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The Moral Conservatism of Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was certainly the greatest composer of the twentieth century, yet most listeners never go beyond his “Russian” period as represented by the meteoric early ballets The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. To get the full measure of Stravinsky, we must follow him after he left his native country on the eve of the Communist Revolution. Settled in Europe, Stravinsky turned away from Russian folklore as a source of inspiration in favor of the “classics” of Western culture—as is clear from such composition titles as Oedipus Rex, Apollo, Perséphone, Orpheus, and Agon. His reconversion to the Russian Orthodox faith in the late 1920s brought Christianity into the mix of influences and produced Symphony of Psalms and a Mass.

Stravinsky eventually settled in the unlikely milieu of Hollywood, California. During his American years few people knew him better than the conductor Robert Craft, who in the late 1940s became his secretary and chronicler. From Craft’s memoirs we learn of Stravinsky’s daily life in America, including that he regularly went to the movies (or “cinema,” as he always called it) and “preferred cowboy and gangster films, good and bad guys clearly delineated.”

Although he had become a good cosmopolitan, Stravinsky never forsook his Russian roots and an earthy peasant sense of good and evil. In an era when the devil (along with other religious concepts) was being widely reduced to a symbolic abstraction, he insisted that he believed in “the Person of the Lord and the Person of the Devil” and put the latter on stage in two of his most important musical-dramatic works, The Soldier’s Tale and The Rake’s Progress. These pieces remind a secularized world that the battle between man and the Evil One remains the human drama.


L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), a “theatrical work to be read, played, and danced,” was created in 1918. The years after World War I were lean ones, and Stravinsky wanted to create a low-budget theater piece that a troupe of performers could bring on tour to various towns and villages. The libretto, adapted by C.F. Ramuz from a Russian folk tale, tells the story of the soldier Joseph, who, while on leave, trades his violin to the devil in exchange for a book which predicts the future economy. Stravinsky’s music is scored for a bare-bones ensemble of seven instruments that evokes the raucous sounds of a village band. With rhyming narration, pantomime, and ballet, the work often resembles improvised street theater—an impression sustained by Stravinsky’s use of such popular genres as march, tango, waltz, and ragtime.

The moral content of Soldier centers on the bargain Joseph makes with the devil. Joseph’s fiddle symbolizes his soul. The “way of the fiddle”—the life of poetry, art and faith—is contrasted with the “way of the book”—the life of rationalism and commerce. Joseph obtains great wealth but remains enslaved to the devil’s whims. Upon losing all his money to the devil in a card game, he finally becomes free. Joseph marries a princess and seems destined for happiness at last—but he makes a fatal error by returning to the scene of his original encounter with the devil. The latter is there waiting and reclaims Joseph’s soul for good. The narrator draws the moral:

“You must not seek to add to what you have, what you once had…. No one
can have it all; that is forbidden. You must learn to choose between.
One happy thing is every happy thing. Two is as they’d never been.”

The importance of choosing the good and abiding in it, of not overstepping one’s boundaries, of gratitude, is a timeless message. Alas, it is too late for the soldier. Stravinsky ends the cautionary tale with music (“Devil’s Dance”) that flails about in hopeless desperation until the final drum beat puts a grim cap on the proceedings.

The Soldier’s Tale is a sardonic delight and one of Stravinsky’s most popular pieces, but it is most often heard as a concert suite rather than as originally conceived: a hybrid of action, spoken word and music. Only by experiencing the work whole can we get its full moral punch.


Almost three decades after The Soldier’s Tale, Stravinsky returned to the theme of the downfall of a naive young man at the hands of the devil. This time the work would be not a genre-bending theater piece like Soldier, but a good old-fashioned opera. The idea came to Stravinsky in 1947 while visiting the Chicago Institute of Art, where he saw William Hogarth’s series of narrative paintings, A Rake’s Progress. Stravinsky thought Hogarth’s eighteenth-century social satire would make a fine subject for an English-language opera.

For his librettist Stravinsky enlisted the noted British poet W.H. Auden, also then living in the United States. Auden brought aboard his friend Chester Kallman, and the two crafted a tragicomic libretto based on Hogarth’s scenario, deftly blending in elements of Faust and Don Juan. Crucially, they added the devil, here named Nick Shadow, as the instigator of Tom’s moral downfall. Nick entices Tom Rakewell to abandon his country sweetheart, Anne Trulove, and undertake a life of gambling and debauchery in London. Tom wins his soul back from Nick in a card game played in a cemetery at midnight (echoes of Soldier) but loses his sanity. In the madhouse, the ever faithful Anne visits him one last time before he dies, redeeming him through her love. In a bright and brisk epilogue, the cast steps before the curtain and deliver the moral: “For idle hands and hearts and minds the devil finds a work to do.”

The opera’s premiere—at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on September 11, 1951, conducted by Stravinsky himself—was a glittering media event. Since then, The Rake has gradually found a place in the opera repertoire, although like most of Stravinsky’s work it has never become really popular. This is unfortunate, because it is in some ways a happy medium between opera and the Broadway musical, amazingly accessible (especially to English speakers) and full of rhythmic and moral energy.

Reacting against nineteenth-century romanticism and realism, Stravinsky and his librettists created a stylized morality play filled with symbol and archetype. To go with the “classical” libretto, Stravinsky wrote a score which evokes old music refracted through a twentieth-century prism. Echoes of Mozart, Handel, Purcell, and others combine with Stravinsky’s playfully skewed tonality and off-kilter rhythms. As in a Mozart opera, the emotions of The Rake are expressed in formally-structured arias, and the plot is advanced through recitative, much of it accompanied by a harpsichord which adds further antique flavor.

In lieu of an overture we get a bracing E-major fanfare. The curtain opens on Tom and Anne, blissfully in love in an arbor in spring. The scene is an image of Paradise, with the two lovers as Adam and Eve. Soon, the Serpent (Nick) will appear to spoil this idyllic scene. As the opera unfolds, we realize that its structure reflects the symbolism of the cycles of nature, passing from spring to fall and winter—corresponding to Tom’s moral decline and spiritual death—and ending up again in spring as Tom lies in Bedlam and is visited by Anne.

The characterization of Nick Shadow is rich in symbolism. “Old Nick” is, of course, one of the devil’s traditional nicknames, and “Shadow” emphasizes his role as man’s alter ego. Nick is a crafty philosophical devil, leading Tom astray through cynical arguments and sophistry. Although Nick is ostensibly employed as Tom’s servant, it soon becomes clear who is serving whom and the wages (Tom’s soul) that must eventually be paid.

The specific temptations Tom undergoes recall Christ’s temptations in the desert (Mt. 4:1-11). Nick first encourages Tom to make a reckless, irrational choice: marrying Baba the Turk, the bearded lady at a fair, as a way to assert a spurious “freedom”—a clever variation on Satan’s suggestion that Jesus throw himself from the temple as a way of testing God. Later, Nick presents Tom with a bogus machine that appears to manufacture bread out of stones, thus alleviating world hunger.

The idea of “progress” had been all but destroyed by the two World Wars, and Stravinsky and Auden too put it into question. Tom’s “progress” is actually a moral regress. Giving himself up to a life of pleasure brings him only boredom and disgust. He longs for Anne again and tries to win back her love by marketing the “bread machine,” but this venture fails, and Tom is left penniless. At the end he is saved not by “progress” but by the spirit of Love represented by Anne—the Divine Love which pursues sinners to the end.

Despite its weighty message, the opera is gloriously light, thanks to the spirit of play that informs Stravinsky’s music. Robert Craft once dubbed Stravinsky “the composer of joy,” and his music is indeed free from despair and angst, the supposed stock-in-trade of the twentieth century.

Yet for all its playfulness it can be deeply moving, and its luminous spiritual beauty radiates from Anne. We are moved to tears when she shows up in London, only to find her beloved Tom married to Baba the Turk (the trio at this juncture is one of the high points of the opera). During the card game, Anne’s voice is heard offstage singing the words, “A love that is sworn before Thee can plunder Hell of its prey,” thus inspiring Tom to guess the correct card (the Queen of Hearts) and to win back his soul. And the lullaby (“Gently, little boat”) she sings to Tom in Bedlam is heartbreaking in its purity and simplicity.

But Anne’s biggest moment is her solo scene at the end of Act I, when she resolves to travel to London and pursue Tom, the cabaletta (fast-concluding section) capped by an exhilarating high C. The tonal clarity of the music complements the moral clarity of the message:

I go to him.
Love cannot falter,
Cannot desert;
Though it be shunned
Or be forgotten,
Though it be hurt,
If love be love
It will not alter.

Stravinsky is endlessly touted as an arch-modernist, but The Soldier’s Tale and The Rake’s Progress show him to be something more important: a great twentieth-century moralist.


This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on June 29, 2018.

Michael De Sapio

Michael De Sapio is a writer and classical musician from Alexandria, Virginia. He attended The Catholic University of America and The Peabody Conservatory of Music. He writes Great Books study guides for the educational online resource SuperSummary, and his essays on religious and aesthetic topics have been featured in Fanfare and Touchstone, among other publications.

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