THE POET AND ‘THE RAKE’

As soon as Wystan Auden accepted Igor Stravinsky’s invitation to stay at his home in Hollywood, the composer and his wife began to search for a clue to the most important fact for them to know about the poet: his height. Would he be too tall to sleep on the couch in the den? Finding no hint in his writings, the future hosts turned to a photograph for possible prosopographical leads and reached the conclusion that probably he would not fit. This was confirmed when he crossed the doorstep, at which point Stravinsky was obliged to improvise—something he would never do in music—by extending the “bed” with a chair and pillows to accommodate his guest’s legs and feet.

During the following week the two men shaped the content, plot, form, and characters of The Rake’s Progress. On two evenings the Stravinskys entertained friends, and on two others the hosts and their guest attended performances of The House of Bernarda Alba and Cosí fan tutte, the latter in the parish hall of a Hollywood church. As for Southern California’s natural and architectural wonders, the poet shrank at the very mention of them and refused even to glance in the direction of the Pacific. In fact he ventured from the house only one other time, to visit a doctor to whom he complained of deafness and who miraculously restored the hearing faculty by extricating some formidable accumulations of earwax. Like the World, the opera scenario was created in Six Days. On the Seventh the makers separated, only then realizing how extremely fond of each other they had become.

Inspired by his vision of the drama, Stravinsky composed the prelude to the Graveyard scene. Back in New York, Auden also set to work, but with the collaboration of his friend Chester Kallman, whose participation had not been broached in Hollywood. Auden did not reveal this partnership until it was a fait accompli and the first act of the libretto had been sent to Stravinsky. The composer was greatly disturbed, both because he had not been consulted, and because it was Auden alone whom he wanted. But he said nothing and twelve days later received the manuscript of Act Two, on which Auden’s and Kallman’s names were again billed as equals. In Washington, DC, where Stravinsky was conducting, the final act was delivered by Auden in person—no doubt to smooth over the question of dual authorship. In any event, the poet sought to reassure the composer that “Mr. Kallman is a better librettist than I am,” that “the scenes which Mr. Kallman wrote are at least as good as mine,” and that “Mr. Kallman’s talents have not been more widely recognized only because of his friendship with me.” Stravinsky’s magnanimous answer was that he looked forward to meeting Mr. Kallman in New York.

The dinner in the restaurant of the Hotel Raleigh that night (March 31, 1948) was memorable mainly as a study …

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