OPERA / Finding work for idle hands to do: Bayan Northcott sketches the complex background to Stravinsky's opera, The Rake's Progress

Fate or luck? According to Stravinsky himself, it was during a chance visit to a Hogarth exhibition in Chicago on 2 May 1947 that he suddenly envisaged the eight engravings comprising The Rake's Progress as a series of operatic scenes: 'I was, however, readily susceptible to such a suggestion, for I had wanted to compose an opera in English ever since my arrival in the United States.'

At the time of that epiphany, he was just coming up to 65 and distinctly out of fashion - indeed, the notion of his decline, ever since renouncing the spectacular manner of his early Russian ballets some 25 years before, had become something of a received idea. Moreover, he had lost direct contact with his European audiences after his flight to America in 1939, and was not to return until the premiere of The Rake itself in Venice in 1951. It is understandable that he should wish at last to compose a full-scale opera, if not to recoup his reputation, at least to crown his creative development. But in English? As an enthusiast for Purcell even before he came to America, he must have realised there was precious little in subsequent English opera to build on - with the partial exception of Gilbert and Sullivan, for whom Diaghilev had had a soft spot.

What changed all that was the sudden triumph of Peter Grimes in 1945, which Stravinsky could hardly have missed, since by the end of the year he had been drawn into an association with the publishers Boosey & Hawkes, who already regarded Britten as their white-haired boy. Then, six weeks after viewing the Hogarth, Stravinsky attended a Los Angeles production of Britten's second opera, The Rape of Lucretia. This must have raised still more complex feelings, for, of all the younger composer's operas, none profits so directly from his early enthusiasm for Stravinsky's own pre-war masterpieces, the Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex. To compound matters, it seems that it was on this very occasion that Aldous Huxley suggested to Stravinsky the ideal librettist for The Rake would be W H Auden.

No doubt Stravinsky was aware, or quickly learnt, that Auden had already pursued an intense collaboration with Britten. He is unlikely to have discovered until later the extent to which that collaboration had foundered after the apparent failure of the choral operetta Paul Bunyan in 1941 - with Britten pulling away from Auden's intellectual dominance, or being pulled for more personal reasons by his newer companion, Peter Pears. But in any case, what Stravinsky sought from his librettist was, initially, something far simpler than the quite elaborately cross-cut forms and double-time scheme of a piece such as The Rape of Lucretia: merely a ballad opera- like sequence of song texts and some help in developing plot and dialogue. It was only after looking for models in the Mozart operas that he decided even to use sung recitative between numbers instead of speech. Auden, meanwhile, was happy in the prospective challenge to his stylistic and metrical virtuosity, but more worried about how the pliant protagonist of Hogarth's fragmentary narrative could be turned into a dramatic character.

When the two men actually came together in Stravinsky's Hollywood home for a week in November 1947 to rough-out a scenario, they seem to have reverted to the basic Shavian proposition that an opera is where the tenor wants to make love to the soprano but is prevented by the baritone: except that, in The Rake, it is the soprano who does most of the chasing. Hogarth's brothel and Bedlam scenes were retained, and Auden - who, in addition to being something of a musician, already knew a number of the composer's stage pieces - took care to work in typically Stravinskian preoccupations such as the gambling motif or the curious way such dramas as Renard, The Soldier's Tale and Jeu de Cartes keep stopping and returning to their starting- points.

Then, back in New York, Auden took his own young companion Chester Kallman as collaborator. In addition to his literary gifts, Kallman was a serious buff who had been largely responsible for Auden's operatic education; but his roving eye had also long since ruptured a relationship Auden had initially regarded as a kind of marriage, and the invocation of Kallman's help may also have represented an attempt to return to their starting-point.

Be that as it may, by the time Auden handed the final chunk of his impeccably neo-Augustan libretto over to Stravinsky in late March 1948, its Hogarthian morality had acquired a Christian gloss in the form of a Faustian pact with the Devil, a fairytale complement of Three Wishes (plus an uncovenanted Fourth by way of denouement), and a pagan sub-text through allusions to the myth of Venus and Adonis - all projected against a background of the ever- revolving seasons, as if to exemplify the human experience of temporality Stravinsky encapsulated in another context when he remarked: 'Time does not pass; only we pass.'

By the time he had completed the three-act score in early 1951, its neo-classical procedures had gathered in an equally wide range of allusions, all the way back to Monteverdi and forward to Donizetti, early Verdi, even - for the camp personage of Baba the Bearded Lady, whom Tom Rakewell marries by way of acte gratuit - to Broadway. But long before that, there were doubts. Britten, visiting Stravinsky in November 1949 during an American recital tour with Pears, was nonplussed when Stravinsky seemed to deny that The Rape had beaten The Rake to it in renewing the use of recitative, and evidently concluded thereafter that the Auden / Stravinsky enterprise represented a reactionary diversion from the progressive, post-Verdian direction in which he was seeking to steer opera. Auden, picking up Britten's disapproval, gleefully conveyed it to Stravinsky, who might have been more put out had he not admired the artistry of Pears, and even briefly 'borrowed' him for a recording of Oedipus Rex shortly after the premiere of The Rake. But the seeds of the strangely fruitful later tension between the two great composers - the subject of the current Aldeburgh Festival - were duly sown.

Yet Britten's provocative criticism merely anticipated the chorus of doubts that attended the opera's early progress: complaints about Stravinsky's idiosyncratic English word-setting; about Auden's and Kallman's silly jokes (such as the magic bread-machine); about the whole relevance of a neo-classical opera in the mid- 20th century. These in turn were to inspire an often brilliant critical literature, seeking to explore and justify the work's multiple significances. In surveying such writings, let alone the complex artistic and personal circumstances that attended the making of The Rake itself, it is difficult not to interpret so intricately factured a work as an emblem of art in crisis: a shoring-up of cultural ruins.

How to explain, then, that in the theatre itself, its quirks and artificialities seem to matter less and less; that more and more it comes over simply as a vital and moving whole? Partly no doubt, because, beneath its brittle surface, Stravinsky and Auden invested the central relationship between Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell with so much personal feeling: in Stravinsky's case, for his second wife, Vera; in Auden's, for the errant Kallman. But beyond this there was Stravinsky's and Auden's mutual respect - each recognising in the other, as Auden put it, 'a professional artist, concerned not for his personal glory, but solely for the thing-to-be-made'. Even in - or especially in - fragmented cultures, this is surely what still matters most.

'Rake's Progress': in rep at Glyndebourne (0273 813813) from tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London