Wystan Hugh Auden

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English-born naturalized American Wystan Hugh Auden not only wrote a great many poems that would later be set to music by leading composers of the twentieth century, but he collaborated on texts for works…
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English-born naturalized American Wystan Hugh Auden not only wrote a great many poems that would later be set to music by leading composers of the twentieth century, but he collaborated on texts for works by some of his most prominent musical contemporaries. After his 1929 graduation from Christ Church College, Oxford, he began establishing a reputation as a poet with strongly leftist social convictions and an intense interest in the psychological problems of people in modern capitalist societies. Auden settled in the United States in 1939. There, he won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for "The Age of Anxiety." He by no means abandoned his native land; Auden was a professor of poetry at Oxford from 1956 to 1961, and was writer-in-residence at Christ Church from 1972 to his death the following year.

Auden's lover, Chester Kallman, turned him into a self-described "opera addict," and the two jointly wrote the libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. Auden and Kallman also wrote two librettos for Hans Werner Henze, Elegy for Young Lovers (about 75 percent of which is Kallman's work) and The Bassarids. Their final collaboration, immediately before Auden's death, was the libretto for John Gardner's The Entertainment of the Senses. Along the way, Auden wrote several essays about opera and the elements of an effective libretto.

Auden and Kallman also produced several extremely loose libretto translations (Auden regarded too-literal translations as potential falsifications of meaning), including those for Mozart's Magic Flute and Don Giovanni, and Weill's Seven Deadly Sins and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Benjamin Britten was especially fond of Auden's work, which he harvested for use in the cycle On This Island, the Song for St. Cecilia's Day, the symphonic cycle Our Hunting Fathers, and some early cabaret songs. Auden actively collaborated with Britten on the "choral operetta" Paul Bunyan (1941), as well as on works for film, radio, and theater.

The poet wrote words specifically for settings by Samuel Barber (two of the Hermit Songs) and William Walton (The Twelve), as well as Stravinsky's Elegy for J.F.K. He also provided the linking narration for Noah Greenberg's performing edition of the Medieval Play of Daniel. Lennox Berkeley, Thea Musgrave, and Nicholas Maw have also set Auden texts. Furthermore, Auden's poetry has served as inspiration for at least two significant non-vocal works: Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety," and Luciano Berio's Nones.