Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Michael Kennedy

Letter No.: 
May 9th 1957.

From R. Vaughan Williams,
10, Hanover Terrace,
Regents Park,
London, N.W.1.

My dear Michael,

First, my fondest love and kisses sweet and twenty to Eslyn.  I am so sorry to hear that she has been ill, and do hope she is getting better now, but well or ill she is always lovely.
Now, to answer as far as I can, some of the points in your letter.
The Parry, Glories of our Blood and State, which I heard last week in Dorking again, is I think, a fine work: though a bit Brahmsy.1  In case you don’t know it I tell you the story of its connection with the Bach Choir.  It had been put down for performance in 1887 by the Bach Choir: then it occured to one of the Committee that it would not be very polite to H. M. who was President …. and whose Jubilee it was to sing a work all about Crowns and Thrones tumbling down; so Stanford asked Parry to write something else instead.  Whereopon he wrote Blest Pair!  So, it’s an ill wind, etc.2
With regard to that aria in the Matthew P. about bearing the Cross.3 I was told that at the first performance, under Mendelssohn this was the hit of the evening – apparently then, they used to encore things they liked at these early performances.
I have an idea that I will put it in to my next performance.  But it will have to [be] re-arranged for three cellos. I WILL NOT HAVE a viol da Gamba inside the building.  I assure you we used to come to grief in early days over “he is guilty of death”.  It went right at rehearsal because I made the Evangelist sing the leading in phrase in strict time, and then at performance he forgot.  But they know it so well now that they would come in right even if the Evangelist sang the tune the old cow died of.4
Yes, you are quite right, I had lunch in the presence of the P.M.5 the other day, who was very pleasant and amusing after his 6th glass of port.
As regards third programme, I do not quite understand network 3, or whatever it is called.  I entirely agree that the third programme wants improvement, but to shorten it will probably mean that the young pansies who run the BBC will cut out all that we think worthwhile, and have entirely Telemann and Blacher.6
I have heard of Stanley Pope but never met him.7 I am so glad to hear John is better.8
You asked me about Richter and Elgar.  I think I only heard him conduct Elgar twice, first the Variations, when I was absorbed by the music, and naturally being the first time I heard it, did not know if it was being done well or badly.  And then came that extraordinarily bad first performance of Gerontius*, which nearly killed the work.  But it was not Richter’s fault that the semi-chorus consisted of second rate professionals from Birmingham and district, that the choir got hopelessly flat at the end of Part 1, that Plunkett Greene lost his voice, that Marie Brema had none to lose, and that Edward Lloyd sang it like a Stainer Anthem9 in the correct tenor attitude with one foot slightly withdrawn.10 
I like having you[r] letters; for one thing, they really make me sit up and think, which I am too lazy to do usually.
Love once again to Eslyn


* Ursula can do everything except spell – she did not deliberately make Gerontius rhyme with louse.11 VW has also corrected various other typing errors in the letter.

Love to you both from me too


1. The glories of our blood and state, a choral setting of the dirge from The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the armour of Achilles by James Shirley, completed in 1883, revised in 1908 and 1914.
2. VW had already told Michael Kennedy this story in VWL3348.
3. St Matthew Passion
4. A colloquialism for an old, bad tune.
5. The Prime Minister,  Harold Macmillan.
6. Boris Blacher, the German composer.
7. Stanley Pope, English baritone
8. John Barbirolli
9. Sir John Stainer, organist of  St. Paul’s Cathedral and afterwards Professor of Music at Oxford.
10. Michael Kennedy at this time was writing a history of the Hallé Orchestra, published as The Hallé Tradition in 1960 and had asked VW for any memories he had of Hans Richter, who had been the principal conductor from 1899 to 1911.
11. UVW had first typed “Gerontious”; she did not like the work.
12. Postscript by UVW.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 159, ff.168-169
General notes: 

This letter reprinted in part in Michael Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.388-9.

Cobbe 714; Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.388-389
Original database number: