Roger Waters has always had an ego to match the size of his musical ambitions, a character trait that didn’t help him get along with his Pink Floyd bandmates. But it gave him the confidence to write daring operatic albums like The Wall and stage the massive theatrical shows for which the band became well-known. He’s a natural storyteller, eager to use music to communicate not only trenchant political critique, but the emotional lives of characters caught up in the machinations of warmongers and profiteers.
Throughout the autobiographical The Wall runs a narrative of wartime trauma, a thread that turned into The Final Cut, essentially a solo album that brought together Waters’ critique of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War with a memorial for WWII British servicemen, so many of whom, like his father, gave their lives for a country Waters felt betrayed their memory. While his solo career and activism have focused squarely on anti-war messages, he has shown much sympathy for the common soldier.
Waters’ latest project, then, is fittingly called The Soldier’s Story, but this time, he is neither author nor composer. Rather, the piece comes from 100 years ago, adapted by Igor Stravinsky from an old Russian folk tale. In Stravinsky’s version, a WWI soldier relinquishes his violin—and his musical ability—to the devil in exchange for a book that predicts the future economy. The soldier uses the book to get rich, then gives up his fortune to regain his talent, heal a dying princess, and beat the devil, for a time.
In its timeless, archetypal way, the story evokes some of the sprawling themes Waters has taken on many times, with a similarly sardonic tone. But unlike the rock star’s big theatrical productions, Stravinsky’s piece is a simple morality play, full of humor and an innovative use of jazz and ragtime elements in a classical setting. There are three speaking parts—the soldier, the devil, and the narrator. Waters has added others to this updated version: “the bloke in the pub” and the king, who remains mute in the original. He not only narrates the piece, but plays all of the characters as well.
Working with “seven musicians associated with the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival,” reports Consequence of Sound. The ensemble seeks to “honor Stravinsky’s work while reinterpreting it for a new audience.” Stravinsky himself recorded the piece three times, “first in 1932,” notes James Leonard at AllMusic, “then again in 1954, and finally in 1961.” The last recording saw a re-release in 2007 with Jeremy Irons dubbed in as narrator. Other famous actors who have recorded it include John Gielgud as the narrator in a set of performances from the early 70s and Dame Harriet Walter in the role in a 2017 release.
These are huge dramatic shoes to fill. A press release for the new adaptation, displaying Waters’ characteristic self-confidence (or maybe hubris), assures us that he felt up to the task: “He has wanted for a long time to engage more deeply with the work of a composer whose weight and occasional inaccessibility may perhaps have much in common” with his own, we’re told. Whatever affinities might exist between Waters’ progressive rock operas and the radical modernist symphonies of Stravinsky, The Soldier’s Story seems like a natural fit for Waters’ literary sensibilities.