STRAVINSKY / RAMUZ: The Soldier's Tale / Dumbarton Oaks (Benjamin Soames/ David Timson/ Jonathan Keeble/ Nicholas Ward/ Northern Chamber Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553662)
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IgorStravinsky (1882-1971) & Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878-1947)
The Soldier's Tale
Concerto in E flat (Dumbarton Oaks)
Igor Stravinsky was the son of adistinguished bass soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, creatorof important roles in new operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He wasborn, the third of four sons, at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland in thesummer of 1882. In childhood his ability in music did not seem exceptional, buthe was able to study privately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a particularlyimportant influence after the death of the composer's strong-minded father in1902. He completed a degree in law in 1905, married in the following year andincreasingly devoted himself to music. Stravinsky's first significant successcame when the impresario Dyagilev, a distant relative on his mother's side ofthe family, commissioned from him the ballet The Firebird, firstperformed in Paris in 1910. This was followed by the very Russian Petrushka in1911 for the Dyagilev Ballets russes, with which he was now closelyassociated, leading, in 1913, to the notorious first performance of The Riteof Spring, first staged, like the preceding ballets, in Paris. Althoughcollaboration with Dyagilev was limited during the war, when Stravinsky livedprincipally in Switzerland, it was resumed with the ballet Pulcinella in1920, marking the composer's association with neo-classicism. The collaborationwith Dyagilev ended with what the latter described as a macabre present, OedipusRex, with a text by Cocteau, intended to mark the twentieth anniversary ofDyagilev's career as an impresario, in 1927.
Stravinsky has been compared to his nearcontemporary Picasso, the painter who provided decor for Pulcinella andwho, through a long career, was to show mastery of a number of differentstyles. Stravinsky's earlier music was essentially Russian in inspiration,followed by a style of composition derived largely from the eighteenth century,interspersed with musical excursions in other directions. His neo- classicismcoincided with the beginning of a career that was now international. Theinitial enthusiasm for the Russian revolution of 1917 that had led evenDyagilev to replace the crown and sceptre in The Firebird with a red flag,was soon succeeded by distaste for the new regime and the decision not toreturn to Russia.
In 1934 Stravinsky had taken out Frenchcitizenship but five years later, with war imminent in Europe, he moved to theUnited States, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death ofhis first wife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a longearlier association and the couple settled in Hollywood, where the climateseemed congenial. Income from his compositions was at last safeguarded by hisassociation with the publishers Boosey and Hawkes in 1945, the year of hisnaturalisation as an American citizen. 1951 saw the completion and firstperformance of the English opera The Rake's Progress, a work that markedthe final height of his neo- classicism. The last period of his life brought achange to serialism, the technique of composition developed by ArnoldSchoenberg, a fellow-exile in California with whom he had never chosen toassociate. In 1962 he made a triumphant return to Russia for a series ofconcerts in celebration of his eightieth birthday. Among his final compositionsare the Requiem Canticles of 1965-6, which follow his RequiemIntroitus for the death of the poet T.S. Eliot, but prefigure his owndeath, which took place in New York in April 1971. He was buried in thecemetery on the island of San Michele in Venice, his grave near that ofDyagilev, whose percipience had launched his career sixty years before.
The war years, between 1914 and 1918,brought inevitable difficulties, accentuated after the revolution of 1917 andthe consequent loss of property in Russia and income. The year brought sorrowat the death of his beloved governess Bertushka (Bertha Essert), who had forhim taken the place of a mother, and then, in August, of his brother Guri onthe Romanian front, His wife was ill, her illness the original reason forresidence in Switzerland, and there were four children to care for, It was inthese circumstances that Stravinsky turned to the idea of composing a theatricalwork on a small scale, something portable and compendious, In this hecollaborated with the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz and his friend, thepainter and designer Rene- Victor Auberjonois, creating the Histoire dusoldat (The Soldier's Tale), derived from the collection of Russian storiesmade by Afanasyev that had already served as a source for the burlesque in songand dance, Renard, There was further collaboration from Georges andLudmila Pitoeff, who were to dance the roles of the Devil and the Princess, andinvaluable assistance from Ernest Ansermet, who conducted the firstperformances. The piece had its premiere in Lausanne, with two actors for thedramatic roles of the Soldier and the Devil and a speaker recruited from theUniversity. The whole production was only made possible by the generousfinancial support of Werner Reinhart, to whom the Histoire du soldat isdedicated. It had been intended to take the work on tour but an outbreak ofSpanish influenza made this impossible. Stravinsky, in his autobiography,declares himself very satisfied with the Lausanne staging, but later came tomake various changes in the score. Dyagilev, in Paris, was not amused,resenting, as always, any collaboration between a protege of his and otherpeople. The resulting coolness was brought to an end with their subsequentcollaboration on Pulcinella.
The Soldier's Tale isscored for an instrumental ensemble of seven players, violin, doublebass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion, the last includingtwo unpitched snare drums of different sizes, a larger snare drum, a bass drum,cymbals, tambourine and triangle. The ensemble is to be on the stage, inaccordance with Stravinsky's expressed views on the physical dramatic nature ofmusical performance. A speaker, on the other side of the stage, tells thestory, while the Devil appears as an actor and as a dancer. The Soldier himselfis represented by an actor and the King's daughter by a dancer. The story isthat of a new Faust and strangely prefigures the later opera, The Rake'sProgress in some of its elements, its account of a bargain with the Deviland in the card game in which the queen of hearts defeats the ace of spades, asthe Soldier stakes all in a contest with the Devil.
A soldier returns to his village from thewar. The Soldier's March is heard, as the Narrator starts the tale, therhythm of the words matching the marching step of the score, telling of thejourney, for a few days' leave. The curtain rises on a scene by the bank of astream. Here the Soldier stops, sits down and searches through his knapsackfrom which he takes a medallion, cartridges, a mirror, a picture of hissweetheart and a cheap fiddle. Now he tunes the fiddle, which always needstuning, and starts to play. The curtain is briefly lowered, to rise again forthe appearance of the Devil, in the guise of a little old man with a butterflynet, who hides and watches, before corning forward, approaching the Soldierfrom behind and placing his hand on his shoulder. The Devil demands theSoldier's fiddle, offering a magic book in exchange. They must go hometogether, where the Soldier can teach him how to play the fiddle and he willshow the Soldier how to use the book to win riches. The curtain falls. Afterthe three days specified by the Devil, the Soldier is transported to