The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1974)

By Anna Harwell Celenza

Written for the concert Hans Christian Andersen, performed on March 11, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Like many of Andersen’s fairy tales, The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1838) was written as a personal commentary on the joys and sorrows of life. Andersen regularly used his tales to voice ideas and emotions he felt uncomfortable expressing publicly. As he once explained in a tale called The Little Green Ones: “One ought to call everything by its right name; and if one does not dare do it in everyday life, at least one should do it in a fairy tale!” Andersen’s tales were not written specifically for children; often quite the opposite was true. In a letter written to his friend B.S. Ingemann in 1843, Andersen described his approach to fairy tale writing: “I seize an idea for older people, and then I tell it to the young ones, remembering all the while that father and mother are listening and also must have something to think about.”

Czech-born American composer Karel Husa clearly adopted a similar approach when he composed The Steadfast Tin Soldier for orchestra and narrator in 1974. Interested in discovering what he described as “the many possibilities of how my composition could be presented to children,” Husa also sensed the need to connect with adults, especially given the circumstances surrounding the composition’s origins. The Steadfast Tin Soldier was commissioned after the death of a child; it is a memorial to a young boy named John Ernest Fowler.

The narrator’s text in The Steadfast Tin Soldier remains close to Andersen’s original fairy tale. According to Husa, this was a necessity. Andersen had captured a vision of life and death that seemed especially appropriate for the commission. “His tales always seemed to me most beautiful and poetical, but also sad, sometimes even cruel, as they dealt with all subjects of life as well as death. As in many of his famous stories, and in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the symbol of love remains the leading motif.”

When Husa composed The Steadfast Tin Soldier, he imagined that it might also “serve as a ballet, as it follows the text very closely and often in a descriptive manner.” All the characters in Andersen’s story are brought to life through music, and many are associated with specific instruments. For example, the object of the Tin Soldier’s love, a dancing paper doll, is represented by solo saxophone. Similarly, in a scene labeled “Games of Toys,” Husa introduces listeners to “scribbling chalk” (solo flute), a “canary” (piccolo solo), “noisy tin soldiers” (con legno strings), and a nutcracker (a quotation from Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker ballet). Some additional toys, not in Andersen’s original, include an elephant (trombone) and two clowns (French horns).

Karel Husa has played a major role in American music over the last fifty years as a composer, conductor, and teacher. His honors include two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (1964, 1965), the Pulitzer Prize (1969), the Kennedy Center’s Friedheim Award (1983), and the Grawemeyer Award (1993). In addition, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994, and in 1995 the Czech Republic awarded him the Gold Medal of Merit.