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 and as written. These conditions governed the librettists’ later collaborations with Hans Werner Henze; most importantly on The Bassarids, their 1966 adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae. In that opera, however, Henze’s music obscures the rhythms of the strictly metered lines and buries many of the words. In any event, clearly the music of the Bassarids was remote from anything the librettists had expected: Kallman had subtitled one number a Cabaletta, as if Henze, a young Schoenberg-school modernist, might be itching to compose a pastiche of Donizetti.
The comments that follow will be directed chiefly to The Rake’s Progress, for the reasons that it is the only one of the six Auden-Kallman operas to have entered the repertory, and the only one in which Auden’s genius as poet and versifier perfectly suits the symmetries and balances of the composer’s style. Perhaps I should declare a private reason, too: as a young man I was involved with the opera to the extent that Stravinsky would ask me to read aloud, over and over and at varying speeds, the lines of whichever aria, recitative, or ensemble he was about to set to music. He would then memorize them, a line or a couplet at a time, repeating them while walking about the house or when seated in his wife’s car en route to a restaurant, movie, or doctor’s appointment. Much of the vocabulary was unfamiliar to him, but he soon learned it and began to use it in conversation, charging me once with “dilatoriness,” which sounded very odd from him. In setting words, he began by writing rhythms in musical notation above them, note-stems with beams indicating time-values, adding melodic or intervallic ideas as they occurred to him.
Auden’s first and only unpartnered libretto, Paul Bunyan, has been unavailable since the premiere of this “operetta for children” at Columbia University, May 1941, and Benjamin Britten withdrew the music from performance after the tepid reception there, leaving it unrevised until after Auden’s death. The revised version is now available in vocal score, and can be heard in a recording.1 In at least one opinion, the music will not win the composer new admirers, and it must be admitted that the libretto shows weaknesses as well in, for example, the disproportionate amount of the narrative taken up with the lumberjacks’ food (a “Cooks’ Duet,” a nine-stanza “Food Chorus”) and the grousing thereon (“But I can’t secrete saliva/At the thought of a screw-driver”).
Still the verse is accomplished and conveys Auden’s high spirits during his travels in the American West with Chester Kallman in the summer of 1939. Auden described the operetta’s rhymes as “Gilbertian,” an odd model for the work that marks his exploration of outpost America (“In Arkansas/Where instead of Father they say Paw”), but the following stanza, Broadway refrain and New York “r” pronunciation apart, evokes Cole Porter as much as it does the great Savoyard:
I would paint St. Sebastian the Martyr
Or dig up the temples of Crete
Or compose a D Major sonata
But I guess that a guy gotta eat
Paul Bunyan incorporates period-Americanisms: “Atta boy,” “Scram,” “Don’t be a sap,” Johnny is from “out in the sticks,” and, charmingly, the trees think “how swell to be a chair.” Bunyan also reveals the Auden of 1939 as still politically and socially committed. How perfect the targeting, the wit and skill of
From a Pressure Group that says I am the Constitution,
From those who say Patriotism and mean Persecution.
From a Tolerance that is really inertia and disillusion…
When Bunyan, the giant, orders a jacket,
the New England mills
For months had no more un- employment ills.
Auden, too, showed considerable feeling for the ecology:
The woods are cut down, and the young are grown old….
No longer the logger shall hear in the Fall
The pine and the spruce and the sycamore call.
Mendelson publishes alternate versions and discarded fragments of early drafts, among them some that seem superior to, or as good as, the verses ultimately used. Whatever else, the beginning of the original Prologue,
To begin with
Paul Bunyan is an American myth
A myth is a collective dream
Where all our nights and lives
Are not as lonely as they seem,
For each one adds a bit
And shares in it.
is more direct than
Since the birth
Of the earth
Time has gone
On and on
which occurs later in the earlier text, and the varying line-lengths are more engaging. Only rarely, in any version, does the strain of finding the meaningful as well as the musical ending show through.
Bunyan also contains passages that are genuinely memorable:
Some think they’re strong, some think they’re smart
Like butterflies they’re pulled apart
America can break your heart.
Auden’s infatuation with Chester Kallman antedates Bunyan, and the poet’s next theatrical-musical concoction—the music was a compilation of recorded excerpts from Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and others—celebrates his companion’s twenty-second birthday. The Queen’s Masque, as Auden titled the scuzzy skit, written while Auden was contributing a column to Commonweal under the pseudonym Didymus (double, pair, twosome), was performed on that occasion (January 7, 1943) in a private house in Ann Arbor—Auden was then teaching at Swarthmore—where Kallman was a student of English at the University of Michigan. The two longest speeches, in (imperfect) German and French, are assigned to ghosts. The levity recalls a remote era:
La reine de belles fesses,
Anastase, m’a fait
Beaucoup, beaucoup de promesses
Au lit là-bas;
…Pour Anastase j’ai perdu mon
Elle m’a tué.
J’ai léché le cul de Madame…
Since Auden showed no particularly strong interest in opera before he met Chester Kallman, his conversion to its “high style” must be attributed to the young man’s passion for it.2 We suppose but do not know for certain that Auden had invited him to become his co-librettist before flying to California in November 1947 to draft the scenario of The Rake’s Progress with Stravinsky, who had had the idea to base an opera on Hogarth’s series of engravings when he saw an exhibition of them at the Chicago Art Institute in May 1947. In any case, the first emendation to the plot outline that was sent to the composer two days after the poet’s return to New York may well have been Kallman’s. The change switched the source of Tom Rakewell’s sudden wealth from an inheritance bequeathed by a deceased father to one from a deceased but unknown uncle, thereby avoiding a pall of grief that would have confused the mood of the first scene. Kallman himself said that Rakewell’s three wishes—for money, for happiness, and for a miracle that would make the fantastic machine, which is supposed to turn stones into bread, actually work—were among his contributions to the opera’s plot. He must have been responsible as well for the designations of musical numbers, if only because Auden probably would have thought that such subtitles as “fugal chorus” and “voices in canon” trespassed on the composer’s territory.
Perhaps, too, it was Kallman who noticed that the Faustian pact between Rakewell and Nick Shadow was missing from the draft of Act I sent to Stravinsky on January 16, 1948.3 Nor was it sent with Act II on January 26, but only two weeks later, with Act III. The brevity with which the transaction between the two is concluded suggests that it was a late insert to remedy an oversight: the pact is not part of the original scenario. But the clarity and directness of the wording indicate that Auden wrote it: “Tell me, good Shadow, since born and bred in indigence, I am unacquainted with such matters, what wages you are accustomed to receive.”
The contrast between his and Kallman’s styles is never more striking than in Kallman’s convoluted continuation of the scene, when Rakewell reasons that “…all London shall be at her [his betrothed’s] feet, for all London shall be mine, and what is mine must of needs at least adore what I must with all my being worship.” It should be said, too, that the pact itself is dramatically incredible: Rakewell employs Shadow, whom he has never seen before and of whom he knows nothing, as his manservant, for a price to be disclosed “a year and a day hence.”
Mendelson’s sources in seeking to determine which librettist wrote what are the original Stravinsky-Auden draft of the scenario (November 1947), the authors’ first and second typescripts of the full text (January–March 1948), and their surviving notebooks, work sheets, correspondence, interviews, and published commentaries about the opera. His intention is to establish “authorial” texts, free of apocryphal changes, by publishing each one as it was first sent to the composer. But in the case of the Rake he modifies this aim by allowing the inclusion of “revisions made by the librettists when preparing the second typescript”; “changes and additions made by the librettists while Stravinsky was composing the opera”; and “further changes made shortly after the premiere in 1951.”4
These provisos, however, are not consistently observed. The text published here includes lines that had been superseded by the authors long before the premiere (Baba’s “I am not in the habit of stepping from sedan chairs unaided” became “…stepping from my sedan chair unaided” as early as 1949), and soon after (as when Auden adopted the revision “To shut my ears [as against “eyes”] to prude and preacher,” and even used it in a broadcast talk). Auden’s 1949 rewrite of a crucial part of the sedan chair scene is a major revision and improvement.
Thomas Campion’s songs and the songs in Shakespeare’s plays are words for music, words to be sung with or without the accompaniment of instruments. They do not express ideas, and are as simple in thought as possible—unlike, for example, those lyrics of Donne which, if sung, would lose their sense. The opening scene of the Rake follows Shakespeare’s and Campion’s principle of simplicity and pure verbal music:
The woods are green and bird and beast at play
For all things keep this festival of May
The setting evoked is Edenic, and the hero and heroine, Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove, are portrayed as truly in love. Anne’s father joins them, adding a slightly ominous undertone. Alone with Rakewell, Trulove père offers him a position in a counting house. Rakewell declines it, Trulove reproves him and exits, whereupon Rakewell, alone, referring to him as an “old fool,” reveals himself as a despicable opportunist without the slightest respect for Anne:
Why should I labor
For what in the end
She will give me for nothing
If she be my friend?
This hypocritical aspect of the hero is repeated and underscored at the halfway point in the opera. In this scene, Anne has come to London to try to find Tom, and they sing a love-duet. But he has already betrayed her by marrying the freakish Baba the Turk, to whom he identifies Anne as “only a milkmaid, pet, to whom I was in debt,” thus making a mockery of the profound feelings he has just avowed. The music tells us that these feelings are true, however, and the music stays with us. The final scenes of the opera also confirm the verity of the love between Anne and Tom, and, as a result, the two earlier exposures of the hero as double-dealing and weak only perplex the audience.
Auden wrote the first part of the opening scene, Kallman the second. To compare the two is to deny Auden’s claim that “two librettists are not two people but a corporate personality.” (He later conceded that “any given passage must be written by one of them,” and explained that the corporate personality decides “what will or will not do.”) But here the duumvirate hybrid artist does not exist. Auden’s lines,
Till I die, then, of fever,
Or by lightning am struck,
Let me live by my wits
And trust to my luck
are remote from Kallman’s completion of the scene, an obstacle course of stuttering (“Anne. And…”), yodeling (“You, who”), stilted language (“O clement love”), obscure metaphor and tangled trope (“Attorneys crouched like gardeners to pay/Bowers of paper only seals repair… / A crop that wax and pen must cultivate”), and ambiguity: Shadow, Rakewell’s Mephisto and the “projection of his self-destructive force,” as Auden characterized him, sings the words, “Indeed, let all who will make their joy here of your glad tidings”; but the audience understands “hear.”
Mother Goose’s London whore-house, the setting of scene 2, is the first stop in Tom’s education, “Le Plaisir,”5 in Auden’s scheme of the “progress” of the Rake. The text is pure Auden and it launches the Rake anew with some of the most felicitous verse in all opera. Having composed a fast-tempo chorus in which the whores and their clients sing of their wish to keep the aubade at bay, Stravinsky asked Auden for an additional stanza. In the one he provided—the first quatrain below: Stravinsky had already set the one with the arresting last line—staccato consonants and simple rhymes, abetted by syncopation in the music, confer the utmost clarity on every syllable:
Soon dawn will glitter outside the shutter
And small birds twitter; but what of that?
So long as we’re able and wine’s on the table
Who cares what the troubling day is at?
While food has flavor and limbs are shapely
And hearts beat bravely to fiddle or drum
Our proper employment is reck- less enjoyment
For too soon the noiseless night will come.
Half a minute further into the opera, Auden adroitly contrasts this with a transfixing slow-tempo lyric, greatly enhanced in its musical setting by the remoteness of the tonality:
Love, too frequently betrayed
For some plausible desire
Or the world’s enchanted fire,
Still thy traitor in his sleep
Resumes the vow he did not keep,
He kneels before thy wounded shade.
The brief third scene, by Kallman, in which Anne resolves to go to Tom in London, is straightforward, “operatic,” and only slightly blemished by repetitions (“love” nine times). But it is flawed by a letdown last line:
O should I see
My love in need
It shall not matter
what he may be.
In February 1949, a year and a half before the premiere, Auden emended this finale to
Time cannot alter
my loving heart,
my ever-loving heart
in order to provide an open-sounding vowel and cut-off consonant for a final high note; but the authorial text published here retains Kallman’s original.
Kallman also wrote the opening scene of Act II, in which Rakewell, weary and alone in his London house, sings of his disenchantment with life in the city. In spite of cliché (“wrinkled as a raisin”) and a precious image (“let Folly purr”), it is a marked improvement over his work in the first act. With the entrance of Shadow in response to Rakewell’s lament “I wish I were happy,” the pen passes to Auden, who is now faced with the insuperable problem of making dramatic sense out of the next step in his scheme of Rakewell’s progress, “L’Acte gratuite.”
Shadow unfurls a broadsheet likeness of Baba the Turk, a bearded lady and circus artiste, the librettists’ substitution for, and improvement on, Hogarth’s merely rich Ugly Duchess. “Do you desire her?” he asks. “Like the gout or the falling sickness.” “Then marry her,” Shadow says, going on to explain that happiness is obtainable only through freedom from Passion and Reason, those “twin tyrants of appetite and conscience.” (How happiness can result from being shackled to an intolerable mate is not explained.)
Rakewell, for some mysterious reason, agrees to the “joke,” as Auden called the episode, ignoring the pain that it will bring to Baba and Anne. But the audience cannot believe Shadow’s argument nor adjust to the jolt and the burlesque into which the opera then sinks, to rise again only in the final scenes. As for Stravinsky, he suffered composer’s block on reaching this crucial point and wrote nothing for two weeks.
To forestall criticism of Baba at the Metropolitan Opera premiere (February 14, 1953), Auden (or Kallman, or both, or someone else) included, in a synopsis of the plot contributed to the program book, the explanation that “Since Tom is neither attracted to Baba nor obligated to her, he can therefore prove his freedom and obtain happiness by the completely unemotional and irrational act of marrying her.” But do irrational and emotionally indifferent acts hurtful to innocent others bring happiness to those who commit them? Addressing the criticism again for a 1958 BBC Television broadcast of the last five scenes of the opera (i.e., after the wedding to Baba has taken place), Auden wrote a Prologue, to be spoken by Shadow, that further compounds the difficulty: “Look on this portrait of strange womankind,” Shadow says here (in the opera he describes Baba as a “Gorgon”), and
Marry her, Tom! Be happy and rejoice,
Knowing you know no motive for your choice.
Perhaps you ask, dear viewers, how this man
Could think of marriage and not think of Anne
Soon won his guilty conscience to my side.
The viewer does indeed ask why Tom does not think of Anne. But whereas vanity is a feature of Tom’s personality at the start of the opera, it is not much in evidence by this time. Elsewhere Auden diagnoses Rakewell as a “manic-depressive,” noting that this “allowed for musical contrasts or moods,” for whom (as with the rest of us) “the anticipation of experience is always exciting and its realization always disappointing.”
In the next scene, the marriage has already taken place. Anne sees Tom in the street in front of his London house and as Baba, hidden in her sedan chair, waits impatiently, they sing a duet. Stravinsky objected that Baba’s natterings as she peers between the curtains were too long and destroyed the mood of the scene. (In truth, he wanted them cut entirely, and his first draft omits them.) Kallman being in Italy at the time, Auden wrote new ones, offering two versions of differing lengths. He deleted Kallman’s “it could hardly be thought that wedded bliss entailed such manner of attention,” and, for his partner’s 135 or so other words, substituted 70 or so of his own in strongly accented rhyming lines carefully calculated to be heard above the orchestra and the other two voices.
Later he went on to compose yet a fourth version of Baba’s grumblings, retaining some of Kallman’s original, including the unfortunate “Hussy…if I am found immured here, dead, I swear…” This final version is inferior to the previous two, which, combined and further cut by Stravinsky, became a permanent part of the opera in the autumn of 1949. But the present volume unaccountably opts for Kallman’s original version.
It is likely that Auden reshaped and polished some of Kallman’s lines. Certainly nothing in The Tuscan Players, the libretto for Carlos Chavez that Kallman wrote without Auden, or any of Kallman’s own poetry, remotely approaches the wit of many lines from the Rake that are definitely attributed to him, as with, for example, “America, He fled/Spontaneous combustion caught him hurrying/He’s dead.” But in the event that Kallman’s genius in imitating Auden had developed phenomenally during the three months of the pair’s work on the Rake, how are we to account for the disappearance of this acquired talent when he wrote the poems collected in Storm at Castelfranco published eight years later?
In a retrospective essay published with the 1964 recording of the Rake, Kallman revealed that Auden had obliged him to “shrink” a long dialogue to four lines, and to throw out and rewrite the whole of the auction scene. Auden had also “mercilessly trimmed” Kallman’s recitative telling the story of Rakewell’s inheritance; Dryden had advocated short, unrhymed lines for recitatives, longer lines for the “songish parts,” and Stravinsky, of the same mind, set the narrative as an arioso.
Auden wrote that the librettist “supplies the words, the characters and the plot,” and of these “the words are the least important.” This is not true of the Rake. The plot is creaky, even by operatic standards (“Opera plots allow that sort of marvelous and surprising conduct which is rejected in other plays,” Dryden observed). In his notes for the 1964 recording, Kallman recognized that the scene in which Tom dreams of a machine that will turn stones into bread and thus put an end to poverty is “impossibly difficult to put across,” not, presumably, because of the absurdity of the apparatus, but because credulity on such a scale is unimaginable, even for Tom Rakewell. Auden defended the scene as showing Rakewell “further removed from reality,” but here he forgets that Tom becomes insane as a result of Shadow’s curse, not gradually, in response to events.
The characters, in any case, are dimensionless, devoid of anything remotely like a psychological makeup. “Anne is a soprano. Period,” Kallman’s essay acknowledges. So, too, her father is no more than a morose voice, while Rakewell, far from being a Hogarthian toss-pot, is “almost entirely passive.” In a lecture at the 1968 Salzburg Festival, Auden asserted, and Corneille would have concurred, that “the more willful a character the better, the more passive a character the worse.” When Tom wins the card game, Auden attributes the defeat to Shadow’s “overconfidence” and, in the opera, to his procrastination (“my own delay lost me my prey”), thus imbuing a supernatural being, capable of turning time backward, with a human weakness. It is Shadow who is the opera’s willful character.
This leaves Baba, who, in the previous scene, in befriending Anne and warning her to beware of Shadow, becomes the only endearing member of the menage, a considerate person who does not linger over her wounds but determines to go back to the stage and bravely forward with her life.
Yet the opera survives in Auden’s words and in the music they inspired. The melody of Anne’s lullaby and its flute-duet accompaniment perfectly match the childlike simplicity and gentleness of
Lion, lamb and deer,
Untouched by greed or fear
About the woods are straying: And quietly now The blossoming bough Sways, sways, sways
Above the fair unclouded brow6
Stravinsky’s word-setting from the early to the ultimate scenes of the opera is a study in ever-increasing naturalness. Here, in the Graveyard and Bedlam episodes, words and music fuse and complement each other, accent and meter, vocable and vocal register, are in agreement. The composer feels the right speeds for polysyllables (that “dilatoriness”); and he imagines the sounds, piping viola harmonics and high, rasping oboe, to evoke the atmosphere of Bedlam—
Madmen’s words are all untrue.
She will never come to you—
and the orchestration, pizzicato with low, crisp trumpet notes, that makes the consonants sparkle:
Banker, beggar, whore and wit
In a common darkness sit
To some extent the greater flow and continuity in the last act than in the first two can be attributed to the absence of background-filling recitatives, and to thematic and stylistic linkages from scene to scene—the variations on the Ballad Tune in all three scenes, and the melismas that stylize Rakewell’s fear in the Graveyard scene and the still more florid ones (“a swan-like music”) as he dies. But above all, Act III has musical and dramatic power, in the quiet, hollow unison of the chorus’s “Madman, no one has been here” no less than in the throbbing orchestral climax that accompanies Shadow’s descent to Hell. Months before he had read the libretto itself Stravinsky was inspired by the two final scenes. Without words to set, but impatient to compose, he wrote the haunting string-quarter Prelude to the Graveyard scene on December 11, 1947, three weeks after the scenario had been drafted, and three years before he composed the actual scene (November 1950).
The ending of the opera in Bedlam, where mad Tom, who thinks he is Adonis, embraces Anne, whom he imagines as Venus, inspired Auden no less profoundly:
In a foolish dream, in a gloomy labyrinth
I hunted shadows, disdaining thy true love;
Rejoice, belovèd: in these fields of Elysium
Space cannot alter, not time our love abate;
Here has no words for absence or estrangement
Nor Now a notion of Almost or Too Late.
How regrettable it is that the two great artists did not find another subject to bring them together again.
On the Way, the next Auden-Kallman operatic project (1949), did not fulfill the claim of its title, despite an 11,000-word scenario. The subject, the Muse’s relations with Rossini, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz, is complicated and dramatically unpromising. In New York, in December 1951, Stravinsky, Auden, and Kallman planned a one-act opera, but the libretto, Delia, a Masque of Night, completed three months later, was stiflingly literary, with Tudor-period language (“I trow,” “I wiss,” “the sun scorcheth”—try singing “scorcheth”), inverted word order (“I did not under lock my husband keep”), and an arch pedantry (“Hic, haec, hoc/The fiddle and the stock/Horum, quorum, high cockalorum/Should amor ferinus,” etc.).
The Auden-Kallman Magic Flute is a contemporary example of “prima la musica e poi le parole,” in that the librettists have fitted new verses to the music and not merely translated the German text into English. In the process, Auden became fascinated with the story (“a proper treatment of its material would have made it one of the greatest libretti ever written”) and preoccupied with the trials by fire and water that the hero and heroine of the opera, Tamino and Pamina, undergo. “The Proof,”7 one of his best poems, and not only technically, is based on the theme:
When rites and melodies begin
To alter modes and times
What promises, what discipline, If any, will Love keep?
So roared Fire on their right:
But Tamino and Pamina
Walked past its rage.
The new version of Mozart’s opera presents several hurdles, the highest of which is the transposition of the order of seven of the twelve numbers in Act II with the intention of eliminating confusions and inconsistencies in the plot, which, as everyone knows, reverses roles bewilderingly, turning Tamino’s savior in the first scene into its villainess, the initial villain into the good, wise Priest.
Since the music is not continuous, each musical number being separated by spoken dialogue, the collaborators contend that Mozart’s plan of tonalities may be disregarded; “ears,” they say, do not retain tonalities during spoken dialogue, a by-no-means-waterproof generalization. More important, the change in order, while making the story smoother, overlooks the sequencing of voices, and musical tempos and moods. Thus the Auden-Kallman version places two trios back to back and, to the detriment of contrast and pacing, two very slow and solemn movements. Still worse, Pamina’s sorrowful minor-key aria, “Ach, ich Fühl’s,” is followed by an ensemble, which is not only in the related major of the same key, but in which, also, her voice is the first to be heard—in music that for no evident reason signals a more hopeful mood.
According to Auden, Chester Kallman wrote as much as 75 percent of the libretto of Henze’s three-act opera Elegy for Young Lovers, as compared to something nearer 50 percent of The Bassarids (1966). For this reason, in part, the later opera has the greater claim on our attention; the other part is that The Bassarids,8 an Opera Seria with Intermezzo in One Act based on ‘The Bacchae’ of Euripides, is the more interesting and successful work. That success is due, in large measure, to the closeness with which the librettists follow Euripides’ drama of violence prevailing over enlightenment and reason. They also follow Gilbert Murray’s interpretation of the crucial scene at the center of the play, and of the opera, in which King Pentheus of Thebes, who has vowed to extirpate the cult of Dionysus as dangerously subversive to the stability of Boeotia—
Is but a name
For the nameless Nothing
That hates the Light
—engages in a long dialogue with “The Stranger,” whom he does not recognize as the maleficent god himself in disguise. At the end of this scene, Pentheus surrenders to Dionysus, as he does in Euripides, but Auden-Kallman add sexual overtones to Murray’s Nibelungen-like hypothesis that the god has cast a spell over Pentheus. “You are beautiful,” Pentheus exclaims. Although the Bassarids have asked Dionysus to “smite our lawless oppressor/Pentheus… Slay this wicked man,” Pentheus is determined to witness the Dionysian rites, in spite of the danger, and at night ascends Mount Kithairon to do so. He is discovered and torn to pieces by the Bassarids and Maenads. His mother, one of the latter and a Dionysian herself, mistakes her son’s severed and disfigured head for the head of a lion, returns with it to Thebes, and holds it up to the people as proof of the power of Dionysus in them. Her father, Cadmus, horrified by the savagery of the murder and by his daughter’s intoxicated, trance-like state, gradually makes her understand what she has done. Dionysus exiles both of them.
Henze’s music is rich in atmospherics and scene-setting, as in the fanfare at the beginning of the opera. He can also compose traditional operatic pieces within his broadly symphonic structure, such as Dionysus’ barcarole describing his voyage to Naxos. On the debit side, the opera loses impetus in some of the recitative-dialogues. But at best, in the eruptive passages that evoke the frenzy of the Dionysians and the brutality of their murder of Pentheus, the score is powerfully effective.
If the music renders some of the verse unintelligible, the composer could reply that some of it is scarcely intelligible in the first place. A line such as “Fields newly awake lifted our/Light steps as a green quickening/At a tip touch overtook all/Unawareness” seems like deliberate obfuscation, and the same can be said of the rash of inverted word orders throughout the opera: “You believe she was justly slain,/Semele, by the Thunderer for her lie?” No wonder the composer cut so much in the libretto, eliminating half of the chorus, “Now night opens wide,” reducing Tiresias’ “dissertation” from twenty-one to two and a half lines—the latter with encouragement from a performance direction to deliver it with “a speed that borders on incomprehensibility.”
Auden loved to step out of his plays, operas, and longer poems, and, in the tradition of Greek and Latin comedy, speak to the audience directly, to draw the moral and to distance art from life: thus “Caliban to the Audience” in The Sea and the Mirror, the Narrator in For the Time Being, and the prologues, metalogues, and epilogues in the plays and operas. Even in the middle of The Rake’s Progress Shadow shares asides across the footlights. In The Bassarids this direct address is contained in the Intermezzo, “The Judgement of Calliope,” the opera’s rhymed centerpiece, a “miniature satyr play which represents what Pentheus thinks,” the poet wrote.
But no matter, since the text exists only in this book. It is cut in the otherwise excellent English-language recording of the opera and deleted in the new (1992) edition of the full score, which also excludes it from the title;9 Auden would have died of apoplexy. The loss is especially regrettable for at least four reasons: its inclusion relieves the “sober air of religious disaster that envelops the rest,” as the librettists claimed; it helpfully elucidates the mythological background (Pentheus as descendant of a serpent’s tooth); it portrays Pentheus as epicene, thus providing a sexual subtext; and, most important, for those of us who love Auden, it fulfills his wish for an ode that would address the audience directly.
The great poet-librettist must also speak to us directly here, and he has the last word: “A verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think,” whereas “Music is immediate, it goes on to become.” And, “The singer may be playing the role of the deserted bride who is about to kill herself, but we feel quite certain as we listen that not only we but she is having a wonderful time.” And, finally, “No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.”
November 3, 1994
London: Faber Music Ltd., 1988. Virgin Classics, CD VCD 7907 102. ↩
“I came rather late in life to an interest in operatic music; then, thanks above all to the enthusiasm and erudition of my friend and collaborator, Chester Kallman…. I became a real opera fan.” La Biennale di Venezia, October 1951. ↩
Mendelson reports that when Auden sent the typescript of Act I to Stravinsky, the composer “was privately annoyed to learn that his opera had a co-librettist who was unknown to him.” More exactly, Stravinsky was upset that Auden did not mention the question of a collaborator and instead presented him with a fait accompli: Kallman’s and Auden’s names share equal billing on the typescript’s title page. One consequence of the triangulation was that it invalidated the contract with the music publisher, and Stravinsky’s attorney, Aaron Sapiro, advised him to protest. Later, seeing the complete libretto, Sapiro urged him not to compose the opera on grounds that he would be involving himself in a sexual hoax. ↩
Apropos the first performance, Mendelson remarks that “the weeks of rehearsal”—actually six days in Milan and five in Venice—”were frustrating…mostly because of inequitable arrangements for the composer and the librettists…Stravinsky lived in luxury while Auden and Kallman were installed in a brothel, later in scarcely better quarters….” In truth no “arrangements” had been made for anybody. Stravinsky had reserved rooms, and the librettists, who landed in the brothel innocently unawares and by accident, had not. In Venice, Stravinsky found accommodation for them in his hotel. ↩
More than a third of the scenario is in French, first resorted to by Shadow, whose name at this stage is “Villain.” ↩
See the perceptive discussion of this and the other two stanzas of the Lullaby in Anthony Hecht, The Hidden Love: The Poetry of W. H. Auden (Harvard University Press, 1993). ↩
See Hecht, The Hidden Love, pp. 414–416. ↩
Only a short time before the premiere, Henze wrote to the librettists asking, “What the fuck the ‘Bassarids’ means.” Auden answered that it referred “to male as well as female followers of Dionysus.” Earlier, when Henze had proposed another title, Auden informed him that “…slightly puzzling titles cultivate public curiosity.” ↩
Koch-Schwann Musica Mundi CD 314 006 K 3 [DDD]. ↩