17 Feb 2021

A Soldier's Tale tours again

From Nine To Noon, 11:28 am on 17 February 2021

Having a huge new show packed with big names cancelled by a pandemic doesn't come as a surprise to us now, but it did to Igor Stravinsky in 1918. 

Histoire du Soldat, or The Soldier's Tale, was setting off on its maiden tour when the Spanish Flu pandemic shut it down.

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Photo: NZSO & NZRB

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Royal New Zealand Ballet are joining forces to take the work to cities and towns right around Aotearoa.

The piece was designed to be played in small town and village halls. It has music, dancing, a narrator and a pact with the devil.

Sara Brodie, the director of this production of The Soldier's Tale, joined Kathryn Ryan to discuss staging a show from one pandemic in another, a century on. 

The work originally came about when Stravinsky found himself stranded and low on funds in Switzerland during World War I and met librettist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, Brodie says.

“He couldn’t get his royalty payments through and was desperate to make money, so the two of them befriended each other and did three works together, The Soldier’s Tale is one of them.”

The idea was to make the performance sufficiently mobile to play in Switzerland’s villages, maximising its money-making potential, Brodie says.

He wanted something small and tourable to take round the Swiss villages to make money during the war and the Spanish Flu which followed.

Stravinsky described The Soldier’s Tale as a sort of minstrel show that could be staged in any way, and he composed the music to deliberately exclude the piano, again for ease of touring.  

The seven players comprising the ensemble are double bass, violin, bassoon, clarinet, cornet, trombone and percussion.

The story is a Faustian tale, Brodie says.

A soldier is marching home and he encounters the Devil and they do a trade, the Devil gives him the book of wealth for his violin which the soldier must teach the Devil to play.

The soldier then learns very quickly that wealth does not equate to happiness.

“It’s very human tale about greed,” Brodie says.

The Soldier’s Tale has been described as revolutionary and neo-classicism all in one and is a “real feast for the ears”, she says.

“There’s tango in there, waltz, ragtime, so he was embracing a whole load of forms within one piece.”

It will tour smaller venues in New Zealand including Paraparaumu, Carterton, Wanaka, Dunedin, Oamaru Christchurch, Dunedin and Nelson.

“The vision was for both companies, the ballet and symphony, to get out into communities and attract more audience and the way of doing that was to take the work to the people,” Brodie says.