The Breckenridge Music Festival will present a BMF Tuesday Series concert titled “Tale of the Soldier” on Tuesday, Aug. 12. The evening’s performance will highlight works by Igor Stravinsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Aaron Copland.
The evening opens with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat,” or “Soldier’s Tale.” The piece provides an antihero, a soldier who deserts and then sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a book that will answer all his questions. As part of his final week as the festival’s music director, maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann will take the stage, conducting and narrating the part of the devil.
“L’Histoire” is very much a product of the war years during which it was written. Exiled from his native Russia and isolated from his customary sources of income during World War I, Stravinsky took refuge in Switzerland. There, he struck up a friendship with two other artists, conductor Ernest Ansermet and the novelist C.F. Ramuz. The three came up with the idea of a traveling quasi-theater troupe of modest proportions that would take new works on the road.
Their first collaboration was “Renard” in 1916. “L’Histoire” followed two years later. Ramuz wrote the libretti for both; Ansermet conducted both premieres. The works represented a new chamber concept involving spoken word, music and dance. Music historian Roman Vlad dubbed it “mobile miniature theatre.”
Stravinsky’s score specifies seven instruments — violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone and percussion — and four players. The dramatis personae, dominated by a narrator, also include two mime-actors (the Soldier and the Devil) and a mute dancer (the Princess). The violin represents the soldier’s soul, in music that has a specifically Russian and Stravinskyan flavor. Marches recur frequently, but the score is peppered with diverse influences ranging from tango and waltz to ragtime and chorale. Perhaps because of its modest forces and universal message, “L’Histoire” became one of Stravinsky’s more popular works.
Austrian composer Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E-flat major, K. 407, also will be featured in the evening’s program. This piece was written in 1782 for French horn, violin, two violas and cello.
The concert comes to a close with American composer Copland’s “Sextet” for piano, clarinet and string quartet. “Americana in Music” is an appropriate description for Copland’s music. His catalog includes many titles derived from the American panorama: “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring,” “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson,” “Lincoln Portrait” and “El Salon Mexico.”
Even Copland’s Symphony No. 3 is consistent with American ideals, scored in tribute to the sacrifices of the United States during World War II. At the time, Copland was surprised by the reactions from musicians and conductors with regard to his “Short Symphony” of 1933, dedicated to Mexican composer-conductor Carlos Chavez. While the piece was chock-full of American motifs, the rhythmic complexity caused most conductors to leave it on the shelf. Maestro Serge Koussevitzky, of the Boston Symphony, remarked, “No, Aaron, the piece is not too difficult — it is simply impossible.” Believing that future orchestral performances would be scarce, Copland rescored the “Short Symphony” as a sextet, completing the transformation in 1939.
“The first movement’s main impetus is rhythmic, with a scherzo-like quality,” Copland wrote about the music. “All melodic figures result from a nine-note sequence, a kind of row from the opening two bars. The second movement, tranquil in feeling, contrasts with the first movement and with the finale, which is again rhythmically intricate, bright in color and free in form.”
It is interesting that since about 1950, both the symphony and the recast sextet have been widely performed and recorded. Musicians and conductors simply needed time to assimilate the “newfangled” rhythms, which in today’s world have become routine.
For more information on this and other performances by the Breckenridge Music Festival Orchestra, visit www.breckenridgemusicfestival.com.