'A Soldier's Tale': A musical look at what it means to be a soldier

Mar 11, 2013

The CD cover for American Chamber Winds' recording of 'A Soldier's Tale'

For as long as there have been wars, there have been stories about the brave soldiers who fought in them. But what about the others? On Friday, Fontana Chamber Arts and the Western Michigan University School of Music, along with WMU actors and dancers, will tell a story about a very different kind of soldier.

A Soldier’s Tale combines the music of Igor Stravinsky with writer Kurt Vonnegut’s libretto—text intended to be set to music. It’s about World War II private Eddie Slovik, the first U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. Fontana’s Betsy Wong tells us a little about Eddie Slovik—a Polish-American from Detroit.

“He was arrested a couple times in his youth for petty theft and actually spent time in the Ionia correctional facility. His classification was that of non-volunteer and he actually…he was afraid. He really felt that this was not the place for him. They were sending him into battle and he did not want to be there.”

The production’s director, D. Terry Williams says Eddie wasn’t the only one who ran away.

“There were 40,000 troops who deserted in World War II. Not many people know about that," he says. "30,000 alone in the Battle of the Bulge.”

Slovik fascinated Kurt Vonnegut so much, he used him to re-write the original libretto to Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 work. Conductor David Colson says the first libretto just wasn’t very real: 

“The character in the original is really not a soldier at all. He doesn’t have a weapon, he doesn’t have a gun. He doesn’t have people giving him orders but in fact he has a violin. And he’s encountered by the devil who, of course, wants to make a deal with him to get violin lessons essentially in exchange for his freedom. It’s ability to reflect on the times and World War I was a little bit of through the corner and out the back door, rather than a very direct sort of expressive quality to it. And I think where the departure happens for Vonnegut is that he brings you face-forward to his experience in particular with World War II. And it’s more direct and I think more brutal in a lot of ways, and perhaps in some ways more reflective of the music itself.”

Almost 50 soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion during World War II, but Slovik was the only one to actually be executed. In fact, General Dwight D. Eisenhower even offered Slovik his life if he would promise not to leave his regiment, but he refused. Watching A Soldiers Tale may leave you with more questions than answers, but Wong says the piece says a lot about war and the character of soldiers. 

“The techniques change, the weaponry changes, but I think the spirit of soldiers doesn’t change a lot," says Wong. "I think there’s pride, there’s fear, there’s courage. Even Eddie Slovik felt, when he was sentenced to death, that something good might come out of his death. He was told they were going to make an example of him. And it was his hope that other soldiers, they would learn from that and that they would remember, remember him.”

You can experience A Soldier’s Tale Friday at WMU’s Dalton Center in the Multi-Media Room. Be advised strong language is used in this production.