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Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress"

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky

Love, madness, and dealings with the devil: it's the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress!

Igor Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress

Anne Trulove: Jayne West
Tom Rakewell: Jon Garrison
Father Trulove: Arthur Woodley
Nick Shadow: John Cheek
Mother Goose: Shirley Love
Baba the Turk: Wendy White
Sellem: Melvin Lowery
Keeper: Jeffrey Johnson

Orchestra and Chorus of St. Luke's
Robert Craft, conductor

Read a synopsis of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

Read the libretto to the opera.

One of the things I love most about opera is how many art forms have to come together to make it happen. It's not just well-written music and powerful singing. A typical opera also relies on literature, poetry, dance, theater, visual art, and history to tell its story.

Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is a perfect example of this kind of artistic collage. The story is taken from a set of eight 18th-century paintings by English artist William Hogarth, which depict the rise and fall of a merchant and heir, Tom Rakewell. The words were written by Stravinsky's contemporary, English poet W.H. Auden. Stravinsky's music is neo-classical, and therefore both modern and reflective of the minds who came before him. On one hand, he revisits the musical harmonies of the late 18th century, and follows the convention of that time of using Greek mythology as story material. On the other, his music is distinctly 20th century (see below), and the allusions to older operatic traditions are purposefully ironic.

Image of William Hogarth's painting 'The Heir' the first of eight paintings by English painter William Hogarth depicting the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, on which Stravinsky based 'The Rake's Progress'.
Credit Wikimedia Commons
"The Heir", the first of eight paintings by English painter William Hogarth depicting the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, on which Stravinsky based 'The Rake's Progress'.

Stravinksy’s opera and William Hogarth's engravings tell generally the same story. Tom Rakewell is a merchant's son who finds out he has inherited a vast sum of money from an uncle in London. He sets off for the big city, leaving behind his beloved Anne Trulove, with a promise to send for her when he is settled. But London and money change Tom, and he never does send for Anne. Instead, his life degenerates into reckless spending, nights in brothels, and general debauchery. His debts accumulate, and Tom eventually finds himself in debtors' prison, and ultimately in Bedlam Hospital for the insane.

What separates the paintings from the opera is the devil. Where Hogarth's paintings warn of human frailty in the face of sudden wealth, Stravinsky's opera depicts Tom as a character who is on the whole good, but who is led astray by the devil.

Either way, in the end, there is somewhat of a happy ending: Tom may be locked up in Bedlam, but Anne Trulove, as her name suggests, returns to Tom's side to care for him.

See the complete set of William Hogarth paintings.


Stravinsky played with a variety of styles in his career. The Rake's Progress marked the end of his use of neo-classicism, which takes as its model the styling of the late 18th century, or the "Classical" period (think Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven). 

Take a listen to Tom Rakewell's aria "Here I Stand", from a rehearsal of the Pittsburgh Opera's 2016 performance of The Rake's Progress.