A SOLDIER’S TALE

In STORYTELLING by Douglas J. PenickLeave a Comment

Welcome, please take your seats.
We are happy to unfold the performance of Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat.
Rewritten by Douglas Penick, based on the original text by C.F. Ramuz.

Roaring guns have stopped his heart;
War has split his brain apart.

Begin Soldier’s March

Battle’s over, Peace is here.
Racing to erase his fear,
He marches home through shadow lands
Craving family, love and clan

enter@3

As sunlight dims and lilacs fade,
Music lingers still unplayed
In worlds of promises betrayed.

BEFORE PETITE AIR

Battle scarred and shell shocked after years of war, a soldier trudges homeward through a shattered world. Tramping over rutted roads, memories of his family, friends and fiancée are all that give him strength to stumble on. He dreams of his familiar loved ones, living in world of peace, awaiting his return. His heart quickens as he nears the farm town nestled in green pastures by a stream. His steps lighten as he nears his home.

But he hears the shriek of carrion crows and sees, far off, ravens circling round the spire of the church. All is silent. There is no laughter, no sound of men at work, nor cattle lowing, nor bird song in the air. A gentle breeze brings the harsh familiar stench of charred buildings and of rotting flesh. Suddenly our soldier trembles, and his soul grows cold.

He sits down beside the sparkling stream whose pearling is the song of long remembered happiness. He reaches in his pack and brings out the old fiddle that his grandfather gave him many years ago and taught him how to play. Through years of warfare, he has carried it. He has played it often in the lull of battle to lift his spirits and rouse his comrades from despair. (pause)

Now, standing in the shadow of a willow tree, chilled by foreboding, he plays once more. (Petit Air au bord du ruisseau) “Ah now, that’s a lively tune. But a shade, well, desperate, I’d say.” Our soldier, lost in playing, looks up in surprise. A tiny, white haired old gentleman, attired in a dapper frock coat, sits blithely on a nearby tree stump, legs crossed and smiling at him.

“ Oh, I didn’t mean to shock you. I heard you playing, and I couldn’t resist. Such a strange old melody. And such a very fine old violin. Those things are rare now in these parts.”
“I’ve been away so long…” our soldier sighs.
“Yes, I see that. And I’m afraid that you will find things very changed.”
“My family? My…?” the soldier stutters on the verge of tears.
“We need not tell such sad tales yet. Sorrow will find time enough. But you are tired and distraught. Let me play for you on that fine old fiddle. Do let me give you that small happiness. Give it to me, and, I promise, I will lift your soul.”

Suddenly our soldier is paralyzed with fear. His grandfather often told him that music is life. The violin and the music in it were his and his alone. Never should he give it to another. But our soldier is so very tired, and his aching heart so very full of longing. The little man is so genial, so persistent, his voice so silken smooth. He reaches for the instrument. His fingers are remarkably supple, long and white. Our soldier’s fear flares and fades, and he surrenders his violin.

He grows sleepy, and dreamscapes begin to crowd at the edges of his sight. The little gentleman deftly tucks the fiddle beneath his chin, and as if the violin had been his forever, then begins to play.

Petit Concert

Stirred by the little man’s fiery melodies, our soldier’s heart, so long tortured and frozen, breaks like a thawing river through a dam. He seems to rise up in the sky. He flies on hidden winds like a cloud racing through the air. Below, the empty farmland and his home-town disappear, and with them all his fears and hopes.

Now he finds himself drifting through the boulevards of a great metropolis. Night-clubs, dance halls, restaurants and cafes are filled with handsome young men and elegant women, strolling together, laughing, – and kissing ardently. Neon lights in every color flicker on and off. Bright music fills the air.

Our hero does not know if it is night or day. He finds himself in a dim-lit bar. A young woman, slender, blond and slightly resembling his fiancé but much more bold, takes him in her perfumed arms and leads him to the dance.

Tango

The tune changes, and he wakes in the young woman’s warm bed, twined in her arms. He is stunned and confused. He has never been so happy. The lovers dress hurriedly, and a carriage arrives to take them to her family’s house. There, beneath a sparkling chandelier, a grand reception is in progress. Her mother, lovely and sympathetic, greets him warmly like a long lost son-in-law. Her father, a most cordial and confident gentleman, introduces him to well-dressed nobles and important men of business, and speaks of him proudly as his heir to be.

Waltz

The tempo quickens, and a world unfolds. Marriage, children, ah alas the in-laws die: peacefully, it’s true. And our soldier, now quite transformed, inherits all. He has an estimable and prosperous existence, ornamented with the love of a beautiful wife, the admiration of three graceful children, and the respect of his employees and faithful servitors. This well established life is spiced by dalliance with a Spanish mistress, regular visits to the casino, and weekend hunting trips on the estates of his noble friends. His life is a happy dance to a chipper and giddy tune.

Ragtime
Suddenly the music stops.

Our soldier wakes beside the splashing stream. The little gentleman has vanished. The violin is gone. Our soldier shuts his eyes and hopes that, when he opens them, his dream life will return. But no. His body aches. He has no choice but to continue marching on his weary journey home.

Soon enough he arrives at his village. All is quiet. Nothing seems changed. His neighbors are returning from the fields. He waves, but they do not notice him. He enters his house. His parents, his brothers and his sister are having dinner. He greets them, but they continue eating as if he were not there. He sits down at the table at his empty place. His mother looks towards him, and silently begins to cry. The others look away and do not speak. He takes some bread but cannot break it. Galvanized in sudden shock, he bursts from the house and runs to the tavern. All his friends are there. His best friend is flirting with his fiancée. She blushes, and she strokes his cheek. She simpers.

Our soldier shouts in outrage, but no one hears. He strikes the deceitful suitor, but the man does not feel the blow. He reaches for his sweet-heart’s arms, but his hands pass through her flesh. She shrinks from him as from a draft. And suddenly, as if he were on fire, he flees.

All is burning pain, mirage, and dream. Then, from afar he hears the pale demon’s agile hand draw more fevered and seductive melodies from his own violin. “Give me back my violin. Why have you done this to me?” the soldier cries. If he could die, he would. But frenzied music draws him helpless on. His feet, his legs, his torso, and his head gyrate, and cannot stop and cannot rest.
“You Satan. You Satan, how can you be here?” he cries in anguished rage.
“Ah,” the sly old gent calls sweetly back, “This is Hell- nor am I out of it.”

Devil’s Dance
after end

As sunlight dims and lilacs fade,
Music lingers still unplayed
In worlds of promises betrayed.

This music was written by Stravinsky to fit with the trio reduction, for piano violin and clarinet, he made from his L’Histoire du Soldat. I shortened and altered the original text by CF Ramuz, intensifying the anti-war aspect and adding a more inter-realm feeling. I performed it myself in Boulder a long time ago and since then it’s been done by Sophia Vaster at the Manhattan School of Music in NY and this year by the wonderful Plexus ensemble in Melbourne.

About the Author
Douglas J. Penick

Douglas J. Penick

Douglas Penick utilizes historical research with a solid understanding of Chinese culture and Buddhism to make stories accessible, beautiful and enlightening. In his words, “I contribute to the mischief, longing, satisfaction, lust, sorrow and fascination which make our presence in this world a discovery of true love.” The Website of Douglas. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

L’Historie du Soldat – A Soldier’s Tale by C. F. Ramuz.
Music: Ensemble Raro & Friends (Diana Ketler, Piano, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Violin, Chen Chalevi) perform L’histoire du soldat @ SoNoRo Festival Bucharest 2009

Share this Post

Leave a Comment