Existing somewhere between Dadaist performance-art and chamber music, Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale reiterates a Faustian bargain through a stark modernist lens. On Friday October 6th at Paine Hall, a cohort of Harvard musicians conducted by Elias Miller, with faculty members in tow (none other than musicologists Thomas Kelly, Anne Shreffler, and organist / choirmaster Edward Jones), presented the story. Part of a newly formed branch of the familiar Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO), the Chamber Players convened for the first time, for a concert that matched the interdisciplinary, sometimes haphazard nature of Stravinsky’s wartime composition.
During the summer of 1918, Stravinsky having transplanted himself to Lausanne to wait out the nihilistic denouement of WWI, collaborated with the Swiss novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, to put down music to form the backdrop to a libretto that tells of a soldier persuaded by the devil to trade his simplicity—his fiddle—for self-consuming materialism. Stravinsky composed in a new idiom, for smaller forces in an era of economic and social dissolution, one different from, though retaining elements of, his former enterprises with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Underwritten by the philanthropist-intellectual Werner Reinhart (who supported many of Stravinsky’s contemporaries, including Rilke, composers Hindemith, Krenek, and Webern), the piece mirrors the social and economic forces which produced it, both in content and in quality.
The dark comedy is in two parts, the first more episodic than the second. The musicians brought to the compound-meter marches a sense of ennui. The work began with bugle-ish pronouncements from the brass, accompanied by a plodding ostinato in the double bass (Ross Wightman) setting the scene for the soldier as allegorical wanderer, bumbling down abandoned, desolate, unknown roads. However restrained the musicians were with their execution in the pastoral first half, the performance took on a greater sense of form and flow in the second.
There the story changes course from a soldier wandering in the countryside to the same man transformed by the devil’s book of material success, arriving to aid a king, whose princess the soldier courts and finally weds. The provincial marches of the first half became courtly marches in the second, coupled with dance movements minus dancer (titled Tango, Valse, and Ragtime), dominated by an overripe decaying musical quality (well-executed with rhythmic sultry by violinist NaYoung Yang).
The work culminates in the reading of the moral of the histoire:
You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had,
You have no right to be both
Who one is and who one was
You must learn to choose;
One does not have the right to have it all:
That is forbidden
One happy moment is every happy moment;
Two is as if they never existed in the same way.
This is accompanied by a musical moment of remorse, in the harmonically meandering grand choral for the ensemble, without percussion, concluding the dualistic moment with a consonant major chord, tenderly executed and emotionally available by the ensemble (with subtle harmonic phrasing by Andrew Heath, trumpet, Erica Chang, clarinet, Steven Ekert, bassoon, and Topher Colby, trombone). Following this poignant scene, the soldier, having been convinced by his princess-wife to travel back to his provincial place of origin, intrudes upon the moral itself. The work ends in ambiguity with the Marche Triomphale du Diable, the soldier forbidden to reenter into things that have past—musically imitated in bombastic, devilish articulation by the violin, and a final rhythmic barbarity (formidably executed by Kai Trepka, percussion).
More stylistically aligned with Dadaist performance art than with traditional chamber music, especially given the movement’s express uninterest in traditional aesthetics, the clean and technically accurate execution by the musicians and faculty members removed elements of the raw and cynical moral mocking that is latent (and not so latent) within L’Histoire. Had these elements been executed with more authenticity, the performance might have enhanced elements in the work that eerily parallel our present zeitgeist. The position of the musical ensemble (instrumentation including violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion) separate from the actors onstage created a disjointed tension upon the performance as an organic whole: the music seemed isolated from, rather than interacting with, the actors.
In spite of these shortcomings, the concert entertained with artistically licensed “Harvard” quips tastefully added to Ramuz’s English-translated libretto.
This collaboration hopefully lead to the emergence of more small student-led ensembles from the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra Chamber Players.
Nicolas Sterner, cellist, conductor, organizer, commentator, musical facilitator, and Santa Barbara native, has performed with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and has organized and participated in a range of local productions as both cellist and assistant conductor.