Igor Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale), based upon a tale by Aleksandr Afanas’ev, is not in my Pantheon collection of Russian Fairy Tales by Afanas’ev, which contains 200 tales; perhaps it remains too adult, yet its “sister” story, “The Fiddler in Hell,” was there in all its quirky similarities.
Hell is a great metaphor, yet we need to credit the Egyptians for this ancient, amusing motif. When it suddenly became Christian doctrine, Dante Alighieri discovered much fun in mocking this rather sobering Christian-Egyptian doctrine by locating all his personal enemies and imagined enemies (and mythological sidekicks) there because he felt the need to compete with Homer and thus condemn Odysseus (a fictional character) as a Greek inferior (although Dante never read Homer in Greek). The concept of Hell is a bit of a circus, which is how Stravinsky perceived the roots of this folkloric fable.
The concept of Hell was pagan fiction that nearly destroyed Christianity by making it silly. Stalin, never distinguished for his taste in music, painting, or literature (except to condemn anything he could not understand) judged Stravinsky’s music to “be diabolic.” And so Stravinsky’s music was banned in Russia. And then he “banned” all Jews—the inclination of a dictator who remains incapable of understanding other people or life itself.
Stravinsky’s musical ensemble-skit remains minimalist in its requirements, yet it retains maximal wit and humor. Professor Edward Carroll as the Devil highlighted the Devil’s unthinking and jolly narcissism whose weakness was the unexamined life of acquiring wealth. Ring any contemporary bells? President Leon Botstein lent his dispassionate voice to the sober God-like Narrator or matter-of-fact historian. Professor Erica Kiesewetter dressed in drag as The Soldier spoke with better diction than most soldiers while projecting naïve affability. Yes, the two actors had the witty, campy lines, yet the music was much more robust, brimming with a humor that the lively script could only hope to match.
The major criminals in this expedition to the amusing World of Nonsense was Zongheng Zhang on violin, who was forced to play in a bizarre medley of styles, which, of course, he was the master of, both harmonic and dissonant, and sometimes both at nearly the same run. On clarinet Victor Toth hued the harmonic line with competitive eloquence. On percussion Jonathan Colazzo both followed the script and improvised with agility. Nathaniel Savage on Double Bass lived up to his name with double enthusiastic immediacy. On cornet Viveca Lawrie nearly had to play without a stop and I wondered where she conjured her wind. On trombone Michael Ventoso delivered the contrasting bass lines that kept everyone at the edge of their seat, or sanity. On bassoon Gabrielle Hartmann rounded out an extra frisson.
Stravinsky evoked a medley of differing styles, yet I found the jazz-inflected mock-dirge of “The Devil’s Song,” the crescendo, to be my favorite, with second consideration going to the three dances section which morphs from tango to waltz, and then ragtime. This performance was a kaleidoscopic musical circus on holiday. And like any holiday, it was free to those who imbibed in the musical freedom of a man free of political constraints and permitted to indulge his creative fantasies like Pushkin or Dante.
This amusing romp occurred at Bard College in Olin Hall on Saturday night.