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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 in contrasts: in culture, temperament, and mind—as well as appearance, for the shabby, dandruff-speckled, and slightly peculiar-smelling poet (attributes easily offset by his purity of spirit and intellectual punctiliousness) could not have been more unlike the neat, sartorially perfect, and faintly eau-de-cologned composer. At table, too, while the poet demolished his lamb chops, potatoes, and sprouts, as if eating were a chore to be accomplished as quickly as possible, and gulped Stravinsky’s carefully chosen Château Margaux, oblivious to its qualties, the composer fussed over his food, and sniffed, sipped, and savored the wine.

These habits illustrate an essential difference between the two men. With Auden the senses seemed to be of negligible importance, whereas with Stravinsky the affective faculties were virtual instruments of thought. Powerful observer though Auden was, he displayed little interest in the visual sense, being purblind to painting, for example, and even to “poetic” nature, for he was more concerned with the virtues of gardening than with the beauty of flowers. And whatever the acuteness of his aural sense, the idea of music appealed to him more than music itself, music with words—opera and Anglican hymns—more than Haydn quartets. That the music of Auden’s poetry is not its strongest feature, therefore, should hardly surprise us. A conceptualizer in quest of intellectual order, he was a social, moral, and spiritual diagnostician above all.

To return to the contrasts between poet and composer, though both were religious men, equally keen on dogmas, ritual, faith in the redemptive death, the poet had evidently arrived at his beliefs through theology, the composer through “mystical experience” (however diligently he may have applied himself to the Grammar of Assent). Theology, at any rate, was a frequent topic in Auden’s conversation with Stravinsky, and an exasperating one, except when the poet digressed on Biblical symbolisms (e.g., the moon as the Old Testament, the sun as the New), or on the argument of “sui generis” (that “man’s image is God-like because the image of every man is unique”). But Auden preferred to theorize about such subjects as angels being “pure intellect,” and to postulate that “If two rectangles, with common points between them, can be described on a face, that face is an angel’s”—which sounds like a put-on but could have been scholastic exercitation.

The conversation in the Washington restaurant began with a reference to an announcement of a forthcoming performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, with the entire text, not just the Narrator’s part, in a new translation by e. e. cummings. Auden was prepared to vouch for cummings’s awareness of the composer’s intentions and was certain that only the speeches would be in English—an especially welcome comment since it indicated that Auden himself was acquainted with the opus. Thereafter the talk about music quickly turned to the Wagner and Strauss operas that he most admired but that were far from Stravinsky’s present interest and, in the case of Strauss, familiarity. Incidentally, Auden did not subscribe to Strauss’s estimation of himself as an epigone of Wagner: “Wagner is a giant without issue,” the poet said.

Begging indulgence for her English, Mrs. Stravinsky asked Auden how to improve it. He advised her to “Take a new word and use it in ten different sentences.” She chose “fastidious,” and with no implicit criticism of her mentor, went on: “My husband is very fastidious.” Auden’s articulation of English, and his accent, were obstacles for the Stravinskys. Aware of this, he offered supplementary bits in German (“unbequem“) and French, thereby adding to the Stravinskys’ confusion since his pronunciation of these languages was a still further impediment; he was obliged to write “au fond” on the tablecloth, for example, before the Stravinskys could understand what he was saying. (When this writer first heard Auden lecture, at Barnard College in the spring of 1946, the poet was continually interrupted by requests to spell out what he had said on the blackboard—which provoked sotto voce but clearly enunciated derogations on the intelligence of the audience.) His vocabulary was odd, too, not in obscure or classical-root words but in such British expressions as “fribble.” The problem of comprehending his speech was still further aggravated in later years by the installation of loose-fitting dentures.

Answering a question about his travel plans, Auden said, “I like to fly and am not afraid of crashing. It is simply a matter of whether one’s time is up. My time will be up when I am eighty-eight.” (This writer heard him reiterate that statement and the number so often as to wonder whether the seer was finally betrayed not by his destiny but by his too intelligent understanding of the future.)

Suddenly Stravinsky switched from “Ow-den” to the poet’s first name and was enthusiastically met on the same basis with “EE-gawr,” a cultural gaffe—the use of the given name without the patronymic being inadmissible to Russians—which the composer overlooked. At departure still another cultural difference was exposed when Auden, his body wobbling from his pumping handshake, charged for the door, only to be detained there by the Stravinskys’ Russian-style hugs and kisses.

In New York, on April 5, the composer finally met Chester Kallman and was immediately won by his intelligence and sense of humor. Furthermore, Kallman not only was easier to understand than Auden, but the younger man could also bring out the older’s sometimes dormant affability—as well as subdue his tempers, of whose advent the poet himself usually gave warning with: “I am very cross today.” No criticism is implied in the observation that the Stravinskys were happier with Auden when Chester Kallman was present. On the trip from Washington to New York Stravinsky had read the opera’s final act and hence could give his blessing to the partnership, telling the librettists how delighted he was with their work.

Auden went to Europe for the summer, Stravinsky to his Hollywood studio to compose the first act. Coming east again in the winter for concerts, he expected to play the completed scenes for Auden on the very morning of arrival in New York (February 3). At 6:55 AM Auden met the train in Pennsylvania Station—this time inclining toward the Stravinskys, the better to receive their Russian embracing—to explain that he had jury duty and to ask that the audition be postponed until evening. In their hotel suite at dinner time he was elated at “having hung the jury and obstructed injustice in the trial of a taxi-driver who would have been a victim of the prejudice of car owners.” Then, questioning Auden about legal processes, the Stravinskys appalled him by revealing that they had never voted, whereupon he lectured them sternly on their civic responsibilities.

The poet was less voluble after hearing the first act of the opera, but he asked the composer to “change the soprano’s final note to a high C,” as well as to take fewer pains in the future in making every word audible; in the interests of verbal distinctness Stravinsky tended to alternate the voices in duets and trios, rather than to blend them. As for the “C,” the composer thought the word unsuitable for the upper octave, which led Auden, with the help of some “uh-uh”ing and “now let’s see”ing, to write a new last line on the spot. Auden stood behind Stravinsky as he played, trying to follow the music over his shoulder, unaware of how irritated the composer was by this, as he was by several violations of his strict rule of silence.

At the end of the same month Stravinsky conducted a concert in Town Hall and invited Auden to read a group of his poems on the program. Unlike his normally untidy, unwashed, uncombed, and unpressed appearance, that of the poet at concert time was uncomfortably well-groomed. His restlessness and impatience were intensified by stage fright, and since the event was a pre-martini-hour matinée, his chain-smoking accelerated. Leading with his chin, and moving awkwardly, he read “In Praise of Limestone,” “The Duet,” and “Music Is International.” His voice spluttered and occasionally barked, thus adding to the impression he sometimes gave of an extremely gentle hound. Yet by sheer force of intellect he was always in total command of the audience. He acknowledged the warm applause with a surprised grin, a spastic bow, and a rapid exit such as he made at dinner parties upon discovering that it was past his bedtime.

Auden went to Europe again that summer (1949), while Stravinsky again returned to his studio. But the second act was longer and the libretto more complex. In November the composer asked the poet to come to California to help solve some problems, but he was too busy teaching, and it was Stravinsky, therefore, who eventually came to New York. The two men conferred together several times in the composer’s rooms at the Lombardy Hotel, Stravinsky by this time visualizing every detail of the dramatic action. How long, for example, would it take to wheel the bread machine on stage? Auden, responding swiftly, and as if he had had a great deal of experience with baby carriages, jumped to his feet, extended his arms, and crossed the room pushing an imaginary vehicle of that sort, while Stravinsky held his stopwatch like a starter at a track meet. This somnambulistic exercise did not have much validity, however, since no one knew the dimensions of the stage on which the opera was to be performed, and as a result the music at this place is generally found to be too short.

Stravinsky wanted an American premiere, preferably in a small New York theater, where he believed the opera might survive a brief “run,” a notion that seized him after attending The Consul (of all things). Lincoln Kirstein helped to approach potential backers, the most promising of whom was Huntington Hartford—until Stravinsky refused to play the score for any non-musician. Then, since Billy Rose’s opinion was sought, if not his money, he was hidden in a group of Stravinsky’s musician friends, for whom the composer had promised to play the opera—like Odysseus among Polyphemus’ sheep. After a very few minutes it was inferable from Mr. Rose’s countenance that Tom Rakewell could expect a crueler fate in the commercial theater than in Bedlam.

The Venetian premiere was arranged by Nicolas Nabokov after a year-long struggle against the pococurantism of Italian culture officials. As soon as Auden discovered the terms, he asked for this writer’s help:

7 Cornelia St.
N.Y.C. 16
16/2/51

Dear Bob,

It’s wonderful news about Venice. But there are one or two matters which—strictly entre nous—Chester and I would like to know about.

It seems to us that, if there is, as I understand, a large sum of money being paid for the première rights, we are entitled to ten per cent thereof. What do you think?

As the contract is not being negotiated through Boosey Bean,1 we are completely in the dark as to the facts.

Could you use your discretion, and if circumstances are propitious, mention the matter to Il Maestro?

Hope Cuba is fun.

Love,
Wystan

The preliminary rehearsals took place in Milan, where Stravinsky and Auden were constantly together and closer than at any other time in their lives. Stravinsky lived in the Duomo Hotel, but the librettists, having neglected to make reservations, were obliged, at first, to reside in a bordello, where, they said, “the girls were very understanding, but the rooms could be rented only by the hour and so were terribly expensive.” Auden came to rehearsals in a white linen suit, polkadotted with Chianti stains. He was assigned to two jobs, coaching the chorus’s English, no word of which could be understood, and advising the “maestro della scena.” He ignored the second, since he disapproved of everything in the staging: “It could hardly be worse if the director were Erwin Piscator, and the singers were climbing and descending ladders.” Nor did Auden like the sets, particularly a Neapolitan-ice-cream-colored “London,” but he objected only to the one of Truelove’s home in the country. “With a house as grand as that,” he told Signor Ratto, the designer, who had probably not read the libretto, “the ‘Rake’ would be better off marrying the daughter right away and foregoing his ‘Progress.’ ”

The outstanding event during the sojourn in Milan was a dinner that the librettists gave for the Stravinskys. After it they all attended a performance of Giordano’s Fedora, which was very disappointing in comparison to Chester Kallman’s hilarious preview of it. At such times Auden-relinquished the stage, except to contribute scraps of background information or to alert the Stravinskys to imminent high points. He was proud and happy. But then, Wystan Auden’s devotion to Chester Kallman was the most important fact of the poet’s personal life, as well as the real subject of the libretto (the fidelity of true love); it transcends the confession of Auden’s most popular lyric. More touching still, when Chester Kallman was unable to attend the second performance of the opera in Venice, Wystan Auden quietly left the theater before the end, not wishing to risk having to bow alone and receive credit due to his friend.

Kallman was indispensable to Auden in at least one considerable area of his work: the older poet could never have written libretti without his younger colleague.2 What is more, in everything that Auden wrote, he relied on Kallman’s critical judgment. No less important, Chester Kallman, though hardly the personification of bourgeois behavior himself, succeeded in imposing some of his Brooklyn common sense on his partner. Kallman was also the domesticator—if only to a degree, for the tamer was so mild that the animal was never entirely housebroken. Finally, and appearances to the contrary, the two poets really understood each other. Kallman always knew, despite Auden’s protective friends, that no matter how “lost” his librettist colleague might seem to be, he was actually capable of finding his way home, of handling his business affairs, and of attending to his physical needs.

Auden and Stravinsky remained close friends to the ends of their lives. But other memoirists will describe the 1950s and 1960s—including, one hopes, an account of the mayhem of an Auden birthday party, or one of Kallman’s, for he and Mrs. Stravinsky celebrated theirs together on the same date. It remains to be said, and regretted, that two further collaborations, as well as an additional scene for the third act of a revised version of The Rake, came to nothing. A second libretto, whose protagonists were to be “Rossini (the man of stomach), Berlioz (the man of heart), and Mendelssohn (the man of sensibility),” did not develop beyond the talking stage. But the text of Delia, the masque especially designed for Stravinsky, is complete, awaiting a composer with some of the same gifts of a Stravinsky—or a Mozart.

Postscript

Here are a view of the poet and the composer at one of their last meetings, and two final glimpses of the librettist alone:

December 18, 1969. The Essex House. Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, and Auden for dinner, Auden rather ornery and not on his best mettle. His uppermost concern nowadays seems to be in adhering to the split-second timing of his daily routine. He replies to Stravinsky’s “How are you?” with, “Well, I’m on time, anyway.” For the poet’s sake dinner has to be served at exactly seven o’clock, and therefore must be as carefully planned as a bank robbery. But Auden even gets tight on schedule, and to the extent that, so far as he is concerned, Stravinsky’s Château Margaux could be acetified Manischewitz. Still in this condition he makes a totally unrelated, to say nothing of outré, exclamation: “Everybody knows that Russians are mad,” which might be described as emotion recollected in alcohol—except that the recollecting is ahead of time, this particular emotion being tomorrow’s. Toward the end of the evening, while VAS looks on in horror, he opens three closets before finding the urgently needed one. But the refractory mood gives way to one of deep affection for Stravinsky, who becomes the object of a tender speech in German.

After the poet leaves, his hosts speculate on the reasons why his standard of living failed to keep pace with his income, why he lives in the same kind of hovel that he did twenty years ago, and why he is still wearing some of the same clothes. Are the dark glasses, the tattered coat, the frayed bedroom slippers that he uses for winter social outings a protective disguise for the “greatest living poet”? Not according to his own interpretation of the psychology of clothes, anyway (“they enable one to see oneself as an object”). Whatever the answer, if he had had a tin cup in his hand, it would have been filled with coins shortly after he reached the street, especially since he sang so merrily on the way out.

January 11, 1972. New York. Wystan and Chester for dinner, the first time we have seen them together since Chester moved to Europe, or either of them since Stravinsky’s death. Conversation is like old times: Wagner, life in Niederösterreich, fellow poets. The librettists disagree on the merits of Crow, Wystan defending the language of the book and insisting that it contains “quite good things.” Some of the talk is from old times, in fact, Wystan repeating his hoary anecdote about dinner at the Eliots’ in the early 1930s: “I told Mrs. TSE that I was glad to be there and she said: ‘Well Tom’s not glad.’ ” When Wystan announces that his bedtime hour has struck, Chester admonishes him, saying that he is not ready to leave, whereupon the reproved one becomes petulant.

February 21, 1972. We go to Wystan’s birthday party and combination farewell dinner and last supper, at the Coffee House on West Forty-fifth Street. It is a mob scene during cocktails, but at the actual cenacle the host is seated at a table that is slightly elevated and, no less appropriately, Arthurianly round. Glasses are tapped for silence, some telegrams are read in a not-very-pious hush, and a toast is proposed. But no sooner has the speaker begun, with “I don’t know what genius is…,” than he is interrupted by an indignant “Well who does?”—from, of all people, Auden himself.

To answer the question, which was ignored: We do, and always did when we were in the presence of Wystan Hugh Auden, though it was for much more than this reason alone that we loved him.

  1. 1

    Betty Bean, of Boosey and Hawkes.

  2. 2

    The extent of Chester Kallman’s contribution to The Rake’s Progress is revealed in the following letter:

    77 St. Mark’s Place

    New York City 3, N.Y.

    February 10, 1959

    Dear Bob:

    Many thanks for your letter. By all means make use of any correspondence that you have. (I agree that Ebert should be omitted.) As there is a double question of interest about collaboration: a) Composer-Librettist b) Librettist-Librettist it might be worthwhile introducing some of the discussions between Chester and myself. For instance, though of course two librettists are not two people but a composite personality, I have been amused at the way in which critics, trying to decide who wrote what, have guessed wrong. The actual facts are:

    Act I

    Scene 1. Down to end of Tom’s aria…”This beggar should ride.” W.H.A. From there to end of scene. C.K.

    Scene 2. W.H.A.

    Scene 3. C.K.

    Act II

    Scene 1. Down to end of Tom’s aria…”in my heart the dark.” C.K. From there to end of scene. W.H.A.

    Scene 2. C.K.

    Scene 3. W.H.A.

    Act III

    Scene 1. C. K. (except for the lyrics sung off-stage by Tom and Shadow).

    Scene 2. Baba’s verses at beginning and end of scene. W.H.A. Middle (card-guessing game). C.K. Scene 3 and Epilogue. W.H.A.

    Do you have a copy of the original draft scenario at which we had arrived when I left Hollywood in November 1947? If you do, we would very much like a copy to refresh our memories and the exact stages by which we arrived at a final version.

    Love to all,

    Wystan

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