Strings

One of the teachings of war – its only real benefit when it finally comes to an end – is the appreciation of the most basic things: to have arms, to breathe, to see. The soldiers of the Great War returned mutilated from the Front to a devastated world like ghosts among the ruins of old Europe, and the military lie that had created the diabolical, inextinguishable illusion of victory was silently revealed: something sinister had pushed millions of people to the death trenches. The devil appears in universal literature as the great creator of illusion, and one of his best apparitions is in C. F. Ramuz’s Soldier’s Tale, set to music by Igor Stravinsky in 1918. We forget the importance that concert music – erroneously named “classical” music – had before the advent of radio-electric media. People longed to listen to a concert as much as they now long to flee from the noise that unsolicited music has become. But as there is no greater antagonism than that between music and bombs, the military madness that seized Europe buried the success of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the collective psycopathy of patriotism barely a year after its 1913 premiere.

Exiled in the neutral silence of Switzerland, Stravinsky did not wait for the war’s end to answer the military. He remembered a popular tale of his Russian infancy, the story of a soldier who sells his only possession to the devil – a dilapidated violin, allegory of his soul. In his exile, Stravinsky felt firsthand how the military caste could raise and flatten civilization: the destruction of his meteoric composing career by a brutal carnage was the most perfect representation of human stupidity. It propelled him to explore artistically the mechanisms of military temptation, particularly in the first link of the chain: the seduction of the soldier, converting an individual with his own spirit, his own expression, his violin, into a dispossessed, impoverished being who pursues the illusion of fortune. The elegance of the text, created by Swiss novelist C. F. Ramuz – Stravinsky’s friend – is almost primitive in its sobriety, almost innocent of symbolism. Recited by a narrator, it is as if the portraits of Rousseau are speaking. The characters are as plain as a pack of cards: soldier, devil, princess, king. War appears only because the soldier “just ten days of hard earn’d leave…he’s tramp’d from morn till eve.” And in French, “to march” (or “tramp” in the English translation”) also means to fall into a trap. To underscore the deconstruction, Stravinsky ushers in modernity with a miniature orchestra, using the extremes of each instrumental family along with a drummer – a musical shell emptied of all 19th-century vestiges. Superimposed are rhythmic mechanisms like little machines (broken Swiss watches?) in which asymmetric concurrences become dislocated and the violinist seems like a string puppet. The genres – military march, waltz, tango, ragtime – are treated with almost Brechtian distance, ultramodern.

Between clouds of smoke, one month before the armistice of November 11, 1918, the genius Igor re-emerged as puppeteer. In the absence of ballet blockbusters, puppets are good. Elementary: soldiers also have strings.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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