W. H. Auden and Opera: Studies of the Libretto as Literary Form Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Carlson, Matthew Paul
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • From 1939 to 1973, the poet W. H. Auden devoted significant energy to writing for the musical stage, partnering with co-librettist Chester Kallman and collaborating with some of the most successful opera composers of the twentieth century, including Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, and Hans Werner Henze. This dissertation examines Auden's librettos in the context of his larger career, relating them to his other poetry and to the aesthetic, philosophical, and theological positions set forth in his prose. I argue that opera offered Auden a formal alternative to his own early attempts at spoken verse drama as well as those of his contemporaries. Furthermore, I contend that he was drawn to the role of librettist as a means of counteracting romantic notions of the inspired solitary genius and the sanctity of the written word. Through a series of chronologically ordered analyses, the dissertation shows how Auden's developing views on the unique capacities of opera as a medium are manifested in the librettos' plots. In his best-known libretto, for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Auden adopts a conspicuously intellectual approach, structuring the opera's story to reflect his theories about music's relationship to temporality and free will. By contrast, his later operatic texts deal with the dangers of privileging the intellect and suppressing instinct; in the end, he relies on the medium of opera itself, with its formal constraints and exuberant emotions, to synthesize reason and passion. Taken together, my readings of Auden's librettos address an important yet neglected facet of a major poet's career. At the same time, the dissertation challenges narrow definitions of the literary that exclude texts written for musical setting and expands critical conceptions of the possibilities for poetry in the postwar era.
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  • Lensing, George S.
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2012

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