Auden and Kallman

A look at the partnership between WH Auden and Chester Kallman, who collaborated the libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

To mark Brighton Pride 2023, and the opening of The Rake’s Progress, Lucy Walker takes a look at the partnership between WH Auden and Chester Kallman, who collaborated on the opera’s libretto.

‘We’re a funny pair, you and I’ (Auden to Kallman, 1947)

WH Auden and Chester Kallman met on a suitably literary occasion. On 6 April 1939, at a slightly haphazard gathering of the League of American Writers in New York City, Auden was giving a talk and Kallman was among a group of students from Brooklyn College representing the College’s literary magazine The Observer. Two days later, Kallman turned up for an interview at the apartment Auden shared with Christopher Isherwood; Auden had been expecting another student and he was initially brusque, but by the end of their discussion he was besotted. He invited Kallman to stay for tea and, effectively, to stay forever.

They adopted an outwardly idyllic, cosmopolitan and international lifestyle: summers in Europe, autumns generally in New York. Auden would teach, give talks and write poetry, Kallman also wrote, and the two men collaborated on opera libretti and other literary projects. They were together for over three decades until Auden’s death on 29 September 1973. Yet this description, implying a harmonious, lifelong partnership – both professional and personal – belies a complex, far from conventional, sometimes heartbreaking, but always intensely-lived queer affair.

Photo: WH Auden and Chester Kallman in Venice, 1949. Stephen Spender / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images 

Some accounts of the Auden-Kallman relationship have outlined the standard ‘older guru/younger acolyte’ scenario. Indeed, Kallman nicknamed Auden ‘Miss Master,’ an epithet Auden detested. Yet it was Kallman, obsessed with opera from a young age, who introduced Auden to his favourite art form, particular the bel canto works of Donizetti and Bellini, as well as the German Romantics. This shared enthusiasm would later form the basis of their collaborative projects. Moreover Auden was – from the beginning – the more devoted of the pair. In the early days of the affair he bought ‘wedding rings’ for them both (though Kallman did not wear his) and they went on what Auden termed a ‘honeymoon’ out west to New Mexico and California. The romance also fed into Auden’s work. His biographer Humphrey Carpenter notes that the tone of Auden’s love poetry shifts after meeting Kallman, from poems about infidelity and insecurity to more personal, considerably more expressive verses. ‘Heavy Date’ was written a month after meeting Kallman and includes the touching lines;

Every young man fears that
He is not worth loving:
Bless you, darling, I have
Found myself in you.
– From ‘Heavy Date’, WH Auden, The Collected Poetry of WH Auden, Random House (1945)

Initially, Kallman seemed as smitten as Auden, writing to him in the summer of 1939 ‘…this love business is beginning to tell on me. I miss you disturbingly much—damn you darling’. But within a year Kallman had affair with a British man called Jack Lansing, which broke Auden’s heart and led him to feverish thoughts of violence, even murder. In a further devastating blow, Kallman announced that he was ending their sexual relationship. Auden appears to have accepted Kallman’s conditions, albeit painfully: they would live together, but platonically, and pursue their own relationships as they wished. Auden himself had other encounters including, to the surprise of many, an affair in 1946 with Rhoda Jaffe, the wife of writer Milton Klonsky. They arranged numerous assignations across New York, and at Auden’s summer retreat on Fire Island – Jaffe sometimes finding Kallman there when she arrived. While the romance was a source of astonishment – and also amusement – to Kallman, he was considerably put out when Auden later began a serious relationship with the music student Keith Callaghan. In response to a disgruntled letter from Kallman, Auden wrote ‘darling, what do you expect of me?… a chaste fidelity to the Divine Miss K?’.

Writing The Rake’s Progress

Despite the complications and intermittent jealousies, they managed to co-exist and co-habit in a state described by Seamus Perry as a ‘cranky kind of marital household’. By the time Stravinsky invited Auden to write the libretto for The Rake’s Progress (in September 1947) they were living on and off in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Auden visited Stravinsky soon after at the composer’s Hollywood home, staying for eight days, and drafting an initial scenario. On returning home and describing the project to Kallman, Auden found his partner offering comment, criticism and suggested alterations. Auden suggested he participate more fully and – not without several bust-ups – their first literary collaboration began (Auden would later remark ‘Two librettists are not two people but a composite personality’).

Carpenter has observed that the story of The Rake curiously mirrors Auden’s and Kallmann’s own setup: Tom, the straying Rake, living only for pleasure, with the faithful Anne desperately trying to pin him down. Yet, intriguingly, Kallman contributed nearly all of Anne’s dialogue – according to Carpenter, in the spirit of ‘penance’ – while Auden concentrated on Tom.

Kallman wrote most of Anne’s dialogue…

…while Auden concentrated on Tom

When he sent Stravinsky a draft of Act I, Auden casually announced that he had a ‘collaborator’. Stravinsky was disconcerted, having not been consulted, but he recognised the quality of the work this ‘composite personality’ produced and voiced no objections.

Later days

In the decades that followed they fell into a regular routine, based largely around the working life of Auden who was much in demand as teacher and speaker, as well as poet. Kallman, who had no fixed employment outside his literary projects, took care of the domestic side of the relationship – he was reportedly a wonderful cook. They spent the summer months initially in Ischia, a beautiful island off the coast of Naples, whose inhabitants had a liberal attitude towards homosexuality. In 1957 they switched their summer retreat to Kirchstetten  in Austria where Auden was – for the first time – in a position to buy a home, a fact that made him weep with ‘tears of joy’.

L-R: Glyndebourne’s general manager Moran Caplat, WH Auden, Chester Kallman, and composer Werner Henze at Glyndebourne during the the production of their opera Elegy for Young Lovers in 1961. Guy Gravett/Glyndebourne Archive.

The two summer retreats would lead to another collaboration. Auden met the young German composer Hans Werner Henze in Ischia in 1954, and they remained in touch. In 1958 Henze approached Auden and Kallman to write the libretto for a new opera, Elegy for Young Lovers – a chamber piece about a ruthless poet and his manipulative treatment of his ‘muses’. By this time they were living in Kirchstetten (the name of which found its way into the character of Carolina, Countess of Kirchstätten), and hosted Henze there over successive summers while they worked on the project. The opera was premiered in Munich, then received its English premiere at Glyndebourne in July 1961, with a cast including Elisabeth Söderström and Thomas Hemsley. The pair would go on to write another libretto for Henze (Bassarids, 1966), as well as reworking the texts of works in the repertoire, notably The Magic Flute. Kallman also wrote the libretto for The Tuscan Players, the only opera by Mexican composer Carlos Chávez.

Later in the 1960s and into the 1970s, Kallman phased out his autumnal returns to New York, preferring to live mainly in Greece. Auden left New York in 1972 to take up a post at his alma mater at Christ Church, Oxford. Yet they were together in Vienna in September 1973 when Auden gave his final talk, to the Austrian Society of Literature. The poet died of a heart attack in the night, and it was Kallman who discovered his body the next morning. Despite what had amounted to a separation in recent months, Kallman found himself ‘broken’: the relationship with Auden – ‘cranky,’ sometimes tormented but of decades’ duration – was over. He wrote a poem shortly after Auden died, which included the lines:

I shared his work and life as best I could
For both of us, often impatiently
So it was; let it be.
– From ‘Wystan is gone’, Chester Kallman, WH Auden: A Tribute, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1975)

Kallman died sixteen months later, aged only 56.

WH Auden at Glyndebourne in 1961. Guy Gravett/Glyndebourne Archive.

Written by Lucy Walker

In researching for this article I drew on the following fascinating books and articles:

Humphrey Carpenter, WH Auden: A Biography (1980); Dorothy J. Farnan, Auden in Love (1984); Martin Duberman, ‘Why Auden and Kallman endured,’ (Gay & Lesbian Review, Jan-Feb 2018); Sandra Mayer, ‘WH Auden in Austria’ in Lives of Houses (2020); and Seamus Perry, ’77 St Mark’s Place’ in Lives of Houses.

‘Heavy Date’ Copyright © 1940 by W.H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd. All rights reserved.

Glyndebourne staff will be marching in the Brighton Pride parade on Saturday 5 August – give us a wave if you see us!
Our production of The Rake’s Progress, designed by another LGBTQ+ icon, David Hockney, returns to the Glyndebourne stage this summer.

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