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Igor Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) began life in the fall of 1917, during World War I. Stravinsky (1882-1971) was in Switzerland at the time and wanted to compose a traveling theater piece that could be staged in smaller Swiss towns. The subject came from the Russian writer Alexander Afanasiev’s collection of folk tales, and was reworked by Stravinsky and the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz. The work premiered in a small theater in Lausanne in a production bankrolled by the financier Werner Reinhardt, who was also an amateur clarinetist. In its original version, The Soldier’s Tale calls for a seven-player instrumental ensemble, two actors, a narrator, and a dancer. Stravinsky arranged the present suite for clarinet, violin, and piano as a gesture of gratitude to Reinhardt, and it was first performed in Switzerland in November 1919.

The little opening flourish of “The Soldier’s March” was Stravinsky’s first thematic idea; he originally cast it for trumpet and trombone. The soldier is on leave, trudging home to his village. He pauses by a brook to play his violin (“The Soldier’s Violin”), which attracts the Devil, who offers to make the soldier rich in exchange for his fiddle (a symbol of his soul). The soldier agrees and discovers that he can no longer play. He resolves to lose all of his ill-gotten gains to the Devil in a card game, whereupon he picks up his violin (“Little Concerto”). In a sequence of three dances, the soldier revives an ailing princess who has promised to marry the first man to cure her illness. The sequence reflects Stravinsky’s interest in dance music in general, and jazz in particular, here exemplified by the “Ragtime.” As Stravinsky put it, “The Soldier ‘Ragtime’ is a concert portrait, or a snapshot of the genre, in the sense that Chopin’s Valses are not dance waltzes, but portraits of waltzes. Since I had never heard any of the music in actual performance, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written. The jazz element brought an entirely new sound to my music…” The Devil tries to frustrate the soldier’s courtship, but the soldier thwarts him by forcing him into a manic dance (“The Devil’s Dance”). The soldier ultimately can’t decide between his new life with the princess and the happiness he knew in his childhood home, so he sets off for his village. The minute he leaves the princess’ kingdom, the Devil reclaims his soul as the narrator offers the moral of the story: “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. It is forbidden.”