June 30, 2018


The Moral Conservatism of Igor Stravinsky: Igor Stravinsky is endlessly touted as an arch-modernist, but The Soldier's Tale and The Rake's Progress show him to be something more important: a great twentieth-century moralist (Michael De Sapio, 6/30/18, Imaginative Conservative)

Almost three decades after The Soldier's Tale, Stravinsky returned to the theme of the downfall of a naive young man at the hands of the devil. This time the work would be not a genre-bending theater piece like Soldier, but a good old-fashioned opera. The idea came to Stravinsky in 1947 while visiting the Chicago Institute of Art, where he saw William Hogarth's series of narrative paintings, A Rake's Progress. Stravinsky thought Hogarth's eighteenth-century social satire would make a fine subject for an English-language opera.

For his librettist Stravinsky enlisted the noted British poet W.H. Auden, also then living in the United States. Auden brought aboard his friend Chester Kallman, and the two crafted a tragicomic libretto based on Hogarth's scenario, deftly blending in elements of Faust and Don Juan. Crucially, they added the devil, here named Nick Shadow, as the instigator of Tom's moral downfall. Nick entices Tom Rakewell to abandon his country sweetheart, Anne Trulove, and undertake a life of gambling and debauchery in London. Tom wins his soul back from Nick in a card game played in a cemetery at midnight (echoes of Soldier) but loses his sanity. In the madhouse, the ever faithful Anne visits him one last time before he dies, redeeming him through her love. In a bright and brisk epilogue, the cast steps before the curtain and deliver the moral: "For idle hands and hearts and minds the devil finds a work to do."

The opera's premiere--at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on September 11, 1951, conducted by Stravinsky himself--was a glittering media event. Since then, The Rake has gradually found a place in the opera repertoire, although like most of Stravinsky's work it has never become really popular. This is unfortunate, because it is in some ways a happy medium between opera and the Broadway musical, amazingly accessible (especially to English speakers) and full of rhythmic and moral energy.

Reacting against nineteenth-century romanticism and realism, Stravinsky and his librettists created a stylized morality play filled with symbol and archetype. To go with the "classical" libretto, Stravinsky wrote a score which evokes old music refracted through a twentieth-century prism. Echoes of Mozart, Handel, Purcell, and others combine with Stravinsky's playfully skewed tonality and off-kilter rhythms. As in a Mozart opera, the emotions of The Rake are expressed in formally-structured arias, and the plot is advanced through recitative, much of it accompanied by a harpsichord which adds further antique flavor.

In lieu of an overture we get a bracing E-major fanfare. The curtain opens on Tom and Anne, blissfully in love in an arbor in spring. The scene is an image of Paradise, with the two lovers as Adam and Eve. Soon, the Serpent (Nick) will appear to spoil this idyllic scene. As the opera unfolds, we realize that its structure reflects the symbolism of the cycles of nature, passing from spring to fall and winter--corresponding to Tom's moral decline and spiritual death--and ending up again in spring as Tom lies in Bedlam and is visited by Anne.

The characterization of Nick Shadow is rich in symbolism. "Old Nick" is, of course, one of the devil's traditional nicknames, and "Shadow" emphasizes his role as man's alter ego. Nick is a crafty philosophical devil, leading Tom astray through cynical arguments and sophistry. Although Nick is ostensibly employed as Tom's servant, it soon becomes clear who is serving whom and the wages (Tom's soul) that must eventually be paid.

The specific temptations Tom undergoes recall Christ's temptations in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11). Nick first encourages Tom to make a reckless, irrational choice: marrying Baba the Turk, the bearded lady at a fair, as a way to assert a spurious "freedom"--a clever variation on Satan's suggestion that Jesus throw himself from the temple as a way of testing God. Later, Nick presents Tom with a bogus machine that appears to manufacture bread out of stones, thus alleviating world hunger.

The idea of "progress" had been all but destroyed by the two World Wars, and Stravinsky and Auden too put it into question. Tom's "progress" is actually a moral regress. Giving himself up to a life of pleasure brings him only boredom and disgust. He longs for Anne again and tries to win back her love by marketing the "bread machine," but this venture fails, and Tom is left penniless. At the end he is saved not by "progress" but by the spirit of Love represented by Anne--the Divine Love which pursues sinners to the end.

We had a healthy effect on him.

Posted by at June 30, 2018 7:23 AM