When Igor Stravinsky met WH Auden

When Stravinsky invited Auden to come to Hollywood (from New York) in November, 1947, to work on the projected opera The Rake's Progress, Auden was, by his own admission, scared stiff. He had greatly admired the composer ever since, at age 16, he had bought Three Easy Pieces. But a week was a long time. Stravinsky might well turn out to be a tempestuous Russian prima donna. Should he, Auden, pack a dinner jacket? Kiss hands on arrival, a la russe?

On the other coast, Igor and Vera were experiencing similar qualms. Modern English poetry was not within the composer's expertise, but he had been assured (by his neighbour Aldous Huxley) that Wystan was the best and would produce a superb libretto. The question thus became not how good he was, but how tall. Would he or would he not fit on the couch in the den?

Auden arrived, and it was immediately apparent that he would not, but it was apparent also that it wouldn't matter. He consumed an enormous dinner and gulped down quantities of wine. Exactly at 10.30 he was ready for bed. The father Stravinsky, who had sons about Auden's age, brought a chair and pillows to extend the couch, and Auden retired. At eight he was up and ready - after a little coffee topped with whisky - for the day's work.

In fact, the two brilliant innovators - each with a strong work ethic - got along quite well. If the proper, dapper little composer was taken aback by his guest's careless attire and the maid's report that the soap and towels in his bath were never touched, and if the poet, accustomed to a solitary cat, was unprepared for 40 garrulous parrots and lovebirds, the two nevertheless delighted in each other's company. The Rake progressed. The scenario completed, Auden returned to New York, but correspondence flourished. Acts 1 and 2 flew westward, and by the time they met again, the following March, the composer was smothering the poet with Russian bear hugs, and Auden was referring to him and Vera affectionately as "the Stravs"

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