Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Charles Edward Sayle

Letter No.: 
VWL463
14/3/20

The SUN DIAL
Sheringham
Norfolk
(note new address)

Dear Sayle1

The one person who really started the Fairy Queen ball rolling (after old Shedlock2 who discovered it and published it in the Purcell Soc) was G.T. Holst who gave, I believe, the first performance (in concert form) since Purcell's time.3
He (Holst) is musical director at Morley Working Men's College - and directly Shedlock's edition came out he decided to put his people to work on it - they all worked like slaves - copying all the parts (there was no Novello 8vo edition then) - and rearranging and transposing certain numbers to fit the very limited capabilities of the performers. The result was a really remarkable performance - I was fresh from this performance & it was ringing in my ears when I met Dent & he was discussing what they shd do as a sequel to the Magic Flute - I at once said “Why don't you do the Fairy Queen” - & that is all I had to do with it.
I saw two performances at Cambridge (Sat. aft and evening) & was quite bowled over.
Yours ever

R. Vaughan Williams


1. Charles Edward Sayle was Assistant Librarian at Cambridge University Library, and a poet and scholar.
2. J.S. Shedlock, pianist and writer on music. Mainly well-known for his Beethoven studies, he edited The Fairy Queen for the Purcell Society (vol. XII, 1903).
3. In fact Shedlock had also organised a concert performance in 1901 of 'a liberal selection of the music' – so Holst’s was not in fact the first modern performance. See a review in the Athenaeum, 22 June 1901, p.798. Note from Roger Savage: 'J. S. Shedlock certainly got there first, to an extent, both in the matter of printing AND performing.  He had edited and apparently even set up in print for the Purcell Society all the score-materials for 'Fairy-Queen' available in the C.18 & 19 when the long-lost theatre-score was found by him at the R.A.M. [Royal Academy of Music], apparently early in spring 1901.  Barclay Squire writes on behalf of the Purcell Soc. to The Athenaeum', May 25 1901 p. 670, to announce/authenticate the find and to hope that it'll soon be printed under their aegis ---which it is, in 1903.  (There's further brief discussion of the discovery and how it fits into what had been known of 'F-Q' in 'The Athenaeum', 25 May 1901 p. 671[sic] and 3 August 1901 p. 167; also in 'The Musical Times' 1 June 1901 p. 388.)  Earlier, and before he'd found the R.A.M. score, Shedlock had arranged a concert performance (conducted by himself) of the music he'd already edited, to take place at the St George's Hall on the afternoon of June 15 1901. See the review of the concert as it eventually happened, 'Musical Times', July 1 1901 p. 472 : 'the programme of the concert had already been arranged before this important discovery was made', but it went ahead with some of the hot new material inserted: --- as the 'MT' says, 'nevertheless, several numbers, hitherto completely unknown, were added to it';  cf the reviews in 'The Times', 17 June 1901 p. 9, and 'The Athenaeum', June 22 1901, p. 798.  Putting the reviews together, it's clear that 'See, even night', 'Hush, no more', the Green Men's dance and Haymakers' dance plus 'three movements of the Symphony before Act iv' etc were all done from the new-found score. 'The Times' said: 'the additional numbers are of great beauty and importance . . . the Swan Symphony and the Dance of Fairies made a great effect'. So, though this was clearly not the COMPLETE music as it would eventually appear in Shedlock's 1903 ed., it was a lot of it; the review in 'The Athenaeum' reports that 'the performance of a liberal selection from the work was given in concert form'.
     So I guess it'd be best to quote 'The Athenaeum' that 'a liberal selection' of both the long-known and newly-disovered parts of the complete FQ score were given on June 15 1901, and that London had to wait till Holst's 1911 perf. for a much fuller representation of the piece (not quite complete even then: a lot of the Act V Chinese masque didn't get into Holst's performance).    Interesting that all three reviews refer to Edgar Jacques making judicious explanatory comments during the performance to put the music in a Shakespearean context --- RVW did something similar for Holst. Shedlock borrowed the chorus of the Purcell Operatic Society 'by arrangement with Martin Fallas Shaw and Edward Gordon Craig' (see the advertisement on the front page of the June 15 'Athenaeum'); he used three soloists and -- progressive man! - had a 12-piece orchestra including two 'Bach trumpets' and a harpsichord shared between himself and Mrs Dolmetsch. The performance seems to have been a shade scruffy, but everyone was very grateful and illumined.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
Add 4251(B)] 1495
Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Cobbe 121
Original database number: 
200314