Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The other day, I stumbled across a wonderful live recording of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), a small theater piece he wrote with the Swiss novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz at the end of World War I. I was suddenly flooded with memories of the elaborately staged production of the piece I played in as an undergraduate. Why I had forgotten this event for so long intrigues me. The performance had, after all, been a high point in my rather brief musical career, and I remember that playing the role of the fiddler was both strangely troubling and invigorating.

The Soldier’s Tale is now a staple of the classical repertoire, popular for its manageable length (about an hour) and the small corps of musicians (seven) and actors (three) required. For all that, it isn’t easy to pull off. The tricky syncopations Stravinsky used for his pastiche of folk tunes, carnival melodies, tangos, ragtime, even Lutheran chorale, and his sometimes complex wind instrument lines can be challenging. But with a little work, and with a strong Narrator who can take on all the parts—as in the version I recently listened to, featuring the marvelous British baritone Benjamin Luxon—the piece is not only accessible but powerful.

The story is taken from a Russian folktale. It recounts the ultimately futile struggle of an ordinary soldier with the Devil. Returning home on leave, the soldier looks forward to reuniting with his family and fiancée in his small town. On his way to the village, he opens his kit bag and examines the articles that tie him to his community—a picture, a medallion of his namesake St. Joseph, this and that, and finally his fiddle. The ­Devil, watching him in disguise, manages to trade for the violin, giving the soldier a book that tells the future, something helpful when it comes to money. Wined and dined by Satan and lifted into the air on a journey through the stars, the soldier then returns to his home, only to realize that he is no longer recognized by those he loves. The rest of the tale follows his efforts to regain his now wasted soul, which he does briefly, only to lose it again as he seeks to gain more than he has. The story is punctuated, and then finally taken over, by the musical interludes, ending with the Devil’s triumphant playing of the fiddle he has won from the soldier for good.

I remember being riveted by all this when I was nineteen, although I am not sure why. Many critics today view The Soldier’s Tale as at best a minor work of Stravinsky, burdened by a ludicrously bombastic ­story and a libretto that boils down to a trivial maxim presented by the Narrator before the Devil’s final ­victory: “You must not seek to add / To what you have, what you once had [. . .] You must learn to choose / No one can have it all.” The celebrated music critic and scholar Richard Taruskin seized on this crystalized bit of puerile didacticism: “trite,” “schoolmasterly,” “sophomoric,” “sententious.” The music is fine, worth a book perhaps (and Taruskin has written a masterly volume on it). But the moral itself—“the stuffy moralité,” “unworthy” of Stravinsky—is what offends.

There is a terrible spiritual myopia at work in judgments like this. As a teenager, I perhaps groped vaguely at the moral’s truth, and thus felt its power from afar. “One happy thing is every happy thing,” intones the Narrator at the end. I spent years running—­fiddling—away from this truth. At sixty-four, I have now encountered it full on. The simple good that we are given here and now is all that we need and can ever dare to receive with gratitude. More than that, the drive to accumulate new goods and more goods—goods not only of material weight but of professional accomplishment and even moral attainment—sweeps us into the arms of the Enemy.

The Soldier’s Tale defends the normal, its limits and profundity. Written as World War I was ending—­historians have pondered the moment of the piece’s staging in ­Lausanne in 1918—the Tale shows us a landscape disfigured and wrenched away from normal people, whose main hope is to be allowed to live with some semblance of peace. The protagonist is nothing but a conscripted soldier, a peasant among peasants. He is “Joseph,” a name attached to every normal man as an image of Our Lord’s carpenter father. (When I was a young priest in Burundi, this was the name with which I was instructed to baptize babies whose mothers, in their reticence and timidity, could not make their children’s Christian appellations heard as they stood before the font and clergy.) He has neighbors, a mother, a sweetheart he wishes he could marry. The village has a church and tower. The houses are small and cramped. He plays a broken violin in the corners of the day left untouched by labor and suffering. And he has, amid all this, only a few days in which to enjoy these moments. The Tale is about normal people, about those so disdained by revolutionaries, artists, and scholars. But who, Stravinsky asks, is “unworthy” of whom? 

In writing the text for this composition, Ramuz took the story from the vast collection of folktales assembled by the pioneering Russian folklorist ­Alexander Afanasyev at the end of the nineteenth century. Through extensive and meticulous research, ­Afanasyev had gathered together hundreds of stories from the Slavic tradition. While these stories were filled here and there with kings and princesses, fortunes and achievements, they were mostly about ordinary people, who encountered life and death, devils and angels, as they navigated daily life in the villages and fields of Russia. Afanasyev’s work—despite his radical political sympathies—was dismissed and marginalized by the new Bolsheviks. They deemed these stories superstitious, caught in a static world of oppressive relations. Like the “moral” of The Soldier’s Tale, these stories seemed to teach quiescence in the face of the human thirst for ever-more. “One happy thing is every happy thing!” Isn’t this the opioid of deadly conservatism?

But death comes to the revolutionaries as quickly and persistently as to the superstitious peasant. Thus the Tale’s obligato of insistence: Now is good, just because it is given today, and neither yesterday’s nor tomorrow’s blessings are things we can deploy like tools to build our Babels, let alone accumulate or expand our voracious empires. 

Ramuz’s creative role in the Tale has been unfairly ignored. His own commitment to the universal value of common life was central to his significant body of writing. In the libretto, Ramuz’s sing-song French has a mellifluous flow, simple and disarming, at least for a while, until the gulf yawns at our feet. The brilliant English version by Kitty Black and Michael Flanders (written for a mid-1950s Edinburgh Festival production) is arguably better, with its hard-edged and stark, random rhyming. In both cases, the simple story opens up with a quiet suddenness to the terrifying pit into which systematically dissatisfied normalcy must inevitably throw itself. With a skilled Narrator, the tumbling fall is chilling and tragic, just as the drama in which it is enwrapped is exhilarating and oddly joyful, as any vision of the truth must be—even if given in warning against the hunger for more that taints what we have.

The warning has managed to unfold across the subsequent century and now covers our own. Stravinsky’s music, with its broken folk tunes and modernistic ­refashionings, gestures at something beyond the horizon of the small story and songs: the Moloch of our rampant dissatisfactions.

Whether Stravinsky or Ramuz understood any of this, I don’t know. Perhaps they were simply “inspired.” And now, forty-five years after playing The Soldier’s Tale, I am not sure I’ve managed to keep the Devil at bay, alas. Perhaps that is why I secretly sought to forget what I had been a part of at age nineteen. 

But now I return, finally, just like any other soldier, a “Joseph” on leave. I open my kit. I am grateful for a communion of saints whose names are commonplace. I cherish parents. I long for the love of a spouse, and revel in her presence and memory both. The streets I know are mostly short, and their buildings are not grand. Some friends; precious children. A violin and a few tunes. I look at this collection laid out on the earth before me. I recognize all this now as entirely sufficient—and, God willing, so they recognize me. More than wonderful! Whoever told us that this is not enough? That we must, instead, reconstitute the world into a field of dreams, a landscape of shape-changers and whirring desires? Critics, revolutionaries, even artists? Beware the Devil, that great subverter of normalcy.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.