Prior to embarking on his so-called neo-Classical period in the 1920s, Stravinsky had already pared down his style considerably from the extravagant ballet scores of the early 1910s to the economy and restraint that characterizes L'histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale). The forced economy of wartime influenced not only the work's modest resources, but its subject matter. Written in collaboration with the Swiss author C.F. Ramuz and based on a Russian fable about a fiddle-playing soldier (although the text is in French), L'histoire was to be narrated, played and danced, but could also be performed independent of the text as a concert suite. The first performance of L'histoire du soldat took place in Lausanne Switzerland on September 28, 1918.
Stravinsky and Ramuz based their subject on a collection of Russian tales dealing with the adventures of a soldier who deserts the army and the devil who eventually possesses his soul. The soldier's desertion is somewhat glossed over, but the fiddle he carries in his knapsack and which the Devil wins from him, assumes a symbolic importance that makes the story a kind of miniature version of the Faust legend.
Despite the scenario's Russian basis, Stravinsky made the music as non-Russian as possible by using North and South American, Spanish, and German material. The score tends to mimic -- and parody -- standard dance styles (ragtime, waltz, and tango) as well as marches and two chorales. The unique chamber instrumentation emphasizes the high and low registers of each family (violin, double-bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion) that leaves room in the middle registers. The music often abstractly evokes the sound of a New Orleans jazz band, which Stravinsky had recently become acquainted with through scores imported from America by his colleague Ernest Ansermet.
The score also calls for four dramatis personae: the Soldier and the Devil (both speaking parts), the Princess (who is silent), and a Reader. Moreover, the Princess and the Devil are required to dance. The music is organized as a series of brief tableaux with the action presented mainly through mime and dancing, and continuity supplied by the narrator. The atmosphere of the entire production suggests a cabaret or an informal street entertainment, and it's portability has also been referred to as "pocket theater."
Stravinsky's harmonic language is modern, pungent and at times bitonal, yet the weight of the interest is on the high level of rhythmic complexity and intricacy. From the opening "Marche du Soldat" to the "Marche Royale," lively, unpredictable rhythms with prickly irregularities are employed in a firmly tongue-and-cheek manner. Asymmetrical phrases are juxtaposed against independent accompanimental ostinati, suggesting the uneven tread of the soldier as he ventures across the countryside.