Monday, August 1, 2005

W.H. Auden as Muse / Phillip George

[W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten]

W[ystan] H[ugh] Auden (February 21, 1907, York, England - September, 29 1973) grew up in Birmingham in a professional middle-class family.

His first boarding school was St. Edmund's School (Hindhead), Surrey, where he met Christopher Isherwood (two and a half years older than Auden). At 13, he went to Gresham's School in Norfolk, where, in 1922, his friend Robert Medley first suggested that he might write poetry.

Soon after, he "discover[ed] that he ha[d] lost his faith" (through a gradual realization that he had lost interest in religion, not through any decisive change of views).

He played Caliban in a school production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest in 1922, and his first published poems appeared in the school magazine the next year.

In 1925 he went to Christ Church, Oxford, with a scholarship in biology, but he switched to English by his second year. Friends he met at Oxford included Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender; these four were commonly though misleadingly identified in the 1930's as the "Auden Group" for their shared (but not identical) left-wing views. Auden left Oxford in 1928 with a third-class degree.

He was reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood in 1925; for the next few years Isherwood was his literary mentor to whom he sent poems for comments and criticism. Auden probably fell in love with Isherwood (who was unaware of the intensity of Auden's feelings) and in the 1930s they maintained a sexual friendship in intervals between their relations with others. In 1935-39 they collaborated on three plays and a travel book.[

From his Oxford years onward, his friends uniformly described him as funny, extravagant, sympathetic, generous, and, partly by his own choice, lonely. In groups he was often dogmatic and overbearing in a comic way; in more private settings he was diffident and shy except when certain of his welcome. He was punctual in his habits, and obsessive about meeting deadlines, while choosing to live amidst physical disorder

From 1935 until he left Britain for the United States early in 1939, Auden worked as freelance reviewer, essayist, and lecturer, first with the G.P.O. Film Unit, a documentary film-making branch of the post office, headed by John Grierson. Through his work for the Film Unit in 1935 he met and collaborated with Benjamin Britten, with whom he also worked on plays and song cycles (On This Island, 1936).


Recordings of Britten's collaborations with Auden during this period include:

Benjamin Britten. Hymn to St. Cecilia, Spring Symphony, etc. Monteverdi Choir, John Eliot Gardiner. 1997. Deutsche Grammophon.

Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley. Auden Songs. Della Jones, Philip Langridge, 1998, reissued 2003.


Auden and Isherwood sailed to New York in January 1939, entering on temporary visas. Their departure from Britain was later seen by many there as a betrayal and Auden's reputation suffered.

In April 1939 Isherwood moved to California, and he and Auden saw each other only intermittently in later years. Around this time, Auden met 18-year old poet Chester Kallman, who became his lover for the next two years (Auden described their relation as a "marriage" that began with a cross-country "honeymoon" journey).

In 1941 Kallman ended their sexual relations because he could not accept Auden's insistence on a mutual faithful relationship, but he and Auden remained companions for the rest of Auden's life, sharing houses and apartments from 1953 until Auden's death. Auden dedicated both editions of his collected poetry (1945/50 and 1966) to Isherwood and Kallman.

In 1940, he joined the Episcopal Church, returning to the Anglican Communion he had abandoned at thirteen. His reconversion was influenced partly by what he called the "sainthood" of Charles Williams, whom he had met in 1937, partly by reading Søren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr; his existential, this-worldly Christianity became a central element in his life.

In 1940-41, Auden lived in a house in Brooklyn Heights which he shared with Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, and others, and which became a famous center of artistic life.


Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan (1941) is a "choral operetta," with book and lyrics by W. H. Auden.

Britten and Auden had moved to the United States to escape the war in Europe; this operetta is something of a capsule summary of the history of their new home. It begins with a chorus of trees and geese and progresses to the arrival of lumberjacks organized by Paul Bunyan. By the second act, some of the lumberjacks have become farmers and by the end of the show, they are all members of industrial society.

The plot draws upon Auden's knowledge of the Eddas and begins with a creation story that uses the same idea of a giant being awakened by a primordial cow. Although Auden's tone is tongue-in-cheek, he seems to have intended the libretto to fill a gap in the American national consciousness and provide a national epic for them. The lukewarm reception that the work received may well have been due to the presumption of an Englishman writing the "missing" American national epic. The plot also places the hero into a broken marriage and has him preside over the systematic destruction of natural resources for profit. These were also potentially uncomfortable themes to place before an American audience at the time.

The music is based on a wide variety of American styles, including folk songs, blues and hymns.

It premiered at Columbia University in 1941 to largely negative reviews. Britten revised the operetta in 1976, removing two numbers (Inkslinger's Love Song and Lullaby of Dream Shadows) and composing a new finale for Act I. This is the version performed today, although a 1988 recording also includes the two deleted numbers.

A recent version -- conducted by Richard Hickox, with Peter Coleman-Wright, Susan Gritton, Kenneth Cranham, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra -- was recorded in 1999 on Chandos.


In 1941-42 he taught English at the University of Michigan. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942, but did not use it, choosing instead to teach at Swarthmore College in 1942-45.

From 1942 through 1947 he worked mostly on three long poems in dramatic form, each differing from the others in form and content: For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (both published in For the Time Being, 1944), and The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (published separately 1947).


The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947; first UK edition, 1948) is a long poem in six parts, written mostly in a modern version of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse.

The poem deals, in eclogue form, with man's quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world. Set in a wartime bar in New York City, Auden uses four characters – Quant, Malin, Rosetta, and Emble – to explore and develop his themes.

The poem won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948. It inspired Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2 ("The Age of Anxiety") for Piano and Orchestra, and a 1950 ballet by Jerome Robbins based on the symphony.


In the summer of 1945, after the end of World War II in Europe, Auden was in Germany with the U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey, studying the effects of Allied bombing on German morale, an experience that affected his postwar work as a visit to Spain had affected him earlier.

On his return, he settled in Manhattan, working as a freelance writer and as a visiting professor at Bennington, Smith, and other American colleges. In 1946 he became a naturalized citizen of the US.

Auden's poems in the 40's explored religious and ethical themes in syncretist manner. In 1949 Auden and Kallman wrote the libretto for Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.


Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, in three acts and an epilogue, to a libretto written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, is based loosely on the eight paintings and engravings of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1733–1735), which Stravinsky had seen on May 2, 1947, in a Chicago exhibition.

It was first performed in Venice on September 11, 1951, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf premiering the role of Anne Trulove and Robert Rounseville as Tom Rakewell. In 1957, it was a part of the first season of the Santa Fe Opera under the direction of John Crosby, who persuaded the composer to attend rehearsals. For the 1975 Glyndebourne Festival Opera production, sets and costumes were designed by David Hockney.

Recordings include:

Conducted by Igor Stravinsky, with Don Garrard, Jane Manning, Judith Raskin, Sadler's Wells Opera Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Sony, 1964.

Conducted by Robert Craft, with John Cheek, John Garrison, et al., Gregg Smith Singers, Orchestra of St. Luke's. BMG/Musicmasters, 1994.

Conducted by Kent Nagano, with Grace Bumbry, Jerry Hadley, et al., Lyon Opera Chorus, Lyon Opera Orchestra. Erato, 1996.

Conducted by Seiji Ozawa, with Donald Adams, Ian Bostridge, Sylvia McNair, et al., Tokyo Opera Singers, Saito Kinen Orchestra. Philips, 1997.

Conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, with Bryn Terfel, Ian Bostridge, Deborah York, et al., Monteverdi Choir, London Symphony Orchestra. Deutsche Grammophon, 1999.


In the 1950's and 60's many of Auden's poems focused on the ways in which words revealed and concealed emotions. During this same period, he also worked with the New York Pro Musica early music group, and wrote two libretti for Hans Werner Henze and one for Nicolas Nabokov.


Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs is a cycle of ten songs for voice and piano.

Written in 1953 on a grant from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, it takes as its basis a collection of anonymous poems written by Irish monks and scholars from the 8th to the 13th centuries, in translations by W. H. Auden, Chester Kallman, Howard Mumford Jones, Kenneth Jackson and Sean O'Faolain. The Hermit Songs received their premiere in 1953 at the Library of Congress, with soprano Leontyne Price and Barber himself as accompanist.

The ten songs of the cycle and the respective translators of each poem are as follows:

"At St Patrick’s Purgatory" (Seán Ó Faoláin)

"Church Bell at Night" (Howard Mumford Jones)

"St Ita’s Vision" (Chester Kallman)

"The Heavenly Banquet" (Seán Ó Faoláin)

"The Crucifixion" (Howard Mumford Jones)

"Sea Snatch" (Kenneth Jackson)

"Promiscuity" (Kenneth Jackson)

"The Monk and his Cat" (W.H. Auden)

"The Praises of God" (W.H. Auden)

"The Desire for Hermitage" (Seán Ó Faoláin)


Lennox Berkeley's Five Poems by W. H. Auden, op.58, dates from c. 1960.


Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers (Elegie für junge Liebende) is an opera in three acts to an English libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

The opera was first performed in a German translation by Ludwig Prinz von Hessen at the Schwetzingen Festival on May 20, 1961, conducted by Heinrich Bender. The first performance using the original English text was in Glyndebourne, also in 1961. The Juilliard Opera Theater produced the opera in New York City in 1965, with the composer conducting.

Henze revised the opera in the 1980's, and this revised version received its first performance on October 28, 1988 at the La Fenice Theatre, Venice, with Markus Stenz conducting.

According to Ann Saddlemyer in her book Becoming George, the poet is partially based on W. B. Yeats, and his wife "George" (Georgie Hyde-Lees) was the inspiration for both the secretary and the woman with visions. The librettist Auden was a friend of Ezra Pound, who in turn was a friend of Yeats. David Anderson has noted that the poet also portrays Auden as well.

Robert Henderson has summarized the thesis of the opera as follows:

"Elegy for Young a bitter indictment of the Romantic notion of the artist as hero, feeding remorselessly on those around him both in the name of art and to satisfy his own monstrous and inhumanely egotistical appetites."

Auden and Kallman described this opera as their equivalent of Richard Strauss's Arabella.

The dedication of the opera is to the memory of Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Henze quoted material from the aria My own, my own in his Symphony No. 5, completed in 1962.

A recording of excerpts from the opera (in German) -- conducted by Hans Werner Henze, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Loren Driscoll, Liane Dubin, featuring members of the Radio-Symphony-Orchestra Berlin and the Deutsche Oper Orchestra Berlin -- is available from Deutsche Grammophon (1964).


Auden was commissioned in 1963 to write lyrics for Mitch Leigh's Man of La Mancha, but the producer rejected them as insufficiently romantic.

Auden acknowledged in 1964: "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had."


Hans Werner Henze's The Bassarids (Die Bassariden) is an opera in one act and an intermezzo, to an English libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, after Euripides's The Bacchae. It was first performed in a German translation by Maria Basse-Sporleder in Salzburg on August 6, 1966. Christoph von Dohnányi was the conductor, and the original cast included:

Kerstin Meyer (Agave)
Loren Driscoll (Dionysus)
Kostas Paskalis (Pentheus)

The first performance using the original English text, as well as the US premiere, was at Santa Fe Opera on August 7, 1968, with the composer conducting.

The opera was also given in London on September 22, 1968, and was revived at English National Opera in October 1974, with the composer conducting.

A noteworthy feature of the opera is its construction like a classical symphony in four movements:

I. Sonata

II. Scherzo

III. Adagio and Fugue

IV. Passacaglia

Henze has noted that he quotes from Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion and the English Suite in D Minor.

Auden and Kallman wrote of changes that they made to the Euripides original for the purposes of this opera.

The conflict in the opera is between human rationality and emotional control, represented by the King of Thebes, Pentheus, and unbridled human passion, represented by the god Dionysus.

At least three recordings are available:

Gerd Albrecht, conductor; Kenneth Riegel, Andreas Schmidt, Michael Burt, Robert Tear, Karan Armstrong, Ortrun Wenkel, William B. Murray, Celina Lindsey; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; 1986, Koch Schwann International.

Gerd Albrecht, conductor; Karen Armstrong, Kenneth Riegel, et al., Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. 1992. Koch Schwann.

Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor; Loren Driscoll, Kostas Paskalis, Peter Lagger, Helmut Melchert, William Dooley, Kerstin Meyer, Ingeborg Hallstein, Vera Little; Choir of the Vienna State Opera; Vienna Philharmonic; 2003, ORFEOInternational.


During Auden's last years, his conversation became repetitive, to the disappointment of friends who had known him earlier as a witty and wide-ranging conversationalist.

In 1972, he moved his winter home from New York to Oxford, where his old college, Christ Church, offered him a cottage, but he continued to summer in Austria. He died in Vienna in 1973 and was buried in Kirchstetten.


Nicolas Nabokov's Love's Labour's Lost, with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, was based on Shakespeare's play, and first performed in 1973.


Auden’s stature in modern literature has been disputed, with opinions ranging from that of Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him "a complete wash-out," to the obituarist in the Times of London, who wrote: "W. H. Auden, for long the enfant terrible of English poetry . . . emerges as its undisputed master."


Later settings of Auden include:

Ned Rorem. Poems of Love and the Rain, for voice and piano (1962-63), including Stop All the Clocks.

Russell Smith. Epitaph on a Tyrant.

Lisa de Spain. Their Lonely Betters. We're Late.

Joyce Suskind. The More Loving One.

Don Hagar. Leap Before You Look.

Binnette Lipper. As I Walked Out One Evening.

Don Stratton. Musee des Beaux Arts.

Beth Anderson. Lullaby.

John Lessard. Song for St. Cecila's Day, including I Cannot Grow.

All of the above later settings may be found on:

The Truth About Love: Music and the Poetry of W.H. Auden. Capstone.