exchange his violin for a book that tells the future. The devil takes power over the soldier’s life, who tries to regain his freedom. In his piece, Stravinsky plays with conventions, making a reference to the culture of street vagrant theatre, and he makes the listeners laugh. At the same time, this story can be seen as a morality play, and we hear such words from the stage as “Woe to those who desire too much”.
This was the first classical music piece to use elements of jazz. We will also recognize motives from Russian music, the Argentinian tango, a Spanish paso doble and the Viennese waltz. On this occasion, we will hear an unusual performance of this piece on period instruments, by Ensemble1918, which will highlight the qualities of the composition. Three weeks after the concert we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the premiere of this work, which uses the libretto by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, and is based on a tale from the collection of Russian fables by Alexander Afanasyev.
By the end of WWI, Stravinsky was in a dire financial situation, as he had lost his entire fortune in the course of the Russian revolution. Ramuz was in a similar situation. The artists decided to jointly create an attractive work that was cheap to produce and could easily be toured across post-war Europe. At this period in history, it was economically unfavourable to think of super productions such as The Rite of Spring.
The first staging of The Soldier’s Tale was financed by Werner Reinhart, a Swiss merchant and amateur clarinettist. In acknowledgment, one year later Stravinsky composed Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, especially for Reinhart. We will also hear these during the concert. Although the works of this great Russian composer are not considered early music, the members of Ensemble1918 will perform The Soldier’s Tale on period instruments, including violin and double bass with gut strings, a trombone that is smaller than its contemporary counterpart, and a percussion section with the leading role of a snare drum and tambourine. The artists are asking themselves what kind of performance the composer himself would wish for – they also quote his opinion that music should be transmitted, not interpreted. During the concert there will be curtains hanging on the stage, creating a theatre of shadows. We will see multimedia projections, and the voiceover will be played from a recording – all of these elements will give an unreal, dream-like air to the performance.
This concert is an interesting voice in this year’s festival take on freedom – it portrays the attempts of the protagonist to free himself from the lamentable results of his own recklessness, but above all it shows how we are, quite easily, inclined to forego freedom.
Greed, desire of fame, the illusion of an easy and carefree life – there are many temptations that captivate us. Regardless of whether we consider the concert as a warning or as just an evening of good entertainment, it is worthwhile familiarising ourselves with the remarkable works of Stravinsky and their unique, contemporary, and yet archaic-like, interpretation.