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Who does not get chills within the bowels of malice in stories of shape-shifting?

One of these is The Soldier’s Tale (1919), the collaborative effort of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and the Swiss librettist C. F. Ramuz. Because funds were scarce in the aftermath of the First World War for the composition of large works, Stravinsky scored this old Russian folk tale with seven musicians and four actors/dancers, all sharing the same bare stage. (Check out YouTube.)

We grow to love this war-weary soldier, his knapsack on his back as he cavorts toward his village, all the while anticipating his ten-day leave with his mother and girlfriend. Suddenly, into his path steps the devil, disguised as a maiden who persuades him to exchange the old fiddle (his soul) in his knapsack for a red book filled with secrets for obtaining immense wealth. After three days of luxurious initiation by the devil, the soldier is hooked.

Years of prosperous but increasingly empty living begin to glut the soldier’s passion for fame, and he longs for his old life.

This story line is painfully familiar throughout oral and literary traditions all over the world: All is ours if we but surrender our souls to the devil. A period of unprecedented prosperity ensues until eviscerated by the maggots of worldly success. A longing for the way things used to be glimmers; within its light, some move toward conversion and return to ordinary life.

Others do not, including our soldier of this Russian tale.

 

 

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