L’Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Biographical Info

The Soldier’s Tale comes from 1918, a lean post-war time when jazz was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream. Stravinsky was broke, deprived of his royalties because of the Revolution, and his other source of income, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was also going through lean times.

Stravinsky invented a new style, pared down to essentials, in melody, rhythm and instrumentation. The Soldier’s Tale is scored for just seven instruments: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass and percussion. The concert version also features four speaking parts, those of the Devil, the Soldier, a Princess and an unseen Reader. The Devil and Princess are also required to dance.

Suggested Equipment

The part calls for cornet in A and Bb.  I would say most people prefer to play this on C trumpet however there are quite a few great performances on cornet.

The clips I included below are from a faculty ensemble concert given at UW-Platteville.

Practice/Performance Tips

The story is a dark Faustian fable about a deserting soldier and the Devil who eventually possesses his soul. The soldier’s violin becomes a symbol of both the soldier’s soul and the Devil’s wiles.  The story is based on an old Russian folk tale but the music is as far removed from Russian traditionalism as possible, making it a lesson for all cultures and times.

Stravinsky uses tango rhythms, marches, a waltz and a chorale, never faithfully but more as an artisan uses tools to fashion something new.

The Soldier’s Tale opens with the Soldier’s March, a stiff parody of militarism, as befits a deserter.

Soldier’s March

Next come the Soldier’s Violin, rhythmic, repetitive, driving and typically Stravinsky.

Soldier’s Violin

Then come the Little Concert and Three Dances – Tango, Valse and Ragtime, the most musically elaborate of the works.

Little Concert

The Suite ends brilliantly with the Devil’s Dance, triumphant and diabolical. The violin theme now belongs to him and he owns the Soldier’s soul. The Devil celebrates his victory.

The Soldier’s Tale is a masterpiece of the miniature, dry and acerbic, dark yet witty, threatening but tongue in cheek.

Plot Summary / Synopsis of The Soldier’s Tale

Part 1

As the work opens, Joseph, a Russian soldier, marches toward his hometown on leave, pack in tow. (“Marche du soldat”/”The Soldier’s March”) He rests by a stream and rummages through his pack. First he takes out his lucky St. Joseph medallion, then a mirror, then a photograph of his girlfriend. Finally, he finds what he was searching for: his fiddle. He begins to play. (“Petit airs au bord du ruisseau”/”Airs by a Stream”) The devil appears disguised as an old man carrying a butterfly net, but Joseph does not notice him and continues to play. The devil sneaks up on Joseph from behind and startles him.

The devil asks Joseph to sell him his fiddle, and when Joseph refuses, he offers him a book that he says contains untold wealth. Joseph does not understand the book, but the devil convinces him that it’s worth more than his cheap fiddle. Joseph then realizes the book contains events that happen in the future! The devil offers to take Joseph home for three days to teach him about the book if Joseph will teach him about the fiddle. After the devil describes the life of luxury he lives, Joseph accepts. After three days pass, the devil takes Joseph home. (Reprise: “Marche du soldat”)

As Joseph walks the path towards his town, he notices something strange: everyone runs away as they see him. Finally, he arrives at his fiancée’s house only to see her with her husband and children. Finally, he realizes that three years – not three days – have passed, and that the residents of the town think he’s a ghost. (“Pastorale”)

Joseph sees the devil in disguise as a cattle merchant and confronts him. The devil tries to calm Joseph by reminding him of the power of the book. Joseph started off as a peddler. With the knowledge he gained from the book, he quickly amassed great wealth. Soon, he realizes this material wealth means nothing, and all he wants is the things he had before – the things everyone else has. (“Petite airs au bord du ruisseau (reprise)”) He realizes the poor have nothing in terms of material wealth, yet they have it all when it comes to happiness. He gets agitated and starts looking through the book for the solution, yet cannot find anything.

The devil arrives disguised as an old female peddler. He takes some things out to sell to Joseph: first, a lucky medallion; next, a mirror; then, a photograph of a woman; finally, a fiddle. Joseph immediately perks up and tries to buy the fiddle from the devil. The devil hands Joseph the violin, but he can no longer play: the violin makes no sound. (“Petite airs au bord du ruisseau (reprise)”) Joseph hurls the violin away and tears the book up.

Part 2

Joseph leaves his home with nothing. He marches past his old hometown. (“Marche du soldat (reprise)”) He arrives at an inn where he hears the news that the king’s daughter is sick, and whoever can raise her from her bed will be given her hand in marriage.

When he arrives at the palace, the devil is already there disguised as a virtuoso violinist. Joseph turns over some cards and gets an air of confidence when they are all hearts. Suddenly, the devil makes his presence known, clutching the violin to his chest, and taunts Joseph. The narrator tells Joseph the reason the devil controls him is because Joseph still has the devil’s money, and if Joseph loses all his money to the devil in a card game, he will finally be free.

The plan works: the devil falls, and Joseph is free. He takes the violin and plays. (“Petit concert”/”The Little Concert”) He triumphantly marches into the princess’ chambers and starts to play another tune. The princess is miraculously resurrected by the music, and begins to dance. (“Trois danses”/”Three Dances” “1. Tango; 2. Valse; 3. Ragtime”)

Joseph and the princess embrace. The devil arrives, and for the first time he is not disguised. As Joseph protects the princess from the devil, he realizes he can defeat the devil by playing his violin. (“Danse du diable”/”The Devil’s Dance”) The devil cannot resist the music and begins to contort. Exhausted, he falls to the ground. The soldier takes the princess’s hand, and together they drag the devil away, then fall into each others’ arms. (“Petit choral”/”Little Chorale”)

The devil pops his head in and begins to torment the couple, warning them that Joseph may not leave the castle or the devil will regain control of him. (“Couplets du diable”/”The Devil’s Song”)

Over the “Grand Choral” (“Great Chorale”), the narrator tells the moral of the story:

Il ne faut pas vouloir ajouter
A ce qu’on a ce qu’on avait,
On ne peut pas être à la fois
Qui on est et qui on était

Il faut savoir choisir;
On n’a pas le droit de tout avoir:
C’est défendu.

Un bonheur est tout le bonheur;
Deux, c’est comme s’ils n’existaient plus.

You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.

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 if they had never been.

The work ends with Joseph crossing the frontier post – a boundary not to be crossed – after being tempted by the ideal of both having his wife and his mother. The devil is found waiting as Joseph turns back to find his bride, now gone. The final piece is “Marche triomphale du diable”/”The triumphal march of the devil” and features violin and percussion entwined in a rhythmic duel with the final measures played solely by the percussionist. The score is marked with a decrescendo to the end of the work from approximately rehearsal number 17. However, this is sometimes changed to a crescendo (especially if performing the Suite).

Suggested Recordings

There are many, many recordings of this work as well as video versions, just check out Amazon.com.  Below I list some of my favorite versions.

  • Robert Helpmann (Devil), Brian Phelan (Soldier), Svetlana Beriosova (Princess), with Melos Ensemble, film version 1964; Michael Burkitt (Director), Dennis Miller and Leonard Cassini (Producers), Richard Marden (Editor), BHE production. [1]