L’histoire du soldat tells the story of a soldier who, whilst on his way home on leave, encounters the devil and is convinced to sell his violin in exchange for a book predicting the future. In the events that follow the soldier confronts a series of choices: wealth vs love; security vs risk; with the violin symbolising the state of his soul as he fights to free himself from the devil’s traps.
Originally written for septet, three actors (the soldier, the devil and a narrator), and a female dancer, Stravinsky also arranged versions for chamber ensemble, and for clarinet, violin and piano – possibly in deference to the work’s sponsor, the philanthropist Werner Reinhart, who was a keen amateur clarinetist.
The music draws on an eclectic mix of languages, from jazz and ragtime to classical dances and a chorale. The work’s opening depicts the soldier’s homeward march; soon interrupted as he stops to rest and draws out his fiddle to play. His music attracts the attention of the devil, who takes the opportunity to strike a deal. In the scenes that follow the soldier appears to be in with a chance loosening the devil’s hold as he recovers his violin in a game of cards, and charms a princess with a series of musical performances. But it is the devil who eventually triumphs, as he finally claims the soldier’s music as his own.