Program notes

Catch and Release

The title comes from sport fishing. At some pint I had thought of composing this piece as a birthday present for the composer Magnus Lindberg – well known as a fisherman in the eastern parts of the Finnish Gulf. The plan was never realized.

Work on the composition took place mainly in Paris during the spring of 2006 and in the countryside of Sipoo, Finland, in the summer, but there are drafts already from 2002-2003. 

The practical impulse for completing the work came in the form of a commission from bassoonist Jussi Särkkä, at that time the artistic director of the Crusell Music Festival in western Finland. The fee we agreed on was a bottle of beer, which Mr. Särkkä high-handedly changed into a bottle of champagne.   

For years I had thought of composing for the instrument ensemble used in The Soldier's Tale - partly for practical reasons, since – even as a fully-staged version, Stravinsky's piece is too short for an entire concert and needs a companion. On the other hand, I thought it would be interesting to write for an ensemble that is rather "impossible", dry and lacking resonance. A challenge on two levels: how to make the weird ensemble to ring properly in music based on harmony and overtone resonance (The Soldier has very few passages where the harmony dominates), and at the same time, how to write a piece with its own identity despite the unique ensemble, which is unbelievably strongly imprinted on a single composition. I remember well at the beginning of the first rehearsal hearing the matt sound of the drums against the jeering ensemble and thinking: "Dammit, this sounds like The Soldier's Tale!" As the piece proceeded, I relaxed when the sound palette widened and deepened. In composing for this special ensemble, one must accept a certain degree of intertextuality.

Part of the music comes from material developed in the course of composing my orchestral work Insomnia (given its world premiere in Tokyo 2002), specifically the harmonic structure and the modal scales of the first and second movements

I added the vibraphone to the second movement in order to "reverb" the harmony, because I didn't find any other way to extend the ring of the ensemble beyond its basic dry sound. That is the only significant exception to Stravinsky's instrumentation. Instead of a cornet I wrote for the trumpet in C, but I have no objection to the use of the former. Today there are quality cornets available, with which also demanding parts can be delivered.

The third movement is a preliminary study for my Piano Concerto (premiered in New York 2007). The idea is a confrontation of three- and four-beat rhythmic models until they come into conflict and kind of burn each other out.

During the writing of this text the first choreography made for the piece was performed in Cleveland by an ensemble of musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra.


Esa-Pekka Salonen 25.4.2010

The Soldier's Tale

The widespread assumption that Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) fled Russia at the break of the World War I is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Since 1910, he had been spending the major part of autumns and winters in Switzerland with his family. Perhaps agitated in part by the restless situation in Europe in 1914, the Stravinskys arrived earlier, already in the late summer, and when hostilities broke out, they could not return to Russia. Things could have been worse. Politically neutral Switzerland and its circle of friends and colleagues provided a safe haven for the composer and his family. For example, one of their landlords was the conductor Ernest Ansermet.

Although the war made return to Russia impossible and restricted practical life, Stravinsky continued composing at a nearly normal pace. He wanted to get rid of the stigma of Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) and drew motives even more obviously from Russian folklore. Already during the early war years he composed Pribaoutki (The Ditties, 1914), the first version of a stage drama Les Noces (The Wedding, 1914), commissioned by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and a vocal-theater work Renard (The Fox, 1915-16). 

Even though Switzerland was not directly involved in the fighting, the war around began to have financial effects even on Stravinsky's rather wealthy family. There were practically no performances of his orchestral works; Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was unable to perform Stravinsky's ballets except every now and then; the publisher Édition Russe de Musique, whose headquarters were in Berlin, could not pay royalties, and the family wealth remained in Russia. Therefore, in 1917 with his new friend, the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (1878–1947), Stravinsky began to plan a lighter stage performance, which, being easily movable, would guarantee many performances and thereby earn a profit. The Russian Revolution had just broken out and gave yet another economic motive, because the wealth of the Stravinsky family was about to vanish for good into the whirlpool of the revolution. Despite a successful premiere, the financial earnings from the production were slim, because the planned performance tour was cancelled, owing to an epidemic of influenza.


Stravinsky suggested to Ramuz that they use two stories, dating back to the Russian-Turkish war, from Alexander Afanasiev's (1826–1871) substantial Russian folklore collections. The first tells about a soldier who manages to kill Satan, by luring him to get drunk and to eat a fistful of pellets as caviar. In the second story, a young deserter sells his violin (representing his soul) to Satan, with well-known consequences. Ramuz was very enthusiastic about the subjects, and his excellent skills with the Russian language made their work substantially easier.

As a result of the cooperation of these two artists in 1918, a unique hybrid composition came about. This two-part, six-scene music-theater work, L'Historie du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale), included narration, acting and dance accompanied by an unusual septet consisting of clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, percussion, violin, and double bass. The premiere took place at the Lausanne Municipal Theater on September 28, 1918, under the baton of Ernest Ansermet. In the original cast, in addition to the musicians, there were two actors (the soldier and Satan) and two dancers (the princess and Satan). The Archfiend was thus approached with double casting. Already in the original scheme, the part of the narrator was the most important on stage. Apart from the composer's own suite, the music is often performed only with the narrator, as it is tonight.


I Part

1. Scene (On a riverbank):

The soldier returns to his home village for a two-week leave from the frontier and meets Satan disguised as a lepidopterist. The devil wants to trade his magic book for the soldier's violin and invites him to spend three days together. Finally the soldier agrees.

2. Scene (A junction at an open place near a boundary marker with a church belfry in the distance):

Again returning to his home village, the soldier realizes that he has been away, not for three days, but for three years. Fellow villagers don't seem to react to him in any way. Satan appears dressed as a book vendor and explains to the soldier how he could become very rich with a magic book that he could obtain in exchange for his violin.

3. Scene (A room):

The soldier realizes that he is very wealthy. Satan appears this time as an old hag selling used clothes. ‘She' displays her wares, among which is a familiar-looking violin. The soldier wants to buy the violin back, but when he tries to play it, he doesn't seem to get any sound out of the instrument. In a rage, he throws the violin away and rips the magic book into pieces.

II Part

4. Scene (The card game):

The soldier, who has lost all his fortune, comes to a town where the daughter of the King is ill. The King has promised that the man who can heal the princess will become his son-in-law. The soldier meets Satan who, at this time, is disguised as a violin virtuoso. They end up playing cards, and the defiant soldier seems to lose every time, yet he manages to induce Satan to drink more and more wine. In the end, the devil passes out and the soldier gets his violin back.

5. Scene (The princess's room):

The princess lies ill on her bed. The soldier enters, playing his violin. The princess rises and dances a tango, a waltz, and a ragtime ending up in the arms of the soldier. During the embrace, Satan enters as himself. The soldier messes with Satan's head by playing the violin, and the couple drag the unconscious Satan aside.

6. Scene (The same junction as in Scene 2):

Some time has passed since the couple's wedding, and the soldier again wants to visit his home village. But immediately on passing the familiar boundary marker, he falls back under the power of Satan, who once again has the violin. Finally, the soldier starts to follow Satan, slowly but without resistance.

Stravinskyan sound world

The ensemble of instruments for The Soldier's Tale and the idea of using this combination for a stage drama was new at the time, even if not completely original. There are two obvious precedents; Schönberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Eric Satie's Le piège de Méduse (Medusa's Trap, 1913). It is Stravinsky's score that makes the work unique. The sounds of the different instruments meet in an unprecedentedly open way, creating enormous challenges for the ensemble's ring and harmony. The composer has given the violin, which represents the soldier's soul, almost a concertante role.

Despite the trademark rhythmic elements and his use of the complete ensemble from the very beginning, the dramatic core of the composition contains a much more lightly scored suite of the three dances – a tango, a waltz, and a ragtime. It all begins as an intimate trio for violin, clarinet, and percussion and grows gradually into a jazz-like sextet. When the faith of the soldier is finally revealed, the pace becomes infernal, only to wither through the Grand Chorale into the barren percussion solo of Satan's Triumphal March.

Pure Satanic theater?

The Soldier's Tale basically follows the classic Faust legend, yet with rather absurd twists. The particular elements of the work have also tempted both performers and musicologists into more daring interpretations.

In Afanasiev's original story, the soldier was a deserter. Does Ramuz hint, even though he is writing about the soldier's leave, that the soldier in fact deserves his fate because of his cowardice?

Along with symbolizing the soldier's soul, the violin symbolizes music itself, and trading it for financial gain was highly relevant for Stravinsky. How uncomfortable was the composer about the wretched state of his economic circumstances?

No doubt Stravinsky experienced homesickness, but was there a more terrible meaning to the soldier's failed homecomings? In light of the horror stories, one could even imagine that the soldier had already died at the frontier and is just wandering along his old footsteps between worlds, not understanding why familiar people do not respond to him. Has Satan already won much earlier and all this was just his devilish theater?

Was the soldier's return to Satan's company at the end already a premonition of a subsequent war?