Igor Stravinsky, W.H. Auden, and Chester Kallman at a rehearsal of The Rake’s Progress, Milan, August 1951

Erio Piccagliani/Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Igor Stravinsky, W.H. Auden, and Chester Kallman at a rehearsal of The Rake’s Progress, Milan, August 1951

What is the nature of the relationship between music and words, whether in opera, song, or any other art form that brings them together? Are they lovers, business partners, rival siblings, mortal enemies? Does one matter more than the other, and if one dominates, is the other thereby weakened or undermined? Opera’s oldest adage on this subject asserts the primacy of music: Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words). But many a singer, coach, and composer has insisted that if opera is to be experienced not just as music but also as theater, then clear communication of the text ought to be the performers’ priority.

Though there is inherently tension in any meeting of these two media, their relationship is often described as a kind of mutual reverence: Look how sensitively Fauré illuminates this poetic image with a single fragrant chord, look how modestly the text of this Schubert song effaces itself before the music, and so on. But from the composer’s perspective, the relationship is not just one of respectful deference; it is also a battle of wills. The music and the poetry should each, ideally, manifest a certain stubbornness; they should even be somewhat at odds with each other. After all, if the music had exactly the same impulses as the poetry, there would be no need for music in the first place.

The more fraught the relationship between words and music, the richer the result can be. This paradoxical dynamic is exemplified by the collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden on The Rake’s Progress (1951), Stravinsky’s only full-length opera. Throughout The Rake, Stravinsky’s music and Auden’s poetry seem to perpetually subvert each other, but the vocal writing that results from Stravinsky’s steady friction against Auden’s sharply hewn text is singularly vivid, a musico-poetic compound that brims with energy and life.

Some composers prefer to work with librettists they can push around, and Stravinsky himself had displayed this tendency in his earlier theater pieces. He had no compunction about ordering Jean Cocteau to repeatedly overhaul the text for the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), early drafts of which he found too “Wagnerian” and which he insisted must be simpler. (He commanded Cocteau to make it “very banal!”) But he never made such a demand of Auden, whom he came to view as a peer. The Rake is thus a rare example of a major composer and a major poet engaging as equals in a deep collaborative effort. What’s more, Stravinsky’s voice as a composer and Auden’s as a poet have certain qualities in common, especially a lapidary clarity. It would be hard to find two artists with a stronger allergy to vagueness and obfuscation; they both prefer pure, unfiltered sunlight to impressionistic cloudiness. One of the miracles of The Rake is the coexistence of their respective lucidities. Both the composer’s and the poet’s voices remain audible, even as Stravinsky refracts the light of Auden’s lines at an impossible angle, setting them deliciously askew.

The Rake’s Progress is loosely based on the eighteenth-century British painter William Hogarth’s pictorial series of the same name, engravings of which Stravinsky saw at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947. He was attracted to Hogarth’s rococo aesthetic as well as his lavishly satirical depiction of a debauched, Sodom-like London, and he told Auden that he wanted to write a piece with all the trappings of classical-era opera. Auden, working in collaboration with his life partner, the writer Chester Kallman, was glad to oblige him: their libretto is an elaborate morality tale in brilliantly wrought Augustan verse.

At the story’s beginning, the idle young Tom Rakewell is engaged to the virtuous Anne Trulove. One day, Tom speaks aloud his desire to be rich. As soon as he does, the mysterious Nick Shadow appears and informs him that a previously unknown uncle has died and bequeathed his vast wealth to Tom. Shadow offers to work as his servant for “a year and a day,” after which he will claim whatever wages they agree are fair. Tom unquestioningly follows Shadow to London, where he soon forgets his commitment to Anne and, having claimed his fortune, gives in to every temptation he encounters—drinking, gambling, prostitutes.

Hounded by his ever-increasing guilt and by a misguided impulse to prove his freedom from both passion and rational thought, Tom marries Baba the Turk, the bearded lady at a local circus. When he grows tired of his life with Baba, Tom ruins himself by investing his fortune in a bogus machine that he is convinced is capable of miraculously turning stones into bread. At the end of the agreed-upon term, Shadow attempts to claim his wages: Tom’s soul, of course. Tom is rescued at the last moment by the grace of Anne’s enduring love for him. But he doesn’t escape unscathed: though he will not be damned, from this moment forward he will be insane.


On the surface, The Rake’s Progress seems to be, well, all surface. It can feel, on a first encounter, like a stiflingly stylized fable that risks preciosity at every turn: its rakish protagonist is literally named Tom Rakewell, and the music seems to be little more than a parade of self-conscious allusions to Handel and Mozart. But The Rake is much more than a period piece. Through their loving attention to intertwined details of characterization, harmony, and prosody, Stravinsky and Auden set themselves the daunting task of proving that pastiche does not necessarily equal parody.

When Stravinsky, acting on the recommendation of Aldous Huxley, invited Auden to write The Rake’s libretto, he may not have known that the poet was one of the most devoted of opera aficionados. Auden’s one previous foray into music theater had been his libretto for Benjamin Britten’s operetta Paul Bunyan (1941), which everyone involved seemed to feel, after its premiere in New York, was best swept hastily under the rug. The notion of two hyperliterary, fresh-off-the-boat gay British expats writing a ready-for-Broadway light opera about the manliest man in American folklore might sound like something out of The Producers, and alas, the Britten-Auden Paul Bunyan is as preposterous as the phrase “Britten-Auden Paul Bunyan” would suggest. The prospect of writing an opera set in Hogarth’s London, in sumptuously Popian verse, must have struck Auden as a welcome return to familiar turf.

Auden loved opera, as he loved myths and fairy tales, for its ability to cut to the bedrock of the human psyche; certain operatic roles, like Don Giovanni, recur throughout his work as psychological touchstones, ur-emblems of essential human types. The noisy, no-holds-barred spectacle of operatic performance was also a welcome contrast to the solitary work of writing. Indeed, Auden’s love of opera was founded on what he perceived to be music’s fundamental difference from his own art form, poetry—a difference that he articulated, with his trademark bossiness, as a strict circumscription of their respective functions. Music, for Auden, was a playground of pure catharsis, while poetry was the proper arena for investigations and litigations of humankind’s duties to itself and to God. He loved music precisely because he believed it to be immune to the tortuous self-consciousness that was the daily nourishment of his writing.

Though I almost always disagree with Auden’s delimitations—his insistence that music is incapable of psychological ambiguity, for instance, strikes me as absurd—the clarity of his ideas about its essential nature can help us clarify our own thinking. It is, counterintuitively, because of Auden’s fanboyish passion for music, and his attendant need to strip it of its complexities and treat it as an idealized other, that he is an especially thought-provoking philosopher of the form.

His theory of the prehistoric origin of music, for instance, is quietly revelatory. Auden proposes, in the essay “Some Reflections on Music and Opera,” that music probably did not originate with the ear—that is, with the desire to imitate external sounds—but rather with “man’s direct experience of his own body, its tensions and rhythms.” He draws a contrast between music and the visual arts, which he believes are dependent on the eye and on a desire to represent external things. Many musicians would agree that Auden’s diagnosis rings true: music is the result of an inner physical need, as dance is, and its external realization in sound is an aftereffect rather than a cause.

Elsewhere, however, Auden’s precepts about music are unhelpfully reductive. “Music cannot exist in an atmosphere of uncertainty,” goes a typical dictum. “Song cannot walk, it can only jump.” He also asserts that the essence of music-making is the expression of human willpower, the creation of a “self-determined history”: “A succession of two musical notes is an act of choice.” (He doesn’t address the question of what makes a succession of two notes more distinctly an “act of choice” than a succession of two words in a poem.) If music is an expression of choice, then opera is “an imitation of human wilfulness,” and opera characters are inevitably “monomaniac[s].”

With this established, Auden makes a rule: opera “cannot present character in the novelist’s sense of the word, namely, people who are potentially good and bad, active and passive.” When certain composers and librettists dare to do so—as, for example, Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte do in Le nozze di Figaro—Auden finds the effort unconvincing. To me, the title character of the Mozart–Da Ponte Figaro is riveting precisely because of his self-contradictory complexities: he can seem guileless and radiantly jovial in one scene, hot-tempered and dangerously susceptible to jealousy in the next. But to Auden he is “too interesting a character to be completely translatable into music.” Rossini’s depiction of the same character as a “maniacal busybody” is, for Auden, more credible, since he thinks music is better suited to giddy perpetual motion than to psychological nuance.


Clearly Auden took a wrong turn along the way, because he ended up somewhere absurd: literally faulting Mozart for the subtlety of his portraiture. But there’s something to be learned from him even at his most exasperatingly dogmatic. To appreciate Auden’s achievement in The Rake’s Progress, we must first understand his concept of opera as proof of the irreducible reality of human willpower: “Every high C accurately struck utterly demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.” Auden believed, and needed to believe, that human beings possess some modicum of freedom, with all its attendant risks and responsibilities: the possibility of real guilt, and of real salvation. In The Rake’s Progress he put this philosophy to the test, in the medium that he believed best manifested the reality of that freedom.

Thorny philosophical questions such as these may not sound like the sturdiest foundation for a spellbinding evening of theater. And indeed The Rake succeeds only because Auden had the audacity to clothe his ambitiously Kierkegaardian ethical program in gaudy, borderline-kitsch pageantry, some of which wouldn’t be out of place on RuPaul’s Drag Race. (One New York company refused to premiere The Rake because the bearded Baba the Turk no doubt represented some “perverse sexuality.”)

I have a feeling, however, that if Auden had been working alone, his inner censor might have nixed some of the opera’s freakier ideas, Baba included. The aesthetic difference between The Rake’s Progress and one of his sober poetic dramas, like The Age of Anxiety, is that Auden found a partner for this folie à deux, a collaborator who would dare him to scale opera’s campiest heights: Chester Kallman.

Auden met Kallman in New York in the spring of 1939 and fell so deeply in love that he later wrote of having experienced a “Vision of Eros.” Kallman, just eighteen at the time, was quick-witted and sophisticated beyond his years, and as a native New Yorker he was already an experienced operagoer; he helped whet Auden’s appetite for the art form by taking him on dates to the Met. Their love affair splintered when their respective ideas about fidelity proved irreconcilable (Kallman had no interest in monogamy), but their commitment to each other far outlasted their erotic relationship. In the fall of 1947, when Auden returned to New York after his exhilarating initial brainstorming sessions with Stravinsky in Los Angeles, he eagerly showed Kallman the outline that he and the composer had devised.

Kallman had a keen instinct for what would and wouldn’t work onstage, and he ventured a few criticisms. He suggested, for instance, that it probably wasn’t a great idea for Tom Rakewell to summon Nick Shadow by yawning. Auden’s original notion was that Tom’s yawn, the gesture that betrayed his idleness, could serve as his unconscious invitation to his demon. But as Kallman pointed out, a yawn is unlikely to be visible from the cheap seats in a big opera house. Worse, it might even look grotesque, like a failed attempt to sing. Auden grudgingly admitted that Kallman was right but grumbled that he shouldn’t “point out little flaws if you have no idea what to put in their place.”

As it happened, though, Kallman did have an idea: he suggested that Tom could summon Shadow three times over the course of the opera by speaking three wishes, fairy-tale style. This was an indisputable improvement. Auden surely sensed that if he had Kallman by his side, he was much less likely to repeat the mistakes that had made Paul Bunyan unfunny and theatrically inert. And so, without telling Stravinsky, Auden hired him as co-librettist.

Auden and Kallman’s two biggest challenges, in adapting a series of paintings into an evening-length theater piece, were to transform eight tableaux—eight frozen moments—into a drama with a coherent arc, and to turn the essentially passive figure of Tom Rakewell, who in the paintings is always being groped or manhandled by someone, into a dynamic character. They did not merely overcome these hurdles but went so far as to treat them as the central subjects of the work: The Rake’s two deepest themes are the issue of free will—whether it exists at all and, if it does, how it manifests—and the question of what a mortal human being’s relationship to time and eternity ought to be.

Tom Rakewell suffers from what Emerson would have called a “disease of the will.” When we first meet him, we hear him convince himself that since free will is an illusion (“it is not by merit/We rise or we fall,/But the favor of Fortune/That governs us all”), he is justified in his laziness. This travestied Calvinism makes Tom easy prey for his demonic alter ego, Nick Shadow, a role that has no precedent in Hogarth; Auden cannily added Shadow to his dramatis personae as the living embodiment of Tom’s diseased will.

Tom’s grotesque denial of his own agency is matched by his tragically unfulfilling relationship to time: he is incapable of living in the present moment, though the mirage-like prospect of future success is a constant source of anxious glee for him. Auden once suggested that Tom suffers from manic depression (that is, bipolar disorder), as Kallman did in reality: he is “a man to whom the anticipation of experience is always exciting and its realization in actual fact always disappointing.” Tom is the anti-Orpheus: plagued by a shame that he dares not face, he cannot look back. As his regrets accumulate, he has to sprint ever faster into his illusory future in order to escape them. In the end, his punishment is not hellfire but rather confinement to an eternal present in which he is left with nothing.

The opera’s final sequence, in which Tom’s fate is sealed, is among the most powerful things Auden ever wrote. A year and a day after his term of service began, Shadow leads Tom to a graveyard and announces that his time is up: he will be damned upon the stroke of midnight. First, however, Shadow unwisely decides to give him a final opportunity to save himself through a game of chance. Shadow will draw three cards at random; if Tom can guess all three, he will be saved. With the help of Anne, whose voice he hears in the distance, Tom correctly guesses that Shadow has cheated and drawn the same card (the queen of hearts) twice. Shadow is furious—his prey has eluded him. Tom’s many sins, however, do give Shadow some “power to pain”: from this moment on, Tom will be insane. The grace of Anne’s love can save Tom from damnation, but it can’t give him the brains that he has lacked from the beginning.

The scene shifts to Bedlam. Tom, who believes himself to be Adonis, irritates his fellow patients with his exhortations to prepare themselves for Venus’s arrival. The Bedlamites answer with a chorus that deserves a place in Auden’s Collected Poems:

Leave all love and hope behind;
Out of sight is out of mind
In these caverns of the dead.
In the city overhead
Former lover, former foe
To their works and pleasures go
Nor consider who beneath
Weep and howl and gnash their teeth….
Banker, beggar, whore and wit
In a common darkness sit.
Seasons, fashions never change;
All is stale yet all is strange;
All are foes, and none are friends
In a night that never ends.

This chorus is a dark mirror of Auden’s 1937 poem “Lullaby” (“Lay your sleeping head, my love”). Both poems are written in trochaic tetrameter, the four-beat meter whose crisp symmetries and fairy-tale connotations made it a favorite of Auden’s. (It is also favored by Shakespeare’s Puck.) In “Lullaby,” Auden has a vision of the ephemerality of earthly happiness, embodied by the fragile contentment of his lover resting his head on Auden’s arm. The poet is aware both of presence and of the transience of presence: I’m alive right now/it’s all slipping away. This relationship to time finds its exact inversion in The Rake’s purgatorial chorus. In “Lullaby,” the moment is fleeting but precious, and it may be preserved in memory, whereas the Bedlam dwellers inhabit a boring, eternal present. In their lifeless limbo, both memory and love are impossible: nothing is precious because nothing can change. The world outside, they claim, has forgotten them.

But this turns out not to be true: Anne appears after all. She has come to visit Tom and gamely plays along with his delusion, pretending to be Venus to his Adonis. For a moment, Tom is entirely happy. Anne sings him a lullaby and bids him a tearful farewell. When Tom wakes up and asks where Venus has gone, his fellow asylum dwellers tell him that no one has been to see him. Believing them, he is alone and desolate.

The much-misused phrase “poetic justice” could have been invented for Auden: Tom, who refused to live in the present, is finally left with nothing but the present. We witness his newly childlike relationship to time in two iterations: total happiness, then total despair. He is both saved and not saved. Love and grace are real, but not omnipotent.

The pianist Craig Rutenberg, a mentor of mine, who met Stravinsky late in the composer’s life, passed on a bit of advice that Stravinsky had given him. To perform The Rake properly, you have to get two things right:

(1) Throughout the opera, every tempo should be a dance tempo. It should always be possible to dance to the music.

(2) The singers should pronounce the words with the inflections of a native English speaker, even when the music seems to demand otherwise.

This second guideline is wiser than it sounds. Generations of critics have faulted Stravinsky’s text setting in The Rake’s Progress, claiming that, as a nonnative English speaker, he must not have known what he was doing. The prosody is awful! The stresses are in all the wrong places!

But this criticism is founded on a misunderstanding of Stravinsky’s rhythmic language. The fact that a particular syllable lands on the beat does not mean that it needs to be accented; by the same token, a syllable on an offbeat can be accented. What Stravinsky achieves in The Rake is a complete reversal, in the music, of the expected placement of the poetry’s emphases, and this reversal is much too consistent to be merely the fumbling of a befuddled old Russian expat squinting through the Hollywood sunshine at an incomprehensible assemblage of foreign syllables. At every turn, if the poetry is in a “duple” meter, the music will be in a triple meter, and vice versa; if a line begins on a “downbeat” (for example, a trochee—a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one), the music will begin on an upbeat, and vice versa. Indeed, Stravinsky’s treatment of English poetic conventions in The Rake is as canny and as lovingly irreverent as his treatment of innumerable musical forms throughout his career—the Baroque concerto in his Violin Concerto or symphonic form in his Symphony in C and Symphony in Three Movements.

The challenge for singers who essay The Rake is to simultaneously articulate both the rhythm of the poetry and the rhythm of the music. They should pronounce the words naturally even when the music thrashes like a bucking horse beneath them. If they succeed, something magical happens: you can hear the ghost of Audenesque English within Stravinsky’s transfiguration of it. For this musical cubism to have its full impact, the original object must remain visible through its refractions. This paradoxical effect is not unlike a textural sleight of hand that Stravinsky was fond of in his orchestrations: he will frequently have a pair of instruments—two clarinets, for instance—play a phrase together, but one of the musicians is instructed to play staccato while the other plays legato. This creates a beguiling, impossible texture, somehow pointillistic and seamless at once.

Auden’s collaboration with Stravinsky was perhaps the only creative partnership of his life in which he was not the bossy one; his reverence for Stravinsky’s music, and the fact that he was twenty-five years the composer’s junior, largely kept him in check. Even so, he and Kallman are unusually prescriptive librettists: they specify not only form (“Pantomime with Orchestra”) but also tempo (“Prestissimo. Voices in canon”), and sometimes even detailed musical instructions (“Baba’s interjected interruptions become more and more frequent and gradually both faster and louder”).

The Rake owes much of its musical dynamism to Stravinsky’s subtle refusal of some of these formal prescriptions; in some cases, he even subverts structural features that he had specifically requested. The composer had insisted, from the outset, that he wanted to write not a Wagnerian “Musical Drama” but “just an Opera with definitely separated numbers.” Auden and Kallman delivered what Stravinsky asked for: they separated most “numbers” with crisp, businesslike chunks of prose, marked “recitative.” But Stravinsky ended up resisting his own strictures, transmuting many of these “recitatives” into stretches of meltingly lyrical melody. Here, for example, is Baba the Turk’s first appearance, in which she imperiously orders Tom to help her out of her carriage:


BABA [interrupting with vexation]: My love, am I to remain in here forever? You know that I am not in the habit of stepping from my sedan unaided. Nor shall I wait, unmoved, much longer. Finish, if you please, whatever business is detaining you with this person.

As admirers of Mozart’s operas, Auden and Kallman probably had something specific in mind: a series of parlando outbursts, interrupted by slashing gestures from the orchestra (“My love [SLASH], am I to remain in here forever [SLASH]?”). But Stravinsky takes the opposite tack: his setting isn’t recitative at all, but rather a sweetly lyrical line in which two bassoons, warbling voluptuously in the instrument’s pungent upper register, wind around Baba’s voice like a pair of pet weasels.

One of Auden and Kallman’s most specific prescriptions, and also one of Stravinsky’s clearest refusals, comes in the graveyard scene. According to the printed libretto, many of Tom’s and Shadow’s lines are “to be sung to one or more ballad tunes in the traditional manner without expression.” Much of the scene is indeed written in ballad meter, with the standard end rhymes. At the end of the scene, the librettists also specify that Shadow’s cry of despair when he loses the card game (“I burn! I freeze!”) should be sung to the same tune, “resuming the ballad.”

These directions are extraordinarily precise—Auden and Kallman seem to want to compose the scene themselves. Their idea isn’t a bad one: in the hands of a different composer (Kurt Weill, for instance), the repeated use of a single ballad tune might have been eerie and effective. But Stravinsky had other ideas. Tom’s lines are not at all ballad-like: over an inexorable trudging motion in the low strings, he sings nervous little bursts of coloratura, lines whose elaborate ornamentation seems to be a futile attempt to delay the approaching confrontation. Shadow’s first lines do possess a jaunty, nursery-rhyme tunefulness, but his aria at the end of the scene is altered beyond recognition; I doubt any listener would guess that “I burn! I freeze!” was intended to be a “ballad tune.” Stravinsky explodes these lines into a formidable Handelian rage aria, one of the twentieth century’s most gratifyingly melodramatic pieces of vocal writing. The trudging dotted rhythm that had quietly undergirded Tom’s earlier lines now erupts into a desperate flailing, a helpless straining against some hellish leash.

One of the deepest lessons of The Rake’s Progress is that composer-librettist partnerships, however amicable on the surface, cannot and should not be too friendly—or rather too easy—at the level of the material itself. Such partnerships are best treated as playful wrestling matches, full of friction and evasion. Auden-Kallman’s authorial voice is a strong one: a weaker-willed composer than Stravinsky would simply have followed the libretto’s instructions, and the resulting work might have been perfectly charming. But the special magic of The Rake derives from the pressure that Stravinsky and Auden-Kallman exert on each other. To study it is to be reminded that somehow, impossibly, a mutually subversive relationship between music and language does not necessarily cancel itself out but can burst unforgettably to life.

This essay is adapted from The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera, which will be published in December by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Matthew Aucoin.