In 1919, cut off from royalties and family estate earnings by the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky composed a “pocket theater” work for three actors, 1 dancer and 7 instruments in the hopes of making a little money on tour around Switzerland. Unfortunately, an outbreak of Spanish Influenza, which killed almost 20 million in Europe, closed down all performance venues, so the debut tour of L’histoire du soldat ended after one performance.
In an effort to make something out of nothing, Stravinsky composed a suite arrangement of the piece for clarinet, violin and piano. He skipped several movements from the original, because they didn’t translate well for the reduced ensemble. Most notorious of his omissions was the final Triumphal March of the Devil, which brought the original piece to a powerful conclusion.
Clarinetists and violinists have long lamented this omission on Stravinsky’s part: the suite as he arranged it has a very unsatisfactory ending. Igor Begelman and Joseph Genualdi decided to do something about it. What did they do? They asked me if I would come up with an arrangement of the final march.
I can’t speak for other composers, but I get this type of request from time to time, I suppose on the assumption that anyone who can write music is certainly qualified to make arrangements. Not a bad assumption, as far as it goes. I usually respond by saying that I would be happy to write an original piece for them if they need some music, but arranging other composers’ works doesn’t interest me.
But this situation was different, for two reasons. First, the piece in question is an unqualified masterpiece of the twentieth century, and Stravinsky’s arrangement is truly a diminishment of the original. Second, there was a huge challenge to overcome: the original devil’s march ends with an extended percussion cadenza. How could that possibly be rescored for clarinet, violin and piano?
My answer: make use of the unemployed musician who gets the thankless task of serving as page-turner for the pianist. For the last movement, the page-turner is unnecessary, so I’ve provided him/her with a simple tom part to play throughout the march, wherever Stravinsky indicated bass drum. The pianist plays high clusters for the cymbals, and the clarinetist honks indeterminate multiphonics for some of the intermediate drums. When the cadenza begins, the tom part heats up, the pianist closes the keyboard lid and starts rapping on it (great resonance!). The violinist and clarinetist lean into the piano, grab some mallets and play Stravinsky’s rhythms on the soundboard and iron frame.
The result is a “pocket theater” ending to this otherwise untheatrical arrangement. You may not feel that it is an improvement on Stravinky’s version (I think it is), but at least it’s an alternative for musicians who are not too artistically inhibited to take it on. And it will be premiered here on February 22nd.