Letter from Edward J. Dent to Ralph Vaughan Williams

Letter No.: 
2 May 1951

[Dear Vaughan Williams]

I am very glad to hear that you are firmly determined to reserve the Pilgrim1 for the theatre and not to allow it to be performed as an oratorio. I agree entirely with everything you say.  I have only seen the last dress rehearsal and the first performance, but I was completely convinced by it as a work for the stage, and I accept your music whole-heartedly, though I dare say you will eventually make alterations such as you yourself suggest.  Newman said it wanted the environment of a cathedral, but I am sure he is quite wrong; that is just what a conventional-minded critic would say.2  I am sure it would be dreadfully boring as an oratorio, and hard pews would make it unbearable!  It does not want a cathedral environment, because Bunyan stands for “pure” religion without the external decorations of a church.  Of course the architectural environment of Covent Garden auditorium is definitely hostile to it, but it is a technical matter of lighting and stage-management to get over that, and I have seen far worse cases of mental and optical conflicts between stage and auditorium - eg. Wozzeck in the old opera house at Berlin, where the huge area of fresh gilding on pilasters and pediments, brilliantly lit up by the light reflected from a hundred music desks in the orchestra, was a horrible foreground to an opera which is all blood and soot both visually and auditively.
I can understand people saying that your music is “undramatic”, but it is the function of the stage to provide action and colour to complete the work as an opera; if it was to be an oratorio it would need much more “operatic” music to supply what could not be presented to the eye.  I did not find that your music ever obstructed the stage, or kept the action waiting; that would have been undramatic.  Hancock kept it moving and understood where to get climaxes; a cathedral conductor probably would not have had the insight for that....
As to your suggested alterations: Vanity Fair would certainly bear enlarging; it is over too soon to make its full effect.  The trouble is that you have a lot of minor characters (Judas, Pilate, etc.) who have very little to sing and are gone before one has realized who they are or what they are talking about.  Boito did the same thing in Nerone (which I saw at Milan - and I have studied the libretto carefully too); he was so soaked in his period that he knew all these characters personally and their complete histories, but on the stage he had only time to give them 4 or 5 bars apiece, sometimes “off” and they were lost in the crowd.  Britten did much the same in Peter Grimes, though good casting and clever production (at Budapest) did much to bring them out more vividly.... Traviata is a similar case; Verdi treated the minor parts (Baron, Marquis, Doctor) very scurvily, but Guthrie at C.G. (on my advice) placed them where they could be well seen and make their effect, besides emphasizing them in dress and make-up.  The stage people could do a lot more to help Vanity Fair; but it certainly would help still more if you could make their parts more individual and give them more time to impress themselves on the audience.  After all, Judas and Pilate are not people everybody knows by sight like Don Quixote or Napoleon, and not people one would expect to meet at a fair - unless one had read Bunyan beforehand.  Most of us have read him in childhood and forgotten details; and I have lost my own copy  - so I was grateful for your gift of a libretto.
I can't form a judgment on the Apollyon scene if so much of the music was cut; it certainly did not come off very well. I expect your own idea of the gigantic shadow was far better, and I should have thought it was not impossible to carry out.
Designer and producer certainly had a new and strange problem to tackle, so I must not be unkind to them.  Nobody could enter completely into your music and your idea until they were saturated with it and knew it as a complete whole (as Hancock of course did); and non-musicians would be so distracted by their own technical problems at rehearsals that they could only grasp the music vaguely.  I had the impression that they just did all the most obvious things which, though not positively wrong, were just rather inadequate and unimaginative.  With a well-known opera they would not have had that difficulty; they would have seen stock performances and said to themselves “Well, I can do better than that if I get the chance”.  But with this work - it is only now that it is actually on the stage that they can go into the auditorium and watch it all comfortably and then begin to see how much better they could do the job if they could start all over again.  I expect it will not be possible to make drastic alterations now, but it ought to be possible to re-study the opera and re-plan the stage pretty completely next season or next year.  And if they are willing, there is probably a good deal that can be done now and bit by bit, without any great expenditure of money, time or labour, but with a good deal of expenditure of ingenuity on the part of designer and producer.  I hope they won't refuse to do that.
Anyway, the music is safe enough, and the stage presentation not disastrous, but workable and respectable enough to carry it through, though not as good as it ought to be.  The singers and orchestra will all improve steadily as the performances go on and even at the first performance, they gave the impression of being completely “convinced” of their parts.'

1. Pilgrim's Progress. This letter is a response to VWL2220.
2. Ernest Newman

General notes: 

Printed in Catalogue of Works, pp.209-211. To be checked against original when located.

Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.209-211
Original database number: