In the UK, February is LGBTQ History month. A timely reminder of this, together with the poet W.H Auden’s roots here in the West Midlands led to the idea for this post.
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In a fascinating article about Auden and music on the British Library website, Valentine Cunningham starts his essay in this fashion:
Poetry and music have always gone together. And of all the great modern poets who have kept alive the ancient alliance between poetry and singing, there’s no one to beat W H Auden. Auden sang without stop.
No surprise, then, that Auden’s poetic career should be one long effort to get his writing as close as could be to the condition of music. He poured out songs, ballads and lullabies. He collaborated with composers.
In the wider world, Auden is probably best known for Funeral Blues (‘Stop all the clocks’), and Night Mail.
The latter was written for a short documentary film in 1936. It is an excellent example of Auden as wordsmith, employing rhythm and rhyme to great aural effect. The music for the film was composed by Benjamin Britten. It was only one of many times in the 1930s when the two men worked together.
In case you’ve forgotten, here’s the opening lines:
This is the Night Mail crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner, the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Cabaret Songs (music: Britten)
For a gay man, the Weimar Republic’s Berlin must have been attractive. For a period in the late 1920s, Berlin was the city where non-conforming individuals could live their lives with a degree of openness. After finishing university, Auden visited for a period in 1928-29. One of the aspects he enjoyed was the cabaret. Well into the following decade, Auden wrote verses influenced by what he experienced in Berlin.
Some of these were set by Britten. Auden’s wit, bitter-sweet observations, and powerful truth-telling were matched by Britten’s musicianship.
Here’s one of the songs: O tell me the truth about love.
Paul Bunyan (music: Britten)
In the 1940s, both Auden and Britten lived in the US – Auden took up American citizenship in 1946. One of their first collaborations was a reworking of a North American lumberjack folk tale. Paul Bunyan is a short opera designed for performance by semi-professional groups. It got such a poor reception on its first outing that Britten withdrew the piece. After some revision in the 1970s, it’s become part of the operatic repertoire. The music is folksy and blues-inspired, making it quite different from many operatic scores.
Here’s a part of a scene:
A Rake’s Progress (collaboration with Chester Kallman; music: Stravinsky)
Another opera, this time with music by Igor Stravinsky. Auden and American poet, Chester Kallman, maintained a life-long relationship, living for many years in the same house. They often worked together on opera libretti, producing this one, and others for the German composer, Hans Werner Henze.
A Rake’s Progress is based loosely on the early eighteenth century series of paintings (or engravings) by William Hogarth. The story follows Tom Rakewell on his descent through life to the gutter and death. If you’re familiar with the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring or Petrushka, this is something different. Composed in the early 1950s, A Rake’s Progress is a late example of the composer’s neo-classical style.
Here’s the aria ‘No word from Tom’ sung by Julia Bullock.
Lullaby (music: Henze)
Let’s close by looking at another of Auden’s poems. Again I’m indebted to the British Library, and Roz Kaveney for an informative article. Auden wrote Lullaby in 1937.
Here’s the opening stanza:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
This is no lullaby of a mother with a child in her arms. It is something much more erotic – there’s love indeed, but of a different sort. While not explicitly referencing Auden’s relationships with other men, the theme is there. As Kaveney puts it:
This is the lullaby of the poet to a younger lover – not specifically stated to be a casual male pickup; the lover is sleeping and the poet is awake and adopting – in non-biological ways – a nurturing role. Auden once stated about his pickups: ‘With boys I understand what a parent feels.’
As a song text, it has been set by Lennox Berkeley and Henze. Here’s a performance of Henze’s setting.