Stravinsky's "L'Histoire" at 100
This past Friday night at the Cleveland Institute of Music was a special night. The CIM New Music Ensemble gave a thrilling performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat”, or “The Soldier’s Tale” as it’s known in English. The piece has been gaining momentum, especially since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the work. Written in 1918, Stravinsky was the face of new music in the 20th century, up until his death in 1971. His works such as the ballets "The Rite of Spring”, “The Firebird”, “Petrouchka” and his works for the symphonic stage, such as his Symphony in C, Symphony in Three Movements, and “Symphony of Psalms”, created a very fertile soil for new styles in what was known as “neo-classical” music at that point in time. Since the air was just clearing after the First World War, Stravinsky had picked up a changed mind, reflecting on himself in his music, which shows in his works written after 1918.
For “L’Histoire”, the instrumentation is much smaller than that of his larger works, only comprising of Violin, Bass, Clarinet, Bassoon, Trumpet, Trombone, and Percussion. The concept of the work is similar to that of the classic Faustian story; A soldier marching back from war, only to stumble across a man who is interested in buying his violin. The man of course is the devil in disguise, there to ruin the solder’s life after a tricky deal is made. The soldier gives the violin to him, and from that point on the soldier experiences extreme hardships such as appearing as a ghost in his hometown, and leaving his family and his lover. As the classic tale goes on, the devil appears at every turn, and the soldier has no choice but to march behind the devil as he leads him on for eternity.
The piece is a staple in Stravinsky’s repertoire, demonstrating his use of mix-meter, poly-tonality, and reoccurring themes in swaying variation of each other throughout the 10 or so movements. There’s also numerous ways the piece can be staged and produced. The most popular way to perform it is by just playing through the work with instrumentalists alone, alongside with program notes to help explain the development of the story. However, it’s much more entertaining to hear and see a narration of the piece, which Stravinsky wrote himself. People get even more creative; I’ve seen a performance of the piece online where a company used a narrator, ballet dancers, and background art, which I’m sure Stravinsky would’ve appreciated!
Our production was even more exotic. CIM was able to commission the internationally renowned film artist, Kasumi, to produce a new outlook on the ageless tale through her expertise in producing exhilarating and moving scenes pertinent to what Stravinsky intended. The film we were accompanying was full of life, color, and thought-provoking material that was applicable in today’s world issues, involving money, power, fame, and the inevitable downfall of man’s success due to greed and gluttony. Here are only a few of the many scene shots from Kasumi’s film and world premiere, “A Soldier’s Tale”:
This was of course a world premiere of Kasumi’s work, and it paired almost too well with the centennial celebration of one of Stravinsky’s best works. Needless to say, the premiere was a success. A full house in Mixon Hall that night was on their feet, and we received several bows.
Shortly after we received our second set of bows, Kasumi and her lead actor that was in the film joined us on stage to receive their fair share of acknowledgment.
By the end of the night, everyone in the room had a refreshed appreciation for Stravinsky. Sure, he writes some pretty difficult literature to play, but he was what propelled classical music forward, even if he did use time signatures that no one else did. And at the end of the day, Stravinsky would also feel the need to enjoy himself, as well.