To Be read before
Igor Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum (Russia) on June 17 1882. His mother, Anna, herself a singer, initiated him to music at a very early age. Rimski-Korsakov rapidly took him under his wing and introduced him to Saint-Petersburg’s musical circles. In 1908 Stravinsky composed Fireworks in the composer’s honour, but unfortunately the great musician died before the work was first performed. Diaghilev, the future manager of the Ballet Russes, who attended the performance, immediately identified Stravinsky as a future composer for his ballets. It was for him that Stravinsky composed The Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. In Paris he met Debussy, whom he greatly admired and with whom he forged a long-lasting friendship. In 1911 he composed Petrushka, a ballet that would receive even greater praise than his previous one and, in 1913, The Rite of Spring whose innovative style and modernity would cause a scandal. During the First World War he took exile in Switzerland. It was there that he wrote A Soldier’s Tale for a travelling company. In 1918 he returned to Paris. In 1922 Renard and Mavra were premiered at the Paris Opera, followed by the oratorio Œdipus Rex at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt. In 1935 he undertook a tour of the United States where he met with great success and received several commissions including one for a ballet Card Game. However disaster was to strike the family when he lost his wife, his daughter and his mother, all to tuberculosis. In 1940 he composed Dumbarton Oaks, a work for chamber orchestra, and the Symphony in C. In the United States he remarried with Vera de Bosset. In 1951 he began his move towards serial technique and dodecaphony. In 1962 he retuned to Russia on a triumphant tour. Success remained with him but his health was declining and he was to die in 1971 in New York. Stravinsky’s contribution to the musical language of his century was utterly decisive, particularly in the domains of rhythm, harmony and orchestration.
Stravinsky drew his inspiration for the work from a series of paintings by the 18th century English painter Hogarth that he saw in Chicago in 1947, and which, in a salutary manner, recount the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a young heir who, after squandering his fortune on gaming and London’s pleasures, ends his days in a psychiatric hospital. With the help of the poet Wystan Hugh Auden and Chester Kallman, he conceived the libretto, adding the character of Nick Shadow, the incarnation of the devil, thus making a link with the myth of Faust. The libretto is made up of three perfectly balanced acts of three scenes. Stravinsky intended to experiment with the prosody of the English language, in the same way that he had previously done with that of Russian, Latin and French.
From a musical point of view the work is the last to belong entirely to the composer’s so-called neo-classical period. The references here are Mozart (in particular Cosi fan tutte ) and 18th century baroque music. But other influences are also to be heard – those of Rossini and Donizetti, as well as quotations from other of Stravinsky’s works. The opera thus returns to traditional form and style, divided into a series of arias, ariosos, choruses and ensembles with recitatives for voice only or voice and orchestra. Indeed its form gave rise to much controversy and certain detractors considered it to be no more than a pastiche. In spite of this, the work has remained popular since its first performance in 1951.
The first performance
The Rake’s Progress was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in September 1951 with, among others, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the role of Anne Trulove.
The work at the Paris Opera
The Rake’s Progress was first performed at the Opéra Comique (Salle Favart) in 1953, under the title of Le Libertin. It was staged by Louis Musy, performed by Janine Micheau, Léopold Simoneau and Xavier Depraz and conducted by André Cluytens.