Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress

performed by Anne Sophie Von Otter, Ian Bostridge, Deborah York, Bryn Terfel, et al., the London Symphony Orchestra, and Monteverdi Choir under Sir John Eliot Gardiner, or below in this recording led by Kent Nagano

For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.

(cover image by Colin Armstrong)

The last opera in our series this (last) month is unique in a number of ways. Also, it’s been a long, long time since we’ve seen Stravinsky. (In fact, this is only the second time he’s appeared on the blog!)

In much of the music we’ve discussed throughout the past few weeks, the modernness of the music has exhibited itself in things like the setting of the text to music, avoidance of typical opera structure and form (arias, duets, etc.), and of course the subject matter and harmonic vocabulary, resulting in stage works that are unmistakably, unabashedly modern, even challengingly harsh at times, but carry such a heavy, important, powerful message.

Today’s work is modern in a different way, and it also wasn’t based on any preexisting piece of literature. Unlike almost all of the works we discussed, with the exception of Puccini (but even Gianni Schicchi takes from Dante’s Divine Comedy) and Erwartung, all the operas started from existing literary stories or works. Today’s piece, however, comes from paintings.

It all began with this.

The series of paintings by William Hogarth titled A Rake’s Progress dates from 1733. There are eight paintings in the collection, and they show:

… the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London, wastes all his money on luxurious living, prostitution and gambling, and as a consequence is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam).

Well then, isn’t that lovely?

Remember, at the beginning of this series, I suggested, although I forgot about the idea later, that each of these works discusses or has at its core (or perhaps just background) a vice, a fundamental human flaw, which I suppose could be said of much literature from anytime in history, but we have a smattering of tragedies and dark themes here. Stravinsky’s work is no different.

The first painting in the series, like a storyboard, shows that “Tom has come into his fortune on the death of his miserly father. While the servants mourn, he is measured for new clothes,” and that (spoiler alert) by the end, he is “insane and violent.” How exciting.

Stravinsky saw the paintings in an exhibition in Chicago on May 2, 1947, and they apparently so deeply impressed him that the seed of the idea for the work was implanted. The libretto was written by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman (one of those names you know much more than the other, probably, but they knew each other quite well, to say the least), and the work was premiered in Venice on September 11, 1951, being premiered in America a year and a half later, in February of 1953.

The Story

Watching this opera, it’s amazing to think what Stravinsky drew from. The majority of the operas we’ve discussed are based on works of others, like those from Berg and Shostakovich, Debussy, Bartók, either stage works or even timeless fairy tales, like that of Bluebeard. There are only a few that were truly original, Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and the second installment of Puccini’s Il Trittico, entitled Suor Angelica. All the others drew from preexisting stories or works. Granted, Stravinsky did, too, but his was simply a series of paintings, which apparently acted as a storyboard for his work.

We’ll discuss the words momentarily, but the story, overall, is convincing as a stage work not just because of its eloquence in text, but because of the dramatic elements it portrays. There’s foreshadowing, irony, a character’s tragic flaw and ultimate downfall, a very real conflict between good and evil, and all of this forces us to ask ourselves questions and ponder the decisions and their outcomes that we vicariously experience. Again, we’ll discuss it a bit later, but on paper, this work could easily be very dark and gloomy. There’s plenty of room for infusing sorrow and corruption and heartbreak and tragedy and evil into this piece, but that’s not really what happens.

I won’t discuss it in too much detail, but Tom Rakewell, a poor country boy is visited by one Nick Shadow and informed that a distant relative of his has died and he must travel to London to collect his inheritance. The once meager farm boy leaves the object of his affections, one Anne Trulove, to go to London to settle the estate. He is clearly very excited by this news and rushes off. Even by the end of Act I, Anne laments that she hasn’t heard from her would-be husband.

Act I serves as the setup for all the action to take place, development of character, and putting all the pieces in position. Act II is when things become real, and is the shortest of the three in the opera. Rakewell is in London, face-to-face with an entirely new world of decadence and temptation, and quickly becomes a man that his Anne would hardly recognize, although she does, and it’s awkward. He sends her away and instead, as if to spite true love and all logic, marries Baba the Turk, a famous bearded lady.

Act III is the longest of the three, nearly half the performance time of the opera, and it is where Rakewell reaps what he sowed. The act is sort of in two sections, separated by the Prelude of scene 2. It’s not a halfway point, but what comes before the prelude is Rakewell’s attempt and realization of what he has become, and the final 40 minutes that remain in the piece are his ultimate downfall, but also potential salvation.

The Words

The English text is superb. Reading Auden’s text, one could be excused for forgetting it is entirely original, that it did not come from some centuries old, highly-regarded work of fiction, a successful stage play or masterpiece of some kind. But this also shouldn’t surprise us, I guess. He was a poet, and this may have been a dream project for him, collaborating with another great artist of his era to create something like this.

Stravinsky’s application of that text is also very effective. We’ll talk about the music shortly, but there’s an underlying power to the way words are sung, what’s emphasized, how things are phrased. For me personally, it unfolds in ways I wouldn’t expect, so there’s a lot of what might be called verbal syncopation, where a syllable is delivered or a word begins or ends when you wouldn’t expect it to. There’s not an ounce of modernity to Auden’s text, no vulgarity, nothing outside the most pristine, literate, expressive, polished English, a really beautiful libretto, but it comes to life with Stravinsky’s setting of it.

The Music

It’s Stravinsky.

But it’s not the Stravinsky of The Firebird or The Rite of Spring. Unfortunately, that’s the only Stravinsky most people know, and while they did mark the illustrious beginning of his career, that’s not what he continued to do for the rest of it.

There’s a neoclassical feel to the work, but not as complete as, say, Prokofiev’s first symphony. Throughout the work, we are reminded of the composer’s more modern style, with rhythms and color and texture that mark it as a truly modern work. It is an entirely different modernity, though, from Wozzeck or The Nose, not atonal or cacophonous. It sounds at times of Copland’s ‘American’-esque rhythmic excitement, but alternatively in passages perfectly like a Mozartian aria.

For lack of a more professional term, I’d describe some of it as ‘quirky.’ As I said above, the text doesn’t lay the way you think it would in many cases, so there isn’t always this perfectly mellifluous never-ending line of beautiful melody. In fact, at times, like in the beginning of the second act, it borders on oompa-loompa like sentiments from Willy Wonka, although different stage design and direction could change that, I suppose.

Overall, though, it’s a very interesting work, although not one I find as compelling or moving as, say, Wozzeck or Pelléas et Mélisande. Interestingly, this work’s modernness, as I said above, is entirely different from those pieces, as this composition does contain some of those more classical elements, like show-stopping arias, really beautiful, from people like Anne, Rakewell, and even Baba the Turk. It’s really enjoyable to be able to have an English-language opera such as this, not to say it’s the only one. Works from Britten come to mind, but it was the one I chose.

The Thoughts


You may repent at leisure. – Nick Shadow

I have so many notes I scribbled down as I watched this opera (this version, with the outstanding Hadley and Upshaw from the Salzburg Festival, even if the stage design is… disappointing at best). Quotes from different acts like the following:

Act I

  • “I knew that surely my wish would come true.” (Rakewell)
  • “Be well advised.” (Trulove, the father)
  • “Be always near.” (Anne Trulove)
  • “The progress of a rake begins.” (Nick Shadow)
  • “You may repent at leisure.” (Nick Shadow)
  • “Can love not keep a maytime vow in cities?” (Anne Trulove)

Act II

  • “Is it for this I left the country?” (Rakewell)
  • “I wish I were happy.” (Rakewell, after which Nick Shadow instantly appears)
  • “For he alone is free who choses what to will.” (Nick Shadow)
  • “My tale shall be told by both young and old.” (Rakewell)


  • “… a game of chance to finally decide your fate…” (Shadow, who has revealed himself as the devil)

Well, I guess I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but it does get one to thinking, “When was the point when Rakewell actually changed?” Or did he ever? What was his fatal flaw, his demise? Different people may offer different answers to those questions, and how this fascinating story is interpreted may well say something about the viewer, but all of that literary analysis and pondering aside, after the very moving “Mourn for Adonis” scene, the characters break the fourth wall with a timely warning for the viewers, as if all of this was indeed merely just a lesson rather a true unfolding story, and it is the quote that opens this article with which this opera ends:

For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.

And it is with that that our opera series ends, a full (more than a) month of big, challenging works that I had to work really hard to try to say something about, but in the end, as usual, I enjoyed it. The thought did cross my mind that July might be the annual opera month every year, but I’m still chewing on that idea. What follows this month of enormous pieces with enormous articles about them is something much smaller but no less moving, so thank you very much for reading and do stay tuned!


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