Words for Music Perhaps

The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Libretti and other Dramatic Writings (1939–1973)

by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press, 758 pp., $49.50

Most opera libretti have only a marginal existence apart from the music they inspire. Monteverdi’s Striggio; Lully’s Quinault; Cavalli’s Faustini; Gluck’s Calzabigi; Mozart’s Metastasio (if not his Da Ponte); Bellini’s Romani; Rossini’s Foppa and Sterbini; Verdi’s Piave, Somma, and Ghislanzoni; Puccini’s Illica and Giacoso are known almost exclusively through their composer collaborators. If their libretti are read at all, it is as cribs, before, between the acts of, and while listening to operas, not as examples of a literary genre. Yet some of the exceptions are major: the young Voltaire and Rameau; Boito and Verdi; the composer-librettists Berg and Wagner. By way of The Wasteland, the Steersman’s song in Tristan is perhaps the best-known German verse in the English-speaking world. In the twentieth century, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Wystan Hugh Auden are the only writers of high achievement outside the opera house to have attained distinction in it as well.

Edward Mendelson’s compendious and invaluable edition of libretti written by W.H. Auden, and Auden and Chester Kallman, necessarily revises our perspectives of the poet, since heretofore his libretti have been the least understood part of his work, his career in music-related bricolage, which was a substantial one, the least known: the songs contributed to other people’s plays; the translations from Goldoni, Da Ponte, Brecht; the unused show-biz lyrics (for, too good for, Man of La Mancha); the commentaries for documentary films; the adaptations of fiction for radio plays (Pride and Prejudice, D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner”); the failed collaborations, notably with Brecht on Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi—although it is not clear why Benjamin Britten’s incidental music qualifies this spoken drama as a libretto.

Collaborating with Henry Purcell on King Arthur, John Dryden complained of having to “cramp” his verses, but he accepted the constriction because “operas are principally designed for the ear and the eye…. My art ought to be subservient to his”—to which Mozart added, a century later, “Poetry absolutely has to be the obedient daughter of music.” At an opposite extreme, Pierre Corneille insisted that the true poet’s inspiration “is powerless when it depends for utterance on the capricious tunes of a musical dreamer; when it must take its laws from his strange whims…when rhymes must be adapted to every musical inflection.” Rhyming verse, we should bear in mind, is the norm in seventeenth-century French poetic drama, as blank verse is in English, Dryden himself being the qualified exception: the dialogue in his early rhyming-couplet plays is widely thought to be more “natural” than the dialogue in his later blank-verse plays, of which All for Love is the most popular.

At the time of The Rake’s Progress, begun in 1947 and completed in 1951, Auden and Kallman took Dryden’s position, although soon afterward they moved toward Corneille’s side, stating that the choice of subject, the construction of the plot, and the creation of the characters must be the librettist’s prerogatives. The composer might be allowed to make cuts, but the “book” should be printed intact…

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