The Soldier’s Tale by Igor Stravinsky tells in music, narration, and dance the Russian folktale of a soldier on leave who trades his violin — and his soul — for wealth in the form of a book that foretells changes in the stock market. The soldier agrees to go home with the Devil for a couple of days to teach him how to play the violin. At the Devil’s home, he tastes a life of luxury, and when he continues on to his village, he discovers that three years have passed, not three days. His fiancee has married another, his mother thinks he’s a ghost, and his old life is gone. The Devil appears again in another guise and persuades the soldier to enjoy his wealth. The soldier becomes rich, but not happy, and destroys the magic book.
A second episode begins with the disconsolate soldier coming to a new town where, in common fairy tale fashion, a princess lies ill and her father, the King ,will give her hand in marriage to anyone who can cure here. The soldier tries his hand, and then the Devil appears again in yet another form. The soldier plays cards with the Devil, losing all his money but winning back his violin. The music of the violin cures the princess and defeats the Devil, but the Devil tells the soldier that he will — if he leaves the kingdom — belong to the Devil again. The soldier marries his princess and they live happily until they decide to go visit the soldier’s long-lost mother. As soon as he steps out of the kingdom, the soldier becomes a statue and is lost to his princess forever.
Maestro Classics has prepared a new CD of The Soldier’s Tale with narration and music, as well as information about Stravinsky and a dance remix that should have your students up and moving. Hear samples of the recording at the Maestro Classics website, where you can also have a look at the 24-page booklet that comes with the CD. It has the story with fun illustrations, plus background information, pictures of the seven orchestral instruments in the performance, and a crossword puzzle.
The recording is excellent, weaving the music in and out of the story beautifully. The music, using the handful of instruments for which Stravinsky originally scored the piece, conveys the feelings and action of the story equally with the narration, and the whole thing is well suited to listening practice. Begin your study simply by listening to the recording.
Have the class retell the story by drawing illustrations for the events in the story, or by acting them out.
Once the basic story is clear, dig a little deeper. Share this movie clip with the class:
In this scene from R. O. Blechman’s 1983 film of the story, the soldier meets the Devil and makes a deal with him. The cartoon shows the soldier’s simplicity and uncertainty well. The soldier is tempted and gives in to that temptation, but he’s not sure he’s making the right decision.
Ask students whether they think the soldier made the right decision. If not, what should he have done differently? Have the students had a similar experience, when they were tempted to do something they thought might be unwise? Identify clues in the film or the recording that should have given the soldier a hint that the old man wasn’t quite what he seemed.
In the following video, artists from The Aurora Theater talk about their production of this piece. At the beginning of the video, they talk about how the soldier likes his bargain with the Devil at first, but then discovers the price of his choice.
Watch the discussion and then ask students what might have been pleasant about the soldier’s deal with the Devil: having wealth, knowing the future, having adventures. Then list the consequences of the decision.
With the story clear in everyone’s minds, explore some cross curricular activities.
- With only seven instruments in use, it’s easier to hear the individual instruments. This is a nice piece for listening to identify each instrument in the performance. The booklet that comes with the recording pictures each instrument used.
- Learn about Igor Stravinsky, one of the most important composers of the 20th century. The recording includes a lecture on the subject. Have students listen and practice their note taking skills. There are also a couple of children’s books that can add layers of understanding. Mike Venezia’s Igor Stravinsky tells Stravinsky’s life story lightly with cartoons, but includes everything students will want to know about. Stravinksy is also included in Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought), a wonderful book to have in your classroom library.
- Listen to specific parts of the piece at All Things Trumpet. There you will also find some discussion of the music and the final moral of the story, not included on the Maestro Classics CD.
- Are your students inspired to think about playing the violin themselves? Show them a youth orchestra in rehearsal at Valenches Music. If your school doesn’t have an orchestra, your community might — invite some young musicians in for a class visit.
- The Soldier’s Tale was written in 1918, and it included three dances: ragtime, waltz, and tango. The tango and ragtime were both new at that time, and the waltz, while not new, was still considered a bit racy in some circles. Jazz was becoming important, but Stravinsky had never heard jazz. He had seen some sheet music for jazz brought back from America with a friend. Have students explore music from this time period (one resource is Public Domain Music) and discuss whether Stravinsky’s music was typical of its time, or innovative.
- C.F. Ramuz wrote the story for The Soldier’s Tale. It’s generally claimed that the story is based on a Russian folktale, but we haven’t found it. The closest we’ve come is the Magyar Soldier’s Tale. Use a Venn diagram to compare the two.
- There are several points in The Soldier’s Tale which could have been happy endings, but the story continues to an unhappy ending. Give students the option of rewriting the story with a happy ending, or of writing an essay explaining why they like the ending as it is.
- The Soldier’s Tale has been filmed a few times, but it had never been made into a Walt Disney movie or a Barbie or Muppets version. Usually,this kind of movie version of a folktale will have the rough parts taken out and a clear moral lesson of some kind added. Students may be familiar with the Disney and original versions of tales like Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid, and The Frog Prince. Divide the class and have each group choose a fairy tale and compare the original to the Disney version. Then assign each group an episode from The Soldier’s Tale to rewrite in a popular movie version.
- This piece was written in Russia, at the end of World War I and in the midst of the Russian Revolution. Times were very hard, and this is probably why there were only seven instruments. It also puts a soldier and the idea of “pre-war prices” in context. Add events from the Russian Revolution to your class timeline.
- While many Faust stories (stories about making a deal with the Devil) involve a cask of jewels or a bunch of gold, the Devil gives the soldier a glance into the economic future so he can invest wisely and make his fortune in that way. Study the stock market with our Stock Market Lesson Plans.
- The soldier plays cards with the Devil, losing all his wealth but getting back his gift of music, the opportunity for love, and his chance at happiness. Use this scene as a writing prompt for students to think about the relationship between money and happiness. Can money buy happiness? Does it prevent people from being happy?
A Soldier’s Tale is a wonderful way to introduce classical music — and something a bit different in the way of classical music — to your students along with an intriguing folktale with a lot of teachable moments.