The Galaxy – A soldier’s tale

Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso (dat...

Igor Stravinsky as drawn by Pablo Picasso (dated 31 December 1920). Published in France in May 1921 in the program for the 14th season of the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre de la Gaîté-Lyrique in Paris. (Image via Wikipedia) 

We begin the evening with a rather interesting recording of Igor Stravinsky‘s A Soldier’s Tale.  The piece itself comes from a crucial part of Stravinsky’s life.  In 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution had just taken place in Stravinsky’s Russian homeland.  Stravinsky renounced his Russian citizenship, and as such was cut off from the income from his Russian properties.  On top of this, Europe was in the midst of World War I, and unemployment was rampant.  Needing a new source of income, Stravinsky agreed to the suggestion of a collaboration with the Swiss novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.  Ramuz based the libretto on a Russian folk tale called “The Runaway Solider and the Devil”.  But while the source of the story was Russian, Stravinsky, who had previously used Russian themes for his work, made the finished product pan-European, with German, Spanish, Swiss, French and gypsy elements (as well as some Russian) interwoven into the fabric of the work.  Some interpret this as a veiled reference by Stravinsky to his freedom from Lenin (whom Stravinsky suspected to be a German agent) and the Bolsheviks.

Just as the story represents a thematic departure for Stravinsky, so also does the music.  Rather than giving us a fully orchestrated piece, Stravinsky utilized far smaller forces – a seven-piece band, consisting of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, violin, bass and percussion.  Each of the instruments, except for the bassoon, are ones that would be found in the village and wedding bands that were common around Eastern Europe.  Just as the instrumental arrangement was a bit of a departure for Stravinsky (who did write chamber music), so was the music he wrote, utilizing everything from Bach chorales to tangos, ballroom dance, and ragtime jazz influences.  Indeed, some see A Soldier’s Tale as foretelling his neo-classical period.

Stravinsky premiered the piece in September of 1918.  In addition, he made an arrangement of the piece as a suite (similar to what Pytor Tchaikovsky did with The Nutcracker).  The suite was premiered in 1919, and is performed more frequently than the narrated version, which is rarely performed, although there have been a few performances in recent years, as well as multiple recordings.  In addition, an arrangement of the piece was made for a full ballet, only natural since the original arrangement called for dancers.  This arrangement was first done in 1978, and has been revived on several occasions, most recently in 1999.


Actor Jeremy Irons presenting his new movie Ma...

Jeremy Irons, 2011 (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight’s recording is in and of itself interesting – a set of  recordings discovered in 2005.  The suite portion was captured in 1961, and the music for the narration in 1967, all with Stravinsky conducting a mix of LA Philharmonic members and veteran Hollywood studio professionals.  The studio notes indicate that the recording had been prepared for the overdubbing of the narration, but that narration was never done.  So the overdubbing was completed in 2005, with Jeremy Irons (who had performed the narration in a 2004 performance at The Old Vic in London) narrating.

English: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder

, Ricky Skaggs (Image via Wikipedia)

We follow Igor Stravinsky with some live Ricky Skaggs.  Indeed a nice contrast!  Musically, it is hard not to love Ricky Skaggs, and his consistent blend of seamlessly blended vocals and highly technical musicianship.  I had the pleasure of seeing Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder when they played Carbondale a few years ago, and it was a fine performance.  This was a couple of years after they issued their Live At The Charleston Music Hall release, and we heard a lovely set from that disc – I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer, Crossville, Somewhere Nice Forever, Uncle Pen, and Pig in a Pen.

Bill Monroe, c. 1940

Bill Monroe, c. 1940

We then heard a live set from one of the truly great bluegrass masters, Bill Monroe, widely referred to as “The Father of Bluegrass”.  It is interesting to play Bill Monroe after having heard Ricky Skaggs, as Skaggs’ first on-stage experience was with Monroe at the age of 6.  But it is also just as interesting to hear Monroe in a live setting.  To hear Monroe’s on-stage banter, his song introductions, and the emotion with which he sang (some compare his singing method to method acting), this gives a far clearer perspective on just how special his music was.  We heard a set recorded live at New River Ranch, located at Rising Sun, Maryland, on 5/13/1956, with Blue Moon of Kentucky, I’m Working On A Building, Angels Rock Me To Sleep, and Wheel Hoss.  The Bluegrass Boys on that date consisted of Yates Green (guitar), Bobby Hicks and Joe Stuart (fiddles), Rudy Lyle (banjo), and Chick Stripling or Bessie Lee Maudlin (bass).

English: Haezl Dickens in her prime

Hazel Dickens (Image via Wikipedia)

I recently heard of the passing back in April of the great bluegrass writer and singer Hazel Dickens.  Hazel was a true trailblazer, a woman who carved a distinctive path in a genre dominated by men.  While she helped fellow musicians and became a noted songwriter, she took a back seat to nobody, and her songs are poignant, beautiful representations of the life she grew up with in West Virginia.  We heard her singing West Virginia My Home (from Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People), Mama’s Hand (with the Johnson Mountain Boys; from By The Sweat of My Brow), and Montana Cowboy (with her frequent partner, Alice Gerrard; from Hazel and Alice).

We finished up the show with some instrumental bluegrass.  We started that set with a combo of veteran pickers (Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, Andy Statman, and Kenny Kosek) that called themselves Country Cooking – we heard Barrel of Fun.  We then heard Whitewater from Bela Fleck, and then finished off with a non-instrumental,  – I Ain’t Broke (But I’m Badly Bent) by David Grisman.


One comment on “The Galaxy – A soldier’s tale

  1. alexpaull says:

    Well done. I appreciate your fine writing that caused me to look closer to a genre I do not particularly care for., Keep up the great work. Can we meet. I want to help the blogpuss more interesting and sucesfull. Lets try and make part of it go viral, just so we can say we did it. Name a time and place

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