Master Storytellers: Program Notes

SATURDAY, MARCH 5, 2016 8:00 PM
First Baptist Church, Newton
Price Range: $20 – $73
STRAVINSKY L’Histoire du Soldat
SCHUBERT Death and the Maiden (arr. Mahler)


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) – L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)
The First World War brought Igor Stravinsky away from Paris, where only a few years earlier he had shocked audiences with his ballets The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, and into neutral Switzerland, where he lived in Morges with the Swiss novelist C. F. Ramuz. They lived in safety but in dire need of funds, and so in 1918 they devised L’Histoire du Soldat: a small, portable work “to be read, played, and danced,” which could easily tour nearby towns on a limited budget, making it the ideal source of income for their penniless situation. The tale of L’Histoire is based upon a Russian folk story by Alexander Afanasiev; Stravinsky translated it for Ramuz, who wrote the French libretto. It premiered at the Théâtre Municipal de Lausanne on September 28, 1918, with Ernest Ansermet conducting.
The original orchestration reflects the limited resources available: it is scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, violin, bass, and percussion, with narrator and actors or dancers. Stravinsky later wrote, however, that “this confinement did not act as a limitation, as my musical ideas were already directed toward a solo-instrument style.” Even more telling than the size of the ensemble is the choice of instruments, which reflects Stravinsky’s fascination with jazz at this time; he refers to the instruments as “jazz legitimates” (with the bassoon standing in for the saxophone) and particularly notes the percussion instruments, which he purchased in Lausanne and learned to play as he composed. Interestingly, Stravinsky had not yet heard any jazz performed, but derived his understanding of it from the rhythmic writing of jazz sheet music. For him, it ushered in a new era in his career: “Jazz meant, in any case, a wholly new sound in my music, and Histoire marks my final break with the Russian orchestral school in which I had been fostered.” While the story told by the libretto of L’Histoire has its origins in Russian folklore, the story told by its sounds is, in contrast, one of new territories of belonging.
L’Histoire tells of a bargain with the devil that turns out badly (as such bargains are wont to do). With an opening March, a young soldier enters, traveling home while on leave. He encounters the devil in disguise and agrees to trade his fiddle for a mysterious book of magic. Through the devil’s trickery, however, the soldier is kept from home and unable to return there when the townspeople presume him dead. Eventually he wins back his fiddle from the devil in a card game, and with his music he heals the princess who has fallen ill at the palace; she dances to the music of the tango, waltz, and ragtime. They become betrothed, and he again plays his fiddle, this time driving the devil into dancing to the point of collapse.
The narrator voices the moral of the story while the ensemble plays a chorale: “Il faut savoir choisir/On n’a pas le droit de tout avoir/C’est défendu” (“No one can have it all,/That is forbidden./You must learn to choose between.”). Had the soldier heeded this message, the story may have ended there, but tempted by the idea of returning home to have both his past and present good fortune, the soldier crosses the palace lines back to his home town. In seeking to have everything, he of course ends up with nothing: the devil is waiting for him when he arrives, and casts him out without wife or homeland. The closing piece is a triumphal march of the devil, a jagged rhythmic battle between violin and percussion, leaving the listener with the sounds that Stravinsky described as the essence of the piece: “If every good piece of music is marked by its own characteristic sound…then the characteristic sounds of Histoire are the scrape of the violin and the punctuation of the drums.”

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) – Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden)
Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810; arr. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Three pieces of Franz Schubert’s share the name Der Tod und das Mädchen: a Lied (a German Romantic song), a string quartet, and an arrangement of the quartet by Gustav Mahler for string orchestra, performed in this evening’s program. All three are stirring evocations of the foreboding nature of death. Tellingly, the string quartet was written in 1824 when Schubert was ill with syphilis and likely confronting questions regarding his own mortality. Its title refers to the Lied he had written in 1817, based on text by the German poet Matthias Claudius, which tells of a bride on the eve of her wedding: Death entreats her to spend her pre-nuptial night with him and she begs him to leave her alone. Death is portrayed as both ominous and reassuring; in his main theme he states, “Take courage now, and very soon/Within mine arms shalt softly rest thee.” This main theme is reused in the quartet, and is one of the many guises taken up by Death throughout its shifting moods. The quartet was first performed in 1826 in a private home, and published after Schubert’s death in 1831.
Years later, at the turn of the twentieth century, the quartet was among the many chamber works that Mahler sought to transform for larger concert halls. He was known at that time as much for his conducting career as for his compositions, and was in the habit of making arrangements of existing scores of pieces he wanted to conduct. He never completed the arrangement, but his heavily marked score was discovered long after his death by his daughter Anna, and finally published in 1984 after having been edited by Mahler scholars David Matthews and Donald Mitchell.
From the gripping opening unison, the first movement delves into a maze of contrasting passages and shifting colors that unfold in an almost story-like manner. The urgency is contrasted at times by gentler, more lyrical themes, but an underlying triplet figure is nearly always present, maintaining a sense of agitation throughout. The themes are developed and return in a recapitulation, dying away in a pianissimo close.
A distinct change in texture marks the start of the second movement Andante: this is Death’s theme taken from the original 1817 Lied. This bleak, eerie chant is developed in a range of characterizations through five variations, placing its harmonic footing in a lighter key area along the way back to its opening solemn tread.
The Scherzo abruptly bursts in with a return to a faster pace, in a dance-like movement full of syncopations and dynamic contrasts. At its center, a gentler trio provides a moment of relief, with the first violin flitting above a more leisurely melody in the lower voices.
The final movement is a tarantella, a frantic dance that was traditionally said to cure madness. Woven into its dizzying flourishes are fragments of previous movements, cloaked in new guises.  The prestissimo coda hurtles relentlessly to the close, where, with two emphatic chords, the piece ends, breathlessly.