Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” Updated

Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale” is one of music’s best-known pieces for chamber ensemble. Written a few years after “The Rite of Spring”, this work for seven musicians has been performed and recorded countless times, both in its original version with narrator, actors, and a dancer, and in the popular suite. But sometimes, even an established composition needs a little revising, and that is what Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Musical Director of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, has done.

Juilliard Days

Dima Sitkovetsky’s history with “A Soldier’s Tale” goes back many years. “When I was a student at Juilliard I had friends who were great musicians, and one year we decided to do the Stravinsky. A few performers were also very enterprising, and in Spring 1979, we did twenty performances of the entire work, complete with the narrator, actors and dancer, throughout the New York area. All were Juilliard students, and one of the actors was actually later in the film ‘Amadeus’. We performed throughout the city and even into Connecticut. We even played it in the high school in Brooklyn that Barbra Streisand and Bobby Fischer attended.”

When Dima launched his professional career, he continued to perform “A Soldier’s Tale”. It was during performances in Finland and other places—even with a puppet theater—that he began to notice problems with it. Discussing this he said, “When I came back to the piece after my student days, I realized that it is an imperfect piece of theater. It is misbalanced. The first half has too much text and not enough music, and the second half has too little text. The best music of the composition is towards the end of the piece, but the plot gets lost. You don’t even know why the devil wins. The piece, as it has been played for almost a hundred years, has a significant structural problem.”

The first page of the conductor's score

Re-Balancing the Music

So after performing the work many dozens of times and coming to the realization that it is not as good as it could be, Dima has decided to carefully edit the work to make it more effective as a piece of theater. To do this, he added other music by Stravinsky and has removed a few parts of the original that were overly repetitive. He says, “The main thing with this new version is that the first and second halves will be well balanced between the text and music. I chose this additional music because it fit the mood and action of that moment in the story. And most of the pieces were also written around the same time as ‘A Soldier’s’ Tale so that all their styles were similar.”

Most of Dima’s work to create this new version of “A Soldier’s Tale” for the performance in Greensboro was done last summer. An interesting historical anecdote was the reason that one of the six “new” works was added: “As I studied the background of the piece, I learned that the clarinetist for the first performance paid for the whole thing. To thank him, Stravinsky wrote his famous ‘Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet’ and gave it to the clarinet player as a gift. This is one of the pieces I added. Kelly Burke will play it in the concert.” All of the new music is original or has been arranged to fit the instrumentation of “A Soldier’s Tale”.

When I asked Dima whether he had performed his adaptation before, his answer was fast and simple: “This will the first time the work has been done this way. It’s absolutely a world premiere.”

Stravinsky's recording of "A Soldier's Tale" is well known.

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