Hear a Radio Opera Narrated by Kurt Vonnegut, Based on His Adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 L’Histoire du Soldat

In the leg­end of Robert John­son, Amer­i­can blues­man, a deal with the dev­il brings instant musi­cal genius, and a brief and trou­bled life in near obscu­ri­ty. A two-hun­dred-year-old Russ­ian folk­tale has sim­i­lar events in the oppo­site order: a sol­dier hands over his vio­lin, and his musi­cal tal­ent, to the dev­il in exchange for wealth, and sev­er­al more adven­tures and rever­sals before the final, inevitable path to perdi­tion.

This sto­ry struck a chord with Igor Stravin­sky, who was maybe ahead of his time in see­ing a musi­cal deal with the dev­il as an arche­typ­al sub­ject for pop­u­lar song. In the first act of his the­ater piece, “The Soldier’s Sto­ry” (L’Histoire du Sol­dat)—whose libret­to by Charles Fer­di­nand Ramuz adapts the Russ­ian folktale—the sol­dier trag­i­cal­ly relin­quish­es his abil­i­ty to turn sor­row into beau­ty in the first act, per­haps a poignant state­ment in 1918, when, as Kurt Von­negut says, “to be a sol­dier was real­ly some­thing.”

To have served in a war “in which 65 mil­lion per­sons had been mobi­lized and 35 mil­lion were becom­ing casu­al­ties,” to have wit­nessed the scar­i­fy­ing begin­ning of mod­ern war­fare, meant bear­ing the stamp of too much real­i­ty. In the folk­tales, we may see the dev­il as hard­ship, loss, or greed per­son­i­fied. These are meta­phys­i­cal moral­i­ty plays, far removed from cur­rent events. But war was poten­tial­ly upon us all by 1918, Von­negut sug­gests, in a ter­ri­fy­ing force that dev­as­tat­ed sol­diers, mowed down civil­ians by the thou­sands, and lev­eled whole cities.

Asked to nar­rate the Stravin­sky piece, Von­negut declined. He found Ramuz’s treat­ment of a soldier’s life “pre­pos­ter­ous” and unac­cept­able. So, George Plimp­ton chal­lenged him to write his own ver­sion. He did, in 1993, but rather than make his sol­dier a musi­cian (“you know, sol­diers get rained on, and a vio­lin wouldn’t have a chance”) or a name­less stock char­ac­ter, he plucked a fig­ure out of history—and out of his own non­fic­tion book The Exe­cu­tion of Pri­vate Slovik, pub­lished in 1954.

Eddie Slovik was one of at least 30,000 desert­ers at the Bat­tle of the Bulge. 49 were tried, and only Slovik was exe­cut­ed, at the express order of Gen­er­al Eisen­how­er. “He was the only per­son to be exe­cut­ed for cow­ardice in the face of the ene­my since the Civ­il War,” Von­negut told New York mag­a­zine. “Ike signed his death cer­tifi­cate. They stood him up in front of his com­rades, and they shot him.” Von­negut saw par­tic­u­lar mal­ice in the act. “Slovik deserves to be kept alive. If his name had been McCoy or John­son, I don’t think he would have been shot.”

Instead of The Dev­il, in Vonnegut’s A Soldier’s Sto­ry, we have the char­ac­ter of The Gen­er­al. The nov­el­ist’s replace­ment of the orig­i­nal text both­ered some when his libret­to pre­miered, with Stravinsky’s music, at Lin­coln Center’s Alice Tul­ly Hall in 1993. Respond­ing to the New York Times’ crit­ic, Von­negut said, “Well, it was a des­e­cra­tion. It was a sacred text, and I dared to fool with it. And some peo­ple just find that unbear­able. That critic—I spoiled his evening.” In oth­er words, he couldn’t have cared less.

Vonnegut’s libret­to with Stravinsky’s music was not record­ed for inter­na­tion­al copy­right rea­sons until 2009, but he did record a version—playing The Gen­er­al himself—with music by Dave Sol­dier (hear it at the top). This record­ing of “A Soldier’s Sto­ry” appeared on the album Ice‑9 Bal­lads, a com­pi­la­tion of lyrics adapt­ed, and nar­rat­ed, by Von­negut from his nov­el Cat’s Cra­dle, with music by Sol­dier. Hear that full album here. And pur­chase a copy An Amer­i­can Soldier’s Tale: His­toire Du Sol­dat, with text by Kurt Von­negut, with music by Igor Stravin­sky, per­formed by the Amer­i­can Cham­ber Winds, and con­duct­ed by David A. Way­bright. You can hear sam­ples in this playlist.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Roger Waters Adapts and Nar­rates Igor Stravinsky’s The­atri­cal Piece, The Soldier’s Sto­ry

A New Kurt Von­negut Muse­um Opens in Indi­anapo­lis … Right in Time for Banned Books Week

The Night When Char­lie Park­er Played for Igor Stravin­sky (1951)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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