Letter from Edward J. Dent to Ralph Vaughan Williams

Letter No.: 
VWL2226
6 May 1951

[Dear Vaughan Williams]

I am more and more convinced by the music, and more and more certain that it must be an Opera on the stage and not an oratorio.  I have read several criticisms and think them mostly stupid and unintelligent.  I think I know more about Opera than all the lot of critics put together, and I have a more analytical mind than any of them; I am a complete unbeliever and generally a scoffer but I have no difficulty or reluctance to surrender wholeheartedly to Bunyan and to your music.
Vanity Fair, Apollyon, and By-Ends stand out as the three “exciting” scenes of contrast with the general “mystical” atmosphere, and want very careful working-up.  V.F. is certainly too short and might easily be lenghthened; the opera was over last night by 9.35 and it can safely last till l0, though preferably not longer.  (There was a good audience, except for the Grand Tier, and a crowded gallery; a great crush in the foyer, but the intervals were adequate for refreshment, so I think we may take the timing as normal.)
If I make suggestions for you yourself, I expect they can’t be considered until after June, and for the present nothing drastic can be done.
Could you enlarge V.F. a little before the P. comes on? to get the audience well into the atmosphere of vanity? and also to let us make the acquaintance of Judas etc quite clearly before the P. does? Some of the actual stage effects suggested possibilities; the jester and tumblers, also the people with the old musical instruments.  Not a set ballet on Playford (I have just had to arrange a six-minute Playford Suite for the Arts Council concert in June, so Playford is in my head!) but fragmentary suggestions.  You might also enlarge the friends of Lord Hate-Good - very good figures to look at, especially the Jesuit or whatever he is, and there is an elderly female who might be made more of - I don’t know who she is but a harsh mezzo-soprano part would be effective.
I can’t tackle Apollyon etc until I have studied the score.  But the stage and the music don’t seem to agree (see Notes).  Can we have more chorus singing, even if “off” because of impossibility of changing costumes?  Chorus off, and more ballet on.  I could not understand the functions of the “creatures” and thought they ought to be more active and even more frightening to the P.  Mood starting perhaps with Limbo and Despair, but working up to a crescendo and accelerando of sound and movement to the blaze of the brass for Apollyon.  I don’t feel happy about those long speeches of Apollyon on one note - my own stupidity, no doubt, but your intention does not reach me somehow.  The collapse of P. after the fight was not very convincing, but I don’t know what ought to be done.  More intelligent use of lighting would help here a great deal.  The scene of the ministrations is a little long, especially after the singing stops.  I should hate to cut a note of the music but the producer has not solved that problem.
I enjoy what I call the “By-Ends” scene immensely, but it is not quite right yet.  The boy is a delightful character, and the music for the  By-Ends couple really admirable.  Congratulations to Parry Jones for managing to make a Covent Garden audience laugh!  Could the Boy sing his hymns a little faster?
Could you allow Hancock a little more liberty of tempo?  So much of the music goes at a steady four miles an hour (good Pilgrim’s pace!) and even in V.F. where there is an illusion of quickness the conductor’s beat - which is that of the music - goes on at a pretty steady 4/4 or 3/4 crotchet about 80 to 84.  An almost imperceptible quickening of the tempo at certain definite changes of mood would help a great deal.  The orchestra sometimes needs keeping down a little more where the harmony is pretty full, and elsewhere perhaps more nuance in individual instruments; all that will come gradually, I am sure.  I will not admit that the music is monotonous, as some critics find it; but it does need all the help and sensitivity that it can get.
York is the making of the whole opera (how Alan Gray would have been thrilled by it! he had a deep devotion to that tune).  I find it indescribably uplifting, every time it comes in, and more and more; it sets the whole mood of the opera at the start (and how beautifully you have orchestrated the wind there) and I felt I should never have got to Paradise if I didn’t hear York there!  The Epilogue music rounds off the whole work quite perfectly.  I don’t know if you were there last night; there was quite a long silence when the curtain fell.
I think it is stupid of the critics to talk about your symphonies in connection with the opera; they may use the same themes but in this connection they are perfectly irrelevant.  If the critics want to make comparisons they should compare the Pilgrim with your other Operas (and after all, York comes into Hugh!).
As regards tempo: I notice practically all opera-singers tend to drag, though almost imperceptibly (and critics don’t notice it, because it happens so often and they accept it as normal) through the fact that they are taking pains to sing well - even the really good singers.  All the more in the P. because they sincerely want to do their best to be “impressive”.  But in the slow music, like much of yours, it tends to become tedious.  It ought to improve as they get to know the music better and sing it with more ease, and so get more sense of long rhythms, and if they can understand that the singer (as in Monterverdi) must create the rhythmic impulse himself, instead of leaving it to the conductor.  But that is the mark of really supreme singing, like Messchaert (you will remember him, I expect).
All the difficulties of the Pilgrim are purely technical and can be solved by skill, intelligence and ingenuity.
[Yours sincerely

E .J. Dent]

———

                                                         PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
                                                         Notes on Production

The Main Curtain (with GR embroidery) ought never to come down except at the end of an ACT, so as to indicate an Interval.  The plain red curtain ought to be used to divide the scenes, if necessary; it looks very well, especially when lights were flashed on it.

The Landscape scenes were very English - I suppose intentionally; but if so they showed English weather at its worst.  The best was the Delectable Mountains; the others were often clumsily lit.  There was little sense of “England’s green and pleasant land”, at least in the lighting.
The producer and choreographer seem to have done all the most “obvious” things, without penetrating to the real moral background.  The House Beautiful actions are too ecclesiastical, and some costumes too; the atmosphere required is surely not Priestly Authority, Penance, formal Worship and Reverence, but Kindness and Friendliness, Love and Sympathy, Helpfulness on the part of all the heavenly beings (including Evangelist and Interpreter).
There is an enormous lot of kneeling all through the opera, which becomes monotonous and its emotional value gets cheapened.
Apollyon Scene: The Ballet was not impressive or at all frightening; we are too familiar with dancers lying on their backs and kicking their legs about.  I wish the “shadow” idea could have been carried out, and more made of the combat.
Vanity Fair: some dresses rather too Hogarthian?  suggestive of the Beggar’s Opera?  In any case the width of the dresses of Lechery and Co. takes up so much room on the stage that the thinner characters are crowded out and lost.  The minor characters such as Judas and Pilate have so little to sing and are visually so inconspicuous that it is difficult to realize who they are before they have vanished into the shadows.
Soldiers who arrest the Pilgrim might be made to look more cruel and terrifying.
Prison scene, like a photograph frame descending into a wood landscape looks very ugly and clumsy, and the wood seen on right and left of it takes away the dramatic effect of the view seen when the door is unlocked (which is too narrow for picturesque effect).
Act I.  Pilgrim’s back luggage is much too neatly packed; if it represents his sins it ought to be more awkward and untidy, like a sack of potatoes or coals, something very uncomfortable and fatiguing to carry; he might even drag it or shift it sometimes; it never suggests an unbearable burden.
At House B. the libretto says they bring in a faldstool, but they carried in (very ceremonially) a small red hassock or kneeler, which looked rather ridiculous when put on the floor.
I wish the designer could have done more to suggest that the whole story is “a dream” but I suppose this would have been technically too difficult; the opera is much cut up into bits by curtains falling.  Every time a curtain falls one is made conscious of Covent Garden auditorium.
Bunyan in Epilogue: too much ceremony, waving book to right and left etc, and kneeling: I suggest that he should be more simple and almost statuesque, with as little movement as possible, a complete contrast to the reality of the Pilgrim.  Or else something more to suggest persecution and imprisonment; but perhaps that would fall flat after the imprisonment of the Pilgrim.
As in all operas, the “poor people” are too neat and tidy; they never give the impression of real poverty and suffering.
House Beautiful: surely the Pilgrim ought to enter through the “wicket gate” between the two posts with lanterns? not through the wings further back.
Act II: “arming” scene - this reproduces almost exactly the previous “robing” scene, I suggest that the Pilgrim should be dressed standing, not kneeling.
Watchman: (I hear this was inserted at the last moment to cover change of scenery) I don”t like his singing it at the prompter’s box like a concert aria, but I don’t see how to avoid it.
Apollyon Scene: the stage action and the music do not seem to agree, and I don’t understand it.  The ballet is insignificant and meaningless.  Ought not the whole scene to be much more frightening?  More and more “creatures”, crescendo of movement and crowding to suggest terror and oppression; the whole scene seems to go slowly.
After the ministrations of the Heavenly Beings there is a long piece of orchestra music during which the characters make indecisive movements.  I suggest 3 possible alternatives -
1) shorten the music (but only in the very last resort; I don’t want to do that at all).
2) keep the characters absolutely motionless as a pictorial composition with gradual fading out. (Rather risky considering length)
3) let them all gradually move off the stage as if the Beings were showing P. the way to his next trial and giving him encouragement and help.
Vanity Fair: this seemed to have been improved by May 5; lighting better, more light at the sides, and characters thus given more chance.  Judas gets forward, but is over-weighted with a voluminous skirt and a huge “vanity-bag”.  I suggest something more like Leonardo’s picture (which everybody knows and can recognize at once; more conspicuously red wig and beard (even if quite unnatural) fewer clothes, to suggest more activity and the familiar money-bag.
Simon Magus insignificant, and looks like a conjurer at a village entertainment, an improvised dress-up.
Hate-Good is excellent, and also Jesuit (or Anglo-Catholic?).
Prison: will do as long as flanked by neutral curtains, but quite dreadful after the door opens and the landscape is seen on each side of the ruined walls.  (It is an ugly landscape anyway with a very ugly and hard line formed by the united wings and top border).  Could the prison be painted on a cloth which will look quite transparent when lit from behind? and then be taken up almost imperceptibly like a gauze?  This has been done in other operas at C.G.
All through the lighting is the weak spot (sometimes too much the “strong spot”!); the beam from the auditorium ceiling is a most dangerous toy, and has been the ruin of many C.G. operas.  I do not see a “long-term policy” in the lighting; it generally seems to work from bar to bar, without any sense of a scene - much less of an Act or of the whole Opera - as a complete whole.
I suggest to the Producer the German system of dividing scenes into “Stimmungen”, first, second, third etc as required.  Points in the score are settled where the Stimmung definitely changes (often with definite change of tempo or orchestral colour in the music), and the stage shows a change (which may be sudden or gradual) of lighting, or of grouping or movement, but always moving forward to a forseen end.
There is far too much self-conscious “reverence” throughout.  There must be about three dozen or more “kneel-downs” and two-thirds of them ought to be taken out, as they become horribly cheap as the opera goes on.  Movements and gestures all hieratic. The shepherds’ movements suggest curates rather than rustics. Surely Bunyan meant all the human beings (including Evangelist and Interpreter) to be real human people with human kindliness and helpfulness, when on the “good” side.  On the other hand the Angel with the Arrow (Shepherds’ Scene) ought to be more definitely celestial and radiant in appearance - costume too dark in colour, unless he is meant to symbolize Death, in which case he is not dark enough.  It is only the halo which distinguishes him in appearance from Evangelist etc. and the halo was not all effective.  Could it be made as a spider’s web of gold wire, with an irregular surface that would catch the light and glitter more?  It looks too much like a mere brass plate.  (Always a difficult costume problem on any stage).
Pilgrim has a great many changes of costume, none very satisfactory.  I recall the Bristol production of 1927 in which he appeared most impressively as a Cromwellian soldier after the Civil War was over.  Or did Bunyan imagine him wearing the traditional “pilgrim” dress with cockleshell hat and staff?  In any case I think a hat and staff would often help to suggest pilgrimage; he sometimes looks to “ecclesiastical” without them.
Epilogue: a second sight of the opera confirms me strongly in what I have already said, especially in view of the very beautiful music and the tune York; he ought to symbolize himself as a great national immortal classic here, instead of offering his book to the Royal Box.
I wish my printers and publishers would do their work as quickly as his seem to have done theirs!

General notes: 

Printed in Catalogue of Works, pp.211-216.

Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.211-216.
Original database number: 
510506