The Rake’s Progress

The Rake’s Progress was Igor Stravinsky’s only full-length opera, although he had composed shorter operatic works in the past such as the one-act comic opera Mavra (1921–22), and quasi-operatic works, such as the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex (1926–27) and the melodrama Perséphone (1933–34).

The Rake’s Progress was composed between 1947 and 1951 to an English libretto by the poets W H Auden (1907–73) and Chester Kallman (1921–75). Auden was also a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and wrote the libretto for his operetta Paul Bunyan and texts for works such as Night Mail.

The opera was inspired by a series of eight eighteenth-century paintings by William Hogarth (1697–1764) entitled A Rake’s Progress, dating from 1732–33 which were also engraved in 1734. The paintings are housed today at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, but Stravinsky saw them at a Hogarth exhibition that he visited at the Chicago Art Institute in May 1947.

The paintings were entitled ‘The Heir’, ‘The Levée’, ‘The Orgy’, ‘The Arrest’, ‘The Marriage’, ‘The Gaming House’, ‘The Prison’ and ‘The Madhouse’. They depict the rise and decline of a young man called Tom Rakewell who inherits his father’s fortune but subsequently, following his rise in society, leads an immoral and destructive life that ends with his removal to the ‘Bedlam’ asylum in London.

In Stravinsky’s opera the plot is slightly changed with Tom Rakewell’s immoral behaviour being the influence of a villain, Nick Shadow. The main characters in Stravinsky’s opera, apart from Tom and Nick, are Tom’s fiancée Anne Trulove, Baba the Turk, a bearded Lady whom Tom ends up marrying for her money, Anne’s father, Mother Goose, a whore, Sellem, an auctioneer, and the keeper of the asylum.

The Rake’s Progress was inspired by Mozart’s operas and forms part of Stravinsky’s output of neoclassical works. The opera was premiered in Venice at the Teatro la Fenice on 11 September 1951.

Igor Stravinsky

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Article by:
Stephen Walsh
Music and modernism, Music and words, Music for stage and screen, Musical style

Stephen Walsh discusses Neoclassicism as a concept focussing on the music of Stravinsky who extensively used this compositional ‘attitude’ in his music, becoming the most famous Neoclassicist in 20th-century music history.