The libretto relates the parable of a soldier who trades his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited economic gain. The music is scored for a septet of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet (often played on trumpet), trombone, and percussion, and the story is told by three actors: the soldier, the devil, and a narrator, who also takes on the roles of minor characters. A dancer plays the non-speaking role of the princess, and there may also be additional ensemble dancers.
The original French text by Ramuz has been translated into English by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black, and by Jeremy Sams, and into German by Hans Reinhart (de).
A full performance of L'Histoire du soldat takes about an hour.
The music is rife with changing time signatures. For this reason, it is commonly performed with a conductor, though some ensembles have elected to perform the piece without one. The work was premiered inLausanne on 28 September 1918, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. The British conductor Edward Clark was a friend and champion of Stravinsky and a former assistant conductor to Ansermet at the Ballets Russes. He conducted the British premiere of Histoire du soldat in 1926 in Newcastle upon Tyne, and gave three further fully staged performances in London in July 1927.
Stravinsky was assisted greatly in the production of the work by the Swiss philanthropist Werner Reinhart. Reinhart sponsored and largely underwrote the premiere. In gratitude, Stravinsky dedicated the work to Reinhart, and gave him the original manuscript. Reinhart continued his support of Stravinsky’s work in 1919 by funding a series of concerts of his recent chamber music. These included a concertsuite of five numbers from The Soldier’s Tale, arranged for clarinet, violin, and piano, which was a nod to Reinhart, who was regarded as an excellent amateur clarinetist. The suite was first performed on 8 November 1919, in Lausanne, long before the better-known suite for the seven original performers became known.