Has any art work ever seemed to contradict its creator as much as Igor Stavinsky's bracing Histoire du Soldat, which is getting a rare production this week courtesy of New Ballet Ensemble and the CODA program at Rhodes College?
Stravinsky opinion: music expresses only itself. "I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, not a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, [or] a phenomenon of nature," he said. Obviously the game-changing composer didn't mean that music couldn't be expressive in any way, only that it is "supra-personal, and super-real, and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. He rejected the "ad absurdum" notion that passages of music might have specific transcendant meanings or that "exact sets of correlatives" exist between a composer's feelings and the music he creates.
In Histoire du Soldat a blue-collar Faust redux that unites dance, musical composition, and a spoken narrative, Stravinsky's atmospheric score sets the pace and mood for the story of a soldier who trades his violin to the Devil in exchange for an enchanted book— an infernal Napoleon Hill paperback if you will— that contains all the glittering secrets of wealth accumulation. Music becomes an environment. Time signatures change like weather. Marching rhythm's struggle against melodic bursts that explode in the air. The conductor's baton becomes a machete hacking its way through humid jungles of sound.
In his program notes conductor Joe Montelione writes:
[Histoire du Soldat] can be enjoyed and re-enjoyed on many levels — for its tunes, its bright instrumental color, its cunning formal structures, and its curiously moving drama. They all work together. The piece gets under its listener’s skin. On the simplest level, the fiddle represents the Soldier’s soul and the percussion the machinations of the Devil. In the final number, the violin (representing the soldier) and percussion (representing the devil) start out together. At the chilling close, the violin fades out, as the percussion grows more intense."
That's a lot of expression.
"Stravinsky writes in his score that this piece is to be played, to be read and to be danced," Montelione wrote in an email. "I wanted our production of this piece to involve those three elements; but never one overshadowing the other, but rather working in a synergistic approach to creating a new style of concert performance. So, this concert is not just an orchestral concert, or just a dance piece nor just a theatrical work."
The challenge for the dancers, according to New Ballet Ensemble's founding director Katie Smythe is to "reflect the script without being literal in our movements, to illuminate the musical score while remaining somewhat abstract and not overpowering theatrical and musical performance with dance. To build a harmonious and contiguous story for the audience so that they may be transported without distraction."
Stravinsky broke music into its linguistic parts and reassembled it like the French New Wave would do with cinema nearly half-a-century later. After the 1959 premiere of Hiroshima Mon Amor Jean-Luc Godard described his film as "Stravinsky + Faulkner." Histoire du Soldat is music on the verge of becoming literature. And even more than that. Catch it while you can.
L’HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT
January 28, 2012
Christian Brothers University Theater