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See, Time is Yours!

The Rake’s Progress and the Game of Time.

by Roger Brunyate

Photographs of the Peabody production

Other writings by Roger Brunyate

The scene is an eighteenth-century London brothel. Tom Rakewell, newly rich, newly arrived from the country, has been brought here by his servant, Nick Shadow. It is the first port of call on Tom’s personal Rake’s Progress, the irreversible rite of passage between innocence and experience. Catechized by the brothel madam, Tom answers all but one of her questions with a city cynicism learned by rote from Shadow. But when asked to define love, he thinks of Anne Truelove, his sweetheart left at home, and panics. The cuckoo clock sounds the hour. “Let me go,” cries Tom, “—before it is too late.” At this, Nick holds up his hand. Magically, the cuckoo chirps twelve more times as the hands of the clock turn backwards by a full hour. Nick Shadow (who is really the devil) explains:

See, time is yours.
The hours obey your pleasure.
Fear not. Enjoy!
You may repent at leisure.

The brothel scene in Hogarth's painted series
The brothel scene as painted by Hogarth
This simple piece of stage business is but one of the many tricks that Stravinsky and his librettists play with time in The Rake’s Progress, starting with the choice of subject itself. In 1947, Stravinsky saw the series of eight paintings of the same title by William Hogarth at the Chicago Art Institute, and knew immediately that they would make a fine subject for an opera. Hogarth’s paintings, dating from 1733, were over two centuries old, but such excursions into the past — more like raids in search of booty — were nothing new for Stravinsky. Having outlived the enfant terrible reputation of his earlier years, in works such as The Rite of Spring of 1913, the composer had turned to neo-classicism, reusing melodies by Pergolesi in his Pulcinella (1920), imitating Bach in his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1938), and going head to head with Beethoven in his Symphony in C (1940). At the time of his Chicago visit, the composer was just turning 65, and had been living in America for eight years. The opera was premiered in Venice in 1951.

The brothel scene at Peabody
production photos by JAMES LIGHTNER
The brothel scene in the Peabody production
For the text, Stravinsky turned to the expatriate English poet Wystan Hugh Auden, who in turn brought in his own collaborator Chester Kallman. It was an inspired choice. As distinct from the metrical experiments of his contemporaries Eliot and Pound, Auden had always had a taste for the closed forms of earlier verse, and he adopted the Augustan style of the eighteenth century as to the manner born. Although writing in the mid-twentieth century, Auden and Kallman (whose styles are virtually impossible to tell apart) made no concessions to the modern era; their verse has the precision of Pope, whose elegance and wit they polished with the clarity of stylistic hindsight.

Stravinsky in 1961  
FRED STEIN
Stravinsky in 1961
Although the subject and text of The Rake’s Progress inhabit the eighteenth century, Stravinsky’s music spans both eras; it is like a collage of classical motifs fragmented and reassembled in the manner of our own time. Indeed Stravinsky ranged even more widely in his sources. His primary inspiration is probably Mozart, specifically the Mozart of Così fan Tutte, which he had recently seen in a collegiate performance in California. But his stylistic grab-bag is deep enough to contain Monteverdi in one direction and Donizetti and Verdi in another; the styles are deliberately not all of a piece. Furthermore, Stravinsky and his librettists conceived the opera in the old manner, as a sequence of short musical numbers linked by harpsichord-accompanied recitative. This deliberate break from the continuous musical narrative of Puccini and Strauss had the effect of taking time out of the real world and returning it entirely to the province of the composer. And it is his games with time that make the opera at once so exciting and so disturbing.

The most obvious use of time in the opera is the span of a year and a day from the first scene to last. This, of course, is the canonic period of those pacts with the devil familiar from Faust and Stravinsky’s own Soldier’s Tale of 1918. The year-and-a-day span also ties in with the cycle of the seasons, and the classical myths of death and rebirth related to them, such as Venus and Adonis or Orpheus and Euridice. Instead of attempting to tie Hogarth’s illustrations together in a literal story-line, Auden went back to older sources, creating something that is both original and rich with mythical references which give it much of its resonance and power.

  W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden
The opera opens in springtime, where Tom and his sweetheart Anne Truelove sing of their happiness under the anxious eyes of Anne’s father. Refusing a position as a clerk, Tom says he prefers to trust himself to fortune, and wishes for money. Immediately a mysterious stranger appears with the news that a long-forgotten uncle has died leaving Tom a rich man. Tom engages the messenger, Nick Shadow, as his servant, agreeing to defer the payment of wages for a year and a day, and sets off to London, promising to send for Anne once he is established.

Instead, however, Tom betrays Anne in the brothel, and quickly becomes bored by his wealth. In answer to Tom’s second wish, to be happy, Nick proposes that he proclaim himself free from normal compulsions by the arbitrary act of marrying Baba the Turk, a circus performer. Thus he once more betrays Anne, who arrives in London just too late to prevent the marriage. Baba turns out to be a loquacious bore, and Tom, seeking some validation for his life, falls in with Nick’s new scheme to market a machine for turning stones into bread. The venture fails and Tom is bankrupt. Finally, after the year and a day, Nick leads Tom to a graveyard (strong overtones of Don Giovanni) and plays cards for his soul. At the last moment, Tom is saved by the distant voice of Anne, and he successfully defies Nick, who sinks to Hell empty-handed. As a parting shot, however, Nick makes Tom insane, and when Spring returns it is to reveal him singing a children’s song and playing with a daisy-chain. He ends his days in Bedlam, where Anne brings him her forgiveness… but then departs, realizing that she can do no more for him.

The Bedlam scene in Hogarth's engraved series
The Bedlam scene in Hogarth’s engraving
So far from making the opera disjointed, the numerous short scenes in The Rake’s Progress (three acts of three scenes each) contribute greatly to the pace of the opera. For each has its particular dramatic character which is quite distinct from those on either side of it. So we move from the Mozartian pastorale of the opening to the raucous street songs of the brothel, then back to Anne’s midnight communion with the guardian moon. The second act takes two scenes in Tom’s house — life before and after Baba — and uses them to frame another nightscape, as Anne comes to London only to be frightened by the torchlight procession of strange figures accompanying Baba. The triptych in Act III is as varied as one could imagine: the rapacious vultures at the auction of Tom’s property, presided over by Sellem, the flamboyant auctioneer; the black humor of the card game accompanied only by the sinister grating of the harpsichord; and the incongruous spectacle of the madmen in Bedlam dancing gavottes and minuets in a life that is utterly without contours.

The Bedlam scene at Peabody
The Bedlam scene in the Peabody production
Much of the music is quick and lively; Stravinsky is one of the relatively few twentieth-century opera composers who can write fast music as well as slow; it is something he takes from Mozart and Donizetti. One thinks especially of the first brothel chorus, the ending cabaletta of Act I with Anne’s glorious high C, the two duets straight out of Rossini that bring down the curtain on the outer scenes of Act II, most of the auction scene, and the upbeat epilogue. Yet even more often, Stravinsky will start a number fast only to slow it down towards the end — and this slowing-down is often a great deal more moving than the helter-skelter which preceded it. This happens strikingly at the close of the opening scene. It makes as if to end with a bouncing trio, “Laughter and light,” in opera buffa style, but it grinds almost to a halt with the farewells of Anne and her father — a pregnant, heartbreaking stillness. Breaking into it, Nick Shadow comes down to the footlights and announces to the audience: “The Progress of a Rake begins!” And then the music ends with a snap.

The most remarkable thing about the score, in short, is not Stravinsky’s gift for keeping things moving along, admirable though that is, but his ability to suspend time. There is one striking instance of this a little earlier in the opening scene, just before Tom is about to leave. For a mere fifteen measures, the action seems suspended in an orchestral passage of great beauty featuring a high shake figure on the violins. What is it there for? What does it mean? It is as though the characters feel themselves touched by the finger of eternity for the first time; while they do not recognize it for what it is, they dimly realize that nothing will be the same again.

The shake figure comes back most movingly at the end of the graveyard scene, in the accompaniment to Tom’s folksong. It is as though time does not matter any more — which is what madness is. The same music returns for the climax of Anne’s duet with Tom in Bedlam, which is only possible because it is outside of time, a point made explicit in Auden’s libretto, whose perhaps-excessive verbal subtlety is made radiantly clear by the timeless nature of the music:

Rejoice, beloved, in these fields of Elysium.
Space cannot alter, nor Time our love abate.
Here has no words for Absence or Estrangement,
Nor Now a notion of Almost or Too Late.

And at the very end? Time dissolves entirely. Tom wakes to find Anne gone. He accuses the madmen of stealing her, but they call him deluded. He slips back to classical antiquity. Once more Adonis, he summons Orpheus to play “a swan-like music” at his death. The madmen do sing a mourning chorus, but it is dry, mechanical, and totally without affect. Does all this happen in the same time-frame as Anne’s visit, or in some mythic suspension of time? Does Tom even die at all? We are not given the answer, for the moment the tragedy is over, the house lights come up and the principals of the cast start taking off their wigs and costumes, addressing the audience directly in jaunty vaudeville style. There is a moral to draw — a moral which cocks a snook at all that has gone before: “For idle hands and hearts and minds, the Devil finds a work to do.” Or, as Baba warns the ladies: “That good or bad, all men are mad; all they say or do is Theatre.” It is a dash of cold water in our faces to send us home with a laugh. For in the theatre, the ultimate custodians of time are not the characters, but the librettists and composer.

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