Letter from Herbert Byard to Ursula Vaughan Williams

Letter No.: 
VWL3189
27 April 1960

As from Fern Cottage
Stanton Drew
Bristol

Department of Music
University of Bristol
Royal Fort
Bristol

Dear Ursula

Yes, to hell with Jeremy Noble.  He probably thought his most offensive remark was the one about the piano obbligato masquerading as a realisation of the continuo - & yet, on reflection, my own anger subsided, for I think Ralph wouldn't have minded his piano part being described as an obbligato.  He went jolly near to calling it just that in that 3rd Programme broadcast in 1950.
I am writing to Argo & asking one or two other people to do so.  It would be fine to have it permanently available.
It's time we all started looking at this matter rationally and stopped being pro - VW or anti - VW.  I first heard the Dorking St. Matthew in 1947, when Diana Oldridge & I got up a party from Gloucestershire.  I went expecting all sorts of neo-baroqueries & harpsichords "and all the other horrors" as Ralph said - I didn't know him well then - & was dumbfounded, not only by the astonishing things he did to the work, but also by the impact it made on me.  But I admit N & I came back very puzzled & wondering whether the great man hadn't gone a bit too far.  It was only after thinking a great deal about it that we came to see how perfectly justified it all was. (And that's one of the many things I shall always be grateful to R for - he made me think out my attitude to Bach, instead of just accepting other opinions at second hand.)  I heard his Matthew six times & the John four; and I used to try to force myself into going in a really critical frame of mind & was completely carried away always.
That's not to say that everybody ought always to do them like that.  I have played harpsichord continuo in both Passions lately & enjoyed doing it; though I hope nothing I did could be said to have furthered the museum approach to Bach.  I don't mind what people do in an effort to make the Passions come to life as vivid drama; what I can't abide is the stuffy academic approach which claims to be offering us the sounds Bach intended.  God knows what his intentions were; but this save the actual sounds he produced would drive most of us out of the performance.
And it's not a question of whether one likes the VW method or not.  No performance - with 2 harpsichords, 2 bubble-&-squeak organs, piano or what you will - in this country today can avoid being a transcription into viable media of what Bach wrote.  The first hurdle - and it's an enormous one - is translation; & you can't translate without completely altering Bach's notation, or marking verbal nonsense, or both.  (Paul Steinitz says do it in German: all I can say is that when so bad a linguist as I can spot howlers in German pronunciation, the effort's just silly.)  What I recognised in the Dorking Passions, & what I want other people to recognise, was the impact of one great mind upon another.
I don't suppose in 1958 R had reached absolute finality over the Matthew - for little things did change from year to year. (I never quite came to terms with the replacement of oboe da caccia by violas in 58 & 70.  I could see a utilitarian reason if he didn't use the oboe's elsewhere - but he did.  I remember being particularly struck in 1953 by the ff passionate ending of "Ah, my soul", & R explaining why he'd done it that way.  Yet in 1956 he did it pp and argued quite convincingly for it.
I'll let you know what Argo say.
We are sure that enough for a magnificent book exists though we hope you & your secretary/friend don't miss too much of the sunshine in milling over the files.  I never knew, till I heard John Lowe say so last Sunday, that R had a season or two as musical director at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
We hope LHMF1 is going well & that you enjoy `Erwartung' (which I can't make head or tail of from the score) & Stravinsky's little Bird (really more attractive than the big one, I think).
Love from us both
H


1.  Leith Hill Musical Festival.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 1714/2/5, ff.30-32
Format: 
Letter
Original database number: 
600427