Title Cards created by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for a March 2012 performance of Stravinsky’s Histoire du sold at.
Conductor David Montgomery pulls together all the pieces ...
On the 23rd of March this year (2012), Washington DC’s United Church (Die Vereinigte Kirche) will be treated to David Montgomery’s version of Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat, with accompanying images by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Many greats have been involved in performances of this piece: Gerard Depardieu, Jean Cocteau, Sting, Vanessa Redgrave, Frank Zappa...and now, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has provided an amazing new dimension to the work. As many have noted, the complicated rhythms of this piece, with its intense syncopation and jazz influence, make it very difficult to choreograph:
What has been needed is exactly what Clive has provided: the motion, intensity, and mood of dance, presented in flashes of high-impact gesture and signal--beyond the capabilities of the human body.
He came to this project directly after working out the cover and inside illustrations to Marly Youman’s upcoming book of the Green Man, where he was beginning to push into a wilder, more angular style, deeply marked by the darker and more mysterious wells of nature, and heavily utilizing collage techniques; that work was a perfect segue into this project, and the influence is notable.
And he had already been musing on the idea of the tale itself, though his hoped-for project of an illustrated book had been languishing. The conductor David Montgomery happened on the three monoprints that had been posted on that tale’s theme on Clive’s Artlog, and contacted the artist to see if he would collaborate on his upcoming performance.
For this project, Clive has employed his immensely popular creation of maquettes, this time taking the idea even further to a disarticulated version of the soldier, which both creates a strongly ghost-like, jazzy presence (perfectly suited to the musical style), and makes the pieces more versatile, allowing for a fuller range of motion.
I became so intrigued by the process he shared on his Artlog, that I had to go explore the piece and its history. I first learned a bit about it here:
"In 1918 Igor Stravinsky, who was living in Switzerland at the time, collaborated with Swiss writer C.F. Gamuz to create L'Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) which was meant ‘to be read, played and danced.’ The story is about a soldier (whose soul is represented by the violin) making a deal with the devil (the percussion). Stravinsky and Gamuz wanted to put together a "portable" production which would be easy to tour with, so the instrumentation was limited to a septet (violin, clarinet, trumpet, string bass, bassoon, trombone and percussion). They also planned to augment the production with a handful of characters who would narrate, act or dance.”
"Stravinsky had not yet heard jazz, but Gamuz had. In fact, Gamuz had brought back some jazz scores from a visit to the U.S., and Stravinsky used jazz influences for the first time, along with frequent meter changes, in L'Histoire. Apparently the bassoon is substituting for the more jazz-oriented saxophone in L'Histoire. (Rumor has it that Stravinsky did not care for the saxophone, luckily for those of us who play the bassoon!)"
Now, the presentation coming up in DC uses the Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz libretto, but there has actually been a more recent libretto created for the music by Kurt Vonnegut, who, as a prisoner of war (WWII), had his own translation of this musical tale (rhythm and tone translated to words--is there a special term for that?). That text can be read here.
In the beginning, Mr. Vonnegut (whose God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is one of the best books of all times) points out that the soldier in the original folk-tale is armed only with a violin. He finds that preposterous, and sets out to make the tale more realistically soldierly. But the soul of the soldier is represented, in musical language, by the violin. And just this once, I have to disagree with Mr. Vonnegut, in order to sidle closer to Marina Warner, who says, "The faculty of wonder, like curiosity, can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due." I am ready for all weapons to be exchanged for violins.
It is interesting to think about Vonnegut's opening words when looking at the story of the Histoire du soldat, because the tale centers around all that Joseph, the soldier, *has* when he is returning home on leave to visit his girlfriend and playing his violin. Even the devil, hearing him play, wants what he has. He asks for the violin, but Joseph refuses.
He arrives in the form of a peddler woman, offering all kinds of little treasures from her box-- pearls, a mirror, a lovely framed photo--in exchange...
The devil finally arranges a trade: over a period of three days, he will teach Joseph how to use his book of the future to amass great wealth in exchange for lessons on the violin, with the two objects themselves traded at the end.
The three days of the agreement turns out, in human time, to be three years, and Joseph returns to a town that believes he is a ghost--and his girl is married, with children.
Joseph spends a long time in an increasingly wealthy and increasingly wretched state, finding that happiness is very separate from monetary riches. Are not most wars fought over, as the soldier says in The Thin Red Line, real estate, and the money grasped via great power (ownership)? And Joseph's tool against all of that, against taking all of that into his soul, even as he must fight as a soldier, was the violin (again, musically it represents his soul).
Now, how to reclaim what he has lost? He returns to his violin. His true weapon: life, love. He hears of an ailing princess, to take the hand of whomever can come and raise her from her sick bed. He lays out his cards and sees they are all hearts, and he takes heart. He tricks the devil into beating him at a game of cards, thus losing all the money he has gained by following the devil to the devil, thus freeing himself from his grasp. He takes back his violin and plays it for the princess, who miraculously revives and begins to dance.
THEN, the devil comes towards them, and Joseph turns to him with his weapon and plays a different tune:
[post recording of the devil's dance:]
The devil begins to contort and move with the music, until he collapses in exhaustion.
Another interesting thematic element in the tale of Joseph the Soldier is the idea of the future and the hold it has over humanity. The anxieties of striving for some future happiness (often clothed as bigger wealth, but it’s symbolic, really) seem to control every aspect of ‘civilized’ existence. Here, again, the violin represents the opposite; it’s the happiness of now. Music and art both tend to be about stopping time: right now. The intensity of being.
In fact, in Stravinsky's Histoire du soldat, a Facsimile of the Sketches, Philippe Gerard says: "In the score of Histoire du soldat, the 'Petite concert' is what pulls together most of the threads underlying the work and assures its secret coherence. In this number, we witness a remarkable number of references to known musical elements heard earlier in the work but also, and in a stranger fashion, evocations of music that comes later. At the heart of the soldier's momentary victory over the devil, motifs that will form the 'Couplet du diable' and especially the final 'Marche triomphale' emerge intertwined with the motifs of 'Petits airs au bord du ruisseau,' 'Marche royale,' and 'Marche du soldat.' In his 'Petit concert,' the soldier anticipates his fate. To paraphrase Ramuz, he plays things ahead of time. Music thus transcends the supposedly insurmountable barriers of time. The strange percussion solo with every trace of melody extinguished, which concludes the score of the 'Marche triomphale du diable,' celebrates this ultimate crossing with the hiccoughing the hiccoughing somersaults of a disarticulated machine...This music must end, and, if one respects the score, senza crescendo, finally dissolving into a silence stripped of any grandiloquent effect. The terrible victory of the void, of non music."
The violin kept him outside of time. And when he focused elsewhere, and forgot that, he turned the music off. And the piece ends. So it is a battle, to keep the violin. To make the art. To stop and play. To dance. And who better to teach us these things than Clive?
The violin, the brush, the soul, these are tools of wonder, and they can make things happen. And it is time we give wishful thinking its due.