Stravinsky’s Premieres in Venice

Inspired by a series of satirical paintings by William Hogarth, Igor Stravinsky collaborated with W. H. Auden to produce a brilliant pastiche of neoclassical opera.

Summary of Event

In 1940, Igor Stravinsky, having fled Europe at the outbreak of World War II, arrived in America, which he had already triumphantly toured three times. He was fifty-eight; his wife and his mother had both died earlier that year. Ready to choose his final home, he settled in Hollywood, California. In Hollywood, he could attempt a new musical form, the motion-picture score. Cinema;sound tracks
Hollywood studio system;music composers This task appealed to him partly because such scores entailed lucrative contracts but probably even more because they represented the excitement of an entirely new challenge. [kw]Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress Premieres in Venice (Sept. 11, 1951)[Stravinskys The Rakes Progress Premieres in Venice]
[kw]Rake’s Progress Premieres in Venice, Stravinsky’s The (Sept. 11, 1951)[Rakes Progress Premieres in Venice, Stravinskys The]
Rake’s Progress, The (Stravinsky and Auden)[Rakes Progress]
Rake’s Progress, The (Stravinsky and Auden)[Rakes Progress]
[g]Europe;Sept. 11, 1951: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress Premieres in Venice[03580]
[g]Italy;Sept. 11, 1951: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress Premieres in Venice[03580]
[c]Music;Sept. 11, 1951: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress Premieres in Venice[03580]
[c]Theater;Sept. 11, 1951: Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress Premieres in Venice[03580]
Stravinsky, Igor
Huxley, Aldous
Auden, W. H.
Kallman, Chester

Prestige was also a factor in the decision: Some of Stravinsky’s younger colleagues—Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, William Walton, and Aaron Copland—were celebrated in the press for their Hollywood triumphs, and Stravinsky disliked being superseded. Other composers—Miklos Rozsa, Dmitri Tiomkin, and Bernard Hermann—had graduated directly from European conservatories to the studios, ignoring concert halls for “the medium of the future.” Stravinsky was not ready to join the past.

For the next seven years, Stravinsky worked on film scores but failed to place one. He salvaged the music he produced, however, by recasting it in other forms, which were uniformly successful. Meanwhile, he found in George Balanchine Balanchine, George the perfect choreographer for the dance music he seemed born to write. Still, he had failed at film music. He thought he knew why.

Motion pictures depended on continuity and flow. They blended with music that underscored those qualities—the lush, gorgeous billows of late Romanticism or the filmy draperies of impressionism. Stravinsky had reacted against these movements; his music embodied rhythm, punctuation, discontinuity—it was music for dancing, not swooning. His music suited only certain kinds of editing. The trouble Stravinsky had adapting his music to film pointed up a more serious omission from his musical achievement: Now nearly sixty-five, he had written no major opera. To produce such an opera, however, he had to find the right narrative and the right text.

In 1947, Stravinsky attended an exhibit of paintings by the eighteenth century English artist William Hogarth Hogarth, William
Painting at the Chicago Art Institute. Hogarth was famous for having invented an early precursor of the comic strip. He depicted a conventional moral narrative in a series of paintings that, like the novels of Daniel Defoe, combined steamy scenes with pious platitudes, thus attracting both the lewd and the religious. Hogarth’s series included paintings entitled The Harlot’s Progress and The Rake’s Progress. The technique intrigued Stravinsky. This kind of narrative was discontinuous, a succession of distinct scenes. The abstractions and character types of a cautionary tale would also cause displacement. Unlike cinema, such a narrative would not depend on luring a viewer in, but on making viewers into eavesdroppers.

Opera history provided strong precedent for such material. The story of the wastrel heir had immediately reminded Stravinsky of Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni (Mozart and Da Ponte) (1787), the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-Lorenzo Da Ponte fable that exposed the moral ambiguity of conventional behavior. Mozart Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Da Ponte, Lorenzo[Daponte, Lorenzo] had perfected a scenic approach to opera, proceeding through a series of set pieces and ensembles stitched together by recitative narrative lines. The combination had worked, because Da Ponte’s lyrics and lines perfectly matched Mozart’s music in bite, wit, and irony. This fusion is both fragile and dangerous. For example, in Così fan tutte
Così fan tutte (Mozart and Da Ponte) (1790), another collaboration, the plot involves two pairs of lovers who, despite oaths to the contrary, prove quite willing to betray their partners for romantic adventures, provided they can get away with their misdeeds; the audience is then informed that everyone is like that. To entertain by insult takes a subtle hand.

Stravinsky had his material; he now needed a partner. For advice, he turned to his neighbor Aldous Huxley, himself a respected writer. Huxley made the perfect choice. He suggested Stravinsky contact W. H. Auden, then forty, ironic, witty, and a master of forms. Stravinsky wrote; Auden responded; before long, they were conferring in California. Their talents jelled so well that their failure to continue collaborating beyond the initial project remains a puzzle. Auden granted Stravinsky full control over the main directions of story line and characters, contenting himself with making suggestions; in his view, librettists should follow their composers’ leads. He did talk Stravinsky into accepting a co-collaborator, the relatively unknown Chester Kallman, who had become Auden’s confidant. Unexpectedly, Kallman proved a gifted composer and versifier.

The fusion, though, was not easy or immediate. Stravinsky set the text exactly as he received it, requesting only the reprise of one chorus. The text looks relatively straightforward, but it conceals a struggle. The writers had had to make a living character out of Tom Rakewell, the “rake,” who is essentially a puppet in Hogarth’s painting, and they had to create a continuing context in which he could be defined. They solved the first problem by making the hero struggle against temptation rather than merely succumbing to it passively. They solved the second problem by creating two characters, Nick Shadow and Ann Truelove, not even hinted at in Hogarth’s work. They combined these two with the fairy-tale strategy of giving Tom Rakewell three wishes.

Text in hand, Stravinsky set to work, completing one act in each of the following three years. His task was quite different from that of the librettists. He had deliberately taken on the challenge of rivaling Mozart, whose music for the theater was generally considered formally impeccable and emotionally compelling, perfectly matched to the words yet constantly propelling and pacing the action. Furthermore, even if Stravinsky succeeded, critics could easily say that he had succeeded only by imitating the master—he had to come up with his own method of achieving Mozart’s effects.

The finished opera premiered on September 11, 1951. The critical consensus seemed to be that the opera was a jewel and a triumph but that the parts, unlike those of Mozart’s works, did not lend themselves to extracts. The Rake’s Progress remains Stravinsky’s largest and largest-scored work. Its premiere was eagerly awaited. Different venues bid for the honor, which was won by La Fenice Theater in Venice; attempts by fervent Stravinskyites to buy blocks of tickets drove prices up and caused a shortage of tickets. Although the performance was not flawless, the work was acclaimed as brilliant, and no fewer than twenty companies performed it before 1951 was out.


The production of The Rake’s Progress certainly marked a culmination and a turning point in Stravinsky’s career. It closed the so-called neoclassical period of his work, characterized by his resuscitation of structural patterns and techniques of the eighteenth century and earlier. Stravinsky had demonstrated repeatedly that new wine could be poured out of old bottles and that the new vintage could transcend the old. The mixture of familiar or near-familiar forms with new musical language made these compositions some of his most approachable, so that they would continue to be staples of the standard repertoire. Many of his most popular works, from Pulcinella (1920) and Petrushka (1911) to Oedipus Rex (1927) and The Rake’s Progress, belonged to his neoclassical period.

In the wake of The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky turned exclusively to a more abstract music that was based on the contrapuntal serialism of Arnold Schoenberg and his circle. In 1953, Stravinsky did envision another opera—apparently quite different from The Rake’s Progress—with the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas as librettist and focusing on the unlikely theme of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. The project had entered the planning stage when it was cut short by the poet’s death.

The opera closed the period in Stravinsky’s career in which he was preoccupied with demonstrating how the musical resources of the past could continue to be developed and remolded. For decades, he had seemed compelled to show that the past had not been exhausted, that it still had something to give to the present. This characteristic linked Stravinsky’s work with parallel developments in other arts. In 1914, for example, the British critic T. E. Hulme had called for English literature to return to the qualities and modes practiced before the Romantic “distortion” had set in; similarly, the post-World War I period revived interest in the once-moribund Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century at the expense of the Romantics and Victorians.

Fashions in art, too, focused on primitive and pre-Renaissance works—which had not been infected with the “diseases” of rational perspective and representation. These movements resonated with elements in Stravinsky’s soul. In The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky showed off, demonstrating that he could write classical opera as well as Mozart had. He also, however, realized that his success raised the uncomfortable question of what he could do on his own. He proceeded to answer such concerns with the rest of the music he composed, now suddenly not based on existing models.

The significance of The Rake’s Progress as far as musical history is concerned is more difficult to assess. Its premiere was a blockbuster event, and its success continued. The Rake’s Progress has been produced more often by far than any other twentieth century opera. Its success stems at least in part from its approachability. It is approachable, however, because it deliberately and self-consciously imitates the manner and technique of Mozart and Da Ponte. In that respect, the opera arrives at a kind of cultural dead end. It points to no new directions for the operatic form. Other composers can hardly use The Rake’s Progress as a model; such an attempt would doubtless make the resulting work merely imitative and derivative. The Rake’s Progress thus asks, awkwardly, where does opera go from here? It provides little in the way of answer, perhaps because Stravinsky had come to recognize that imitation could go only so far and that the resources of the past were limited. Such problems, however, may have more to do with the function of opera in the twentieth century than with The Rake’s Progress.

In one respect, the opera’s influence on culture has been profound. Just as Richard Wagner’s operas stand as symbols of the profoundest art of their culture, The Rake’s Progress represents the state of the imagination at midcentury. The simple moral fable at its center betrays the secret and unacknowledged anxieties of the time. Rakewell discloses the fear that prosperity will erode moral character, that good times will provide nothing to replace the soul-shaping of adversity. That he gets what he wishes for, but always in a form that invalidates his desire, merely underscores the same point.

Even the moral principle at the opera’s center is ambiguous: Rakewell evades death but loses his mind, and even though the practice of love seems to be vindicated in the character of Truelove, she chooses to love a degenerate whom she cannot rehabilitate and who would apparently have few scruples about ruining her. This kind of ambiguity provides a fertile seedbed for irony and wit; it welcomes the raking glance of intelligence. Prosperity was a fact at midcentury, but so were vague, ominous fears that it was too good to last, that it had no substantial foundation. The Rake’s Progress captured and reflected this unease. Rake’s Progress, The (Stravinsky and Auden)[Rakes Progress]

Further Reading

  • Boucourechliev, Andre. Stravinsky. Translated by Martin Cooper. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1987. A readable general biography, accessible to the general reader but technical enough for the sophisticated. Boucourechliev is excellent in relating Stravinsky’s works to his life and his developing art. Worklist, calendar, bibliography, and indexes.
  • Craft, Robert. Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, 1948-1971. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. Craft was the friend, constant companion, and business and personal manager of the composer during the period covered by the book. He provides fascinating anecdotes about Stravinsky’s personal and professional lives. His stories about the development of the opera furnish interesting sidelights. Thoroughly indexed.
  • Druskin, M. S. Igor Stravinsky: His Life, Works, and Views. Translated by Martin Cooper. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. The standard scholarly biography. Collects more detail on every aspect of Stravinsky’s life and art than any other source. Cogent and thorough; provides balanced coverage of pertinent sources and critical positions. Calendar, worklist, bibliography, and indexes.
  • Fuller, John. W. H. Auden: A Commentary. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Exhaustive, work-by-work commentary on the poet’s career; includes a chapter on The Rake’s Progress. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Griffiths, Paul. Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. The definitive study of the opera. Griffiths gathers an astounding array of information and presents it effectively; even a casual fan of the work can profit from browsing here. Extensive lists, bibliography, and index.
  • Stravinsky, Igor. Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography. New York: M. & J. Steuer, 1958. Although not always factually reliable, Stravinsky’s own accounts of the genesis and development of his own works are insightful—he was a keen observer, of himself as well as of others.
  • Walsh, Stephen. The Music of Stravinsky. New York: Routledge, 1988. Despite its title, this is as much a biography as it is an account of the music; furthermore, it is largely intended for the general reader. Also, it is considerably more than simply an introduction or armchair companion, since Walsh generally provides learned discussions of the works in chronological order. Fully annotated.
  • Weiss, Piero, comp. “Stravinsky, Auden, and The Rake’s Progress.” In Opera: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Reproduces the initial letters written between Stravinsky and Auden concerning the opera.

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