L'Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale) is a theatrical work "to be read, played, and danced" ("lue, jouée et dansée") by three actors and one or several dancers, accompanied by a septet of instruments. The piece was conceived by Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz based on a Russian folk tale (The Runaway Soldier and the Devil) drawn from the collection of Alexander Afanasyev.
The libretto relates the parable of a soldier who trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited economic gain. The music is scored for a septet of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet (often played on trumpet), trombone, and percussion, and the story is told by three actors: the soldier, the devil, and a narrator, who also takes on the roles of minor characters. A dancer plays the non-speaking role of the princess, and there may also be additional ensemble dancers.
The original French text by Ramuz has been translated into English by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, A full performance of L'Histoire du soldat takes about an hour.
The music is rife with changing time signatures. For this reason, it is commonly performed with a conductor, though some ensembles have elected to perform the piece without one. The work was premiered in Lausanne on 28 September 1918, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. The British conductor Edward Clark was a friend and champion of Stravinsky and a former assistant conductor to Ansermet at the Ballets Russes. He conducted the British premiere of L'Histoire du soldat in 1926 in Newcastle upon Tyne, and gave three further fully staged performances in London in July 1927.
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.
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.
He makes his way to the Palace gates. ("Marche Royale"/The Royal March")
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 other's 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
You must not seek to add
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).
Lausanne, Switzerland, 28 September 1918, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
Concert Suite: 1920, London, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
Full staging, 1926, Newcastle upon Tyne, conducted by Edward Clark. Three further fully staged performances in London in July 1927.
Full staging (by Diaghilev), Paris, 1924
1924: Frankfurt, and Wiesbaden (conducted by Otto Klemperer)
Ballet version: New York City Opera, New York State Theater, Lincoln Center: 1978: Directed by Frank Corsaro and Gardner Compton (who also choreographed), conducted by Imre Palló. Scenic and costume design by Victor Capecce; lighting design by Ken Billington. Barry Bostwick played the title role, and the Princess was portrayed by Mercedes Ellington. John Lankston and the New York City Opera Dancers completed the cast. (Presented on a triple bill with La voix humaine and The Impresario.)
Balletmaster Peter Martins created the Suite from L'Histoire du Soldat for New York City Ballet. The premiere was at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center on 30 January 1981 with the original cast consisting of Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Ib Andersen, Heather Watts, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, Victor Castelli, Bart Cook, and Daniel Duell.
Narrated version: Montreal Festivals, 1949.
Staged version: Stratford Shakespearean Festival, 1955: directed by Douglas Campbell. Costume design by Clarence Wilson. Lillian Jarvis as the Princess, Marcel Marceau as the Devil, Douglas Rain as the Soldier, narrated by William Needles.