The Tale of a Soldier: Uncovering Identity in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat

Leonard Bopp


Igor Stravinsky, the modernist descendent of the Russian school of composition, has found himself at the heart of a cultural debate. Having been trained in composition and orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, a stalwart defender of the Russian conservatory method, Stravinsky rose to fame through his work with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, the company that premiered The Firebird and Petroushka. But it was with The Rite of Spring, premiered in 1913, that Stravinsky issued an artistic declaration. The Rite was an affront to traditional artistic standards; with its chromatic melodies placed in the extreme registers of the wind instruments in the opening passages, its repeated dissonant chords in the strings in the “Dance of the Young Girls,” and the disjointed thrashing of the final movement, it was an insult to what the typical bourgeois audience-goer would have expected at the ballet. Indeed, The Rite famously caused a riot, with audience members screaming in shock after only a view minutes; after all, turning the ballet, the most effervescent of performance art forms, into a grotesque display of a pre-civilized humanity was an insult to good taste. But The Rite did not just cause a riot in a purely social context; it encompasses, indeed instigates, a philosophical discourse regarding the nature of modernity and the political implications of artistic development.

When The Rite premiered in 1913, of course, Europe was on the cusp of World War I; within the next year, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated in Sarajevo, and the continent would systematically tumble into a war of unprecedented destruction. But as Europe witnessed the ruthless slaughter of its own young men, it also witnessed the disintegration of its social order and the dissolution of its cultural identity. As political conflicts developed between European states in the turn-of-the-century world, so to did conflicts develop in the cultural sphere: in the social realm, certainly, between the bourgeois and the proletariat, as well as in the artistic realm, between the established traditionalists and the modernists. If World War I was a battle over Europe’s political future, culture became the battleground for its identity, the realm in which a devastated European society sough to make sense of itself.

It is through the lens of this cultural battle that we must view the work of Igor Stravinsky. Central to the discussion of Stravinsky’s modernism is his 1918 work L’Histoire du Soldat. Scored for a septet of oddly-combined instruments (violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion) as well as a narrator, actors, and dancers, Stravinsky wrote L’Histoire simply to make money; it was written for a touring theatre company to be performed on a circuit of Swiss towns and villages, a sort of modernist minstrel show. The libretto, written in French by C.F. Ramuz, is based on Russian tales published by Alexander Afanasiev. The story goes like this: a soldier, on leave for a few days, encounters the devil, disguised as an old man, while marching home. The devil trades a magic book for the soldier’s fiddle, granting the soldier new wealth through his magic – but the soldier, lonely after leaving his home, soon realizes that riches do not lead to fulfillment. The soldier gets the devil drunk, steals the fiddle, and uses it to cure the princess of the land; the soldier fights the devil away by playing the violin and driving him to convulsions, and he and the princess marry. But, although he had been warned not to do it, the soldier, having been coaxed by the princess to visit his old home, is captured by the devil the moment he steps over the town line. The moral, as the narrator says during the Grand Chorale, is this: “You must not seek to add to what you have, what you once had; you have no right to share what you are with what you were.”

Though the story is nothing more than a fable, it is interesting  if only for its political undertones – the Grand Chorale, in which the narrator shares this moral, becomes a platform for a monologue about the evils of greed. In doing so, as Richard Taruskin observes, the narrator issues direct moral commandments to the audience against desire; “the devil,” Taruskin writes, “triumphs not out of devilhood, but assumes the role of some sort of avenging angel exacting a just moral retribution upon the soldier’s hubris.” The story is concerned with the relationship between the victim and authority, seemingly manipulating its audience into trusting the moral regulation of the devil. But the work’s concern for the individual becomes all the more interesting when considered in terms of its aesthetic quality, for only when considered in terms of aesthetics does the relationship of the story to the music achieve its ultimate political significance.

In considering its composition, however, we are left with a major problem: the most important aspect of L’Histoire, at least that is directly relevant to its place in the modernist cultural battle, is that it does not fit neatly into any distinct musical idiom; it straddles the divide between the competing ideals of reversion to traditionalism and the rejection of tradition. This can be demonstrated most clearly through the contrasting idioms of the various movements. The Grand Chorale, after all, may as well be an exercise in neoclassicism, recalling, albeit with modern dissonances, the harmony of Bach; contrarily, however, the Dance du Diable and the Triumphal March recall the grotesque aggression of The Rite, with their use of the extreme registers of each instruments, their unrelenting dissonance, and their abandon of tradition. The idiomatic disagreement is only further confused when viewed in the context of the chronology of Stravinsky’s work: indeed, L’Histoire would be Stravinsky’s last composition before he turned to the devout neoclassicism of his Pulcinella and Oedipus Rex and away from the revolutionary modernism of The Rite. This dichotomy presents us with two different versions of Stravinsky: Stravinsky the revolutionary and Stravinsky the neoclassicist. L’Histoire gives us both.

The debate over his true artistic identity hinges on the interpretation of Stravinsky’s legitimacy as a revolutionary. As Christopher Butler notes, Stravinsky was revolutionary to the extent that he produced innovative work that revealed new possibilities for the basic techniques of his art form. This claim, however, splits into two opposing stances. The first celebrates Stravinsky’s rejection of standards of beauty in favor of modernist innovation; it paints Stravinsky as a producer of scandalous, discordant, outrageous originality. The second holds that such apparent innovation is truly a guise for a reversion to the past. This second claim is the central argument of Adorno’s scathing critique of Stravinsky in his Philosophy of New Music. Put simply, Adorno did not like Stravinsky; he found him a conformist, having succumbed to the false idea that music could be restored by reconstructing an authoritarian authenticity that recalled past stylistic procedures. The result is a regression that “replaces progress with repetition,” a failure that leaves the work devoid of life itself. This problem, to Adorno, is not relegated just to the explicitly neoclassical; on the whole, Stravinsky follows a pattern of “objectivism,” which recognizes the alienation of the individual and the negation of life by the explicit return to styles of the past, be it neoclassicism or the folkloric, to restore harmony and order. The Adornian critique holds that this objectivism, characterized by a parody of the past, transforms into an aesthetic of non-identity; as David Roberts writes, “the death dance of nonidentity wears the mask of parody.” Indeed, the essence of Adorno’s argument is concerned with Stravinsky’s liquidation of the individual. The music’s sole concern, he writes, is “its mere existence, and the concealing of the role of the subject beneath its emphatic muteness;” the subject, having been seemingly liberated through the restoration of authenticity, has actually been subjected to authoritarian conformity such as to succumb to its own annihilation.

Regarding L’Histoire du Soldat, Adorno viewed the piece as indicative of this dissolution of identity as Stravinsky’s thematic models became degraded to the commercialism of the market:

The defective conventions of L’Histoire are scars resulting from the wounds of everything which was viewed as common sense in music during the bourgeois epoch. They reveal the irreconcilable break between the subject and that which musically stood in contrast to it as an objective factor – the idiom. The former has decayed to the same level of impotence as the latter.

In this sense, this false authenticity – the liquidation of the subject posing as its own liberation – becomes the aesthetic of a modernity of the cultural market; the market appropriates an aesthetic of liberation under the guise of conformity, the art itself functioning as its own propaganda for bourgeois authority; art consumes itself while subconsciously consuming its subject. Adorno is right to be concerned with the piece’s relationship to the market. However, the central irony of his argument, by which he claims that the work’s apparent authenticity hides its liquidation of the individual, has one further implication. If Adorno is right, then L’Histoire is inescapably regressive, appealing to objectivism to find a modernism that can survive in a market that sought artistic harmony and social order. But the true irony is that Stravinsky’s revolutionary innovation is hidden within this regressive aesthetic. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, thwarted by modernist techniques, can be taken as the ironic rejection of traditional classicism, a classicism that expresses its resentment over its status as a commodity by pursuing it, parodying it, and mocking it – there is an ironic meaning to the very absence of subjectivity that Adorno targets. Adorno’s argument, manipulated by this opposite irony, flips on its axis: by subjecting his art to the confines of the market, Stravinsky places on the market a modernism that necessitates the demise of tradition. Stravinsky repurposes the aesthetic of traditionalism for his own purposes, and in doing so, he pushes us past the dichotomy of revolution against traditionalism: he at once reconciles the extremes and juxtaposes them, showing that their apparent union is a guise for their irreconcilability. When the market absorbs Stravinsky’s apparent appeal to order, it is actually told that order can no longer survive.

If we approach Stravinsky from this aesthetic viewpoint – that Stravinsky’s apparent regression is truly a parody of its own failure – then we must also reevaluate Adorno’s conception of Stravinsky’s subjection of the individual to social conformity. Stravinsky does not hide the liquidation of the individual behind its apparent liberation through order. Rather, his music mocks this very concept: it is concerned with the plight of the individual in at the modern world, a world that, according to Stravinsky, has been failed by traditionalism. The liquidation of the individual is transformed from the unintended consequence of Stravinsky’s aesthetic to its primary concern. This is the aesthetic most primarily demonstrated in L’Histoire, casting it as not just a pivotal work, but a work that defines his own modernist impulse.

Combining this aesthetic quality with the political undertones of the narration, we arrive at the fundamental significance of L’Histoire. As previously observed, the story serves to furnish the devil with the power of moral regulation; the devil becomes the authority by which the soldier’s ultimate failure is captured as just. Similarly, we have now concluded that the work’s aesthetic characteristics do demonstrate a concern for the plight of the individual. Stravinsky hides this concern in the ironic neoclassicism of the Grand Chorale, which becomes a platform for the presentation of moral authority, and then carries out the destruction of the subject in the overtly grotesque Triumphal March in the Devil, which recalls the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring. It is ultimately the moral authoritarianism of the devil that kills the subject – and in hiding the death of the individual behind the guise of the grotesque, Stravinsky stakes out a claim on his own modernism: the individual cannot survive in a world dominated by traditionalist moral authority; the subject must submit to social conformity, thus sacrificing its own individuality, in order to survive in such a world. Stravinsky’s modernism becomes a means of repurposing tradition to convey his rejection of it; it displays ironic concern for the dissolution of the subject by condemning its demise.

The advancement of art towards its own enlightenment, as David Roberts writes, is characterized by the transformation of art into “self-reflection on the level of the system, that is, the critique of art qua art.” Put in political terms, such a formulation essentially means that culture becomes a political battleground, as was the case in the divide between revolution and regression, in the years following World War I. Amidst this cultural landscape, a European society grappling with the seemingly meaningless death of a generation of soldiers, Stravinsky, despite his apparent reversion to the authority of traditional order, reveals a deep concern for the individual; the soldier in the L’Histoire, victim of the authoritarian devil, may as well be an unknown soldier, a member of the lost generation. Indeed, Stravinsky’s music express an anxiety over the significance of the individual, a concern for the victim; and in doing so, it lays a claim on its own unique philosophy of modernism.

Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury Press, 1973)

Christopher Butler, “Stravinsky as Modernist” in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, ed. Jonathan Cross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Modris Eksteins, Preface to Rites of Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989)

Max Paddison, “Stravinsky as Devil: Adorno’s Three Critiques” in The Cambridge Companion to Stravinsky, ed. Jonathan Cross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 195.

David Roberts, Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 110-111.

Michael Steinberg, Program notes for Stravinsky: L’Histoire du Soldat. Last modified January 2015.

Richard Taruskin, “Histoire du Soldat: The Concept” in Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, Volume II by Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)