Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 26
Stravinsky: L'Histoire du
Seiji Ozawa Hall, July 25, 2006
Fellows of the Tanglewood Music
Tomasz Golka, conductor
The Soldier - Elliott Carter
The Devil - Milton Babbitt
Narrator - John Harbison
Available for purchase starting July 16, 2012 8:30 AM
Background on the Music
Igor Stravinsky composed L'Histoire du soldat in 1918. He was 36 years old and living in Switzerland and beginning a new life - he would not see his native Russia again until 1962. His history-making ballets for Serge Diaghilev were behind him and his financial situation was precarious. It was a Swiss philanthropist named Werner Reinhart who subsidized Stravinsky during the time he was composing L'Histoire du soldat and paid for the premiere. This work, in its small-scale way, was no less audacious than The Rite of Spring. It was a music-theater piece that Stravinsky intended to be played, read, acted, and danced.
The text, by the Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz, is a cheeky version of the Faust legend - a simple Soldier sells his soul to the Devil and lives to regret it. The moral of the story is "Fate ordains you can't have everything at once . . . Joys come singly, not in twos and threes."
Stravinsky scored the work for a chamber ensemble of seven musicians and three actors - a Narrator, the Soldier, and the Devil; in staged productions there are dancers as well.
The irresistible score incorporates march, chorale, tango, waltz, and ragtime, parodies teetering on the edge of the real thing - or the other way round; it's very clever and very tricky. Stravinsky arranged the work without the spoken parts into a suite, the version in which the music is most often heard, but stage directors and choreographers also enjoy having their way with it.
In America there is a tradition of asking prominent composers to take the speaking roles as a tribute to Stravinsky. On one occasion, Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions were the Narrator and the Soldier, while Virgil Thomson played the Devil; in a later performance the speakers were Copland, Elliott Carter, and John Cage.
This Tanglewood performance, supervised by James Levine, advanced the tradition by casting Carter at 97 as the Soldier, Milton Babbitt, 90, as the Devil, and John Harbison, merely 67, as the Narrator. Harbison tweaked Judith Cohen's translation of the original text with input from his colleagues and Levine. Harbison was particularly anxious to maintain the doggerel jocularity, the chiming rhyme, and the topicality of the original. So the Soldier acquired a new first name - "Joseph'' became "Elliott"; the Devil became "Milton." The text of "The Devil's Song'' was directly addressed to Carter and to his technique of composition.
If you should keep on fiddling as you do,
My dodecaphonic hexachords will bring about your fall,
And you will not be free to modulate, or permutate, or
cogitate at all.
This is not a boast. You'll be toast!"
The conductor was Tomasz Golka, a Fellow of the Tanglewood Music Center who is now the music director of the Lubbock Symphony in Texas and the Riverside County Philharmonic in California. The violin soloist was Hyunju Lee, who is now a member of the New York Philharmonic.
"Major personalities like these don't need to act very much. The contrasts among Harbison's tenor and unpretentious delivery, Carter's slow-speaking but alert baritone, and Babbitt's rolling basso are intrinsically dramatic, creating a different kind of music to match that being delivered so neatly and with such vigor of character by the instrumentalists and the conductor. There was only one mishap in yesterday's performance, and it brought a big laugh. 'Give me your fiddle,' Babbitt demanded. Carter, who had momentarily lost his place on the page, remained silent. 'Give me your fiddle,' Babbitt repeated . . . Carter, back on track, shouted 'No!' Many in the audience were aware they were present at an historical event and rose to their feet at the end. Levine sat in his box seat, beaming and applauding. But he looked pleased even before the performance, remarking after the first rehearsal, 'This is already everything I had imagined it would be, and more. And because I don't have to conduct, I can just sit back and enjoy it.'"
-Richard Dyer, Boston Globe
"At the performance . . . the hall was filled with young Tanglewood musicians. The old lions walked onstage to cheers. In his box, Mr. Levine occasionally moved his hand in time. Mr. Babbitt . . . came in early with the line, 'Give me your fiddle.' Mr. Carter was thrown off. He looked flummoxed, searching for his line. The audience murmured as the discomforting silence dragged on. He found his place, and yelled out a triumphant response, 'No!'" The audience exploded with laughter. At the end, the nonagenarians walked off slowly, Mr. Carter using a cane, to ovations. Backstage, they signed autographs, like dodecaphonic rock stars. Mr. Babbitt said he had first encountered the piece in 1930. 'This,' he said, 'is the best performance I've ever heard.'"
-Daniel J. Wakin, New York Times