Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Evelyn Sharp

Letter No.: 
[12th September 1928]

The Old Barn
Holmbury St Mary

Dear Miss Sharp

About 14 days ago I finished the music of Act II (as far as I could) - then I had to settle down & wash the face (finally) of my Falstaff opera1 - then I had to go to Gloucester - Hence the delay
I like the lyrics v. much & have set them all - but dramatically I can’t see it.  The motive of the Hobgobs in being there - to get Tor: back again seems weak. Also Gallanthus plot for disguising himself - you will probably say that I ought to have found this out before - this is certainly true - but you have I believe by this time learnt to put up with me (at least I hope so - but this may be the last straw)
Also I should like the music to run on continuously for Amaryllus entrance down to the kiss.  Could we not arrange it that Tor: shd  yeild2 to Am: finally - in spite of her fears - i.e. feel the inevitability and yield to her lover knowing all the while that it is fated - or this same idea might be suggested by a hidden chorus (a development of your idea) casting a sort of spell over her (and perhaps doing something of the same kind for the young man)  This works out well musically.
Also I think your end with the young man appearing to be ill when he really isn’t is rather inconclusive
Now I have the following suggestion which will keep all your lyrics (except one “He’s broken all my bones” which I shdlike to keep) & much of your dialogue.

Hobgob opening song

Alter dialogue to mean that the object of their visit is to let Amaryllus into the house & to tell him that the kiss is the only way of winning her - so as to ensure that the kissing business comes off all right.
Then follows entry of Gallanthus, Angelica, mediums and journalists as in your script - journalists to hide entry of Tormentilla - dialogue about chocolates first then song “There was a time” - followed by a very few lines of dialogue (spoken through music)
The duet “Wearily I go to rest”

-Exit of Tormentilla

Then we want something new
Hobgobs creep out and let in Amaryllus – interrupted by entry of Angelica (“My work is done” etc)
Then Angelica must be got rid of so that she & Gallanthus do not appear till the end of the act - but how? But how?!!!!! (Though I think you are not v. convincing here) (I think all this should be sung - I think short even lines of the type of Angelica’s entry is the best - plenty of give and take between the characters[)] (But the scene can be quite short)
Then follows Amaryllus serenade (I want from here all sung)
Entry of Tor:
Scene between these two leading to Tor: “If you touch me you die” at this moment chorus of spirits (unseen, or through transparencies) casting a spell over her so that she gradually yields to Am & she falls swooning in the arms as he kisses her.
The goblins then dance round the pair singing a mocking song - & retire
Tor comes out of her trance crying out “the poison kiss” - pushes Am away & crouches in a corner.
Ang: and Gall: come running in & there follows (more or less) your finale. As a climax to this I have two alternative ideas
Amaryllus “I have kissed and I am willing to die like the prince I am” (all spoken!)
Tor: Who are you?
Am: I am the prince
Tor O father you have won. My fate has been too much for me
Then short sung finale (slow) ending with unseen chorus.
Or (b) at climax of ensemble
a knocking heard at the door & a voice (all this spoken)
Herald’s voice:    “Open in the name of the empress” (enter Herald and guards)
Herald:  Hear the proclamation of our sovereign lady the empress “whereas our beloved son the Prince Amaryllus has been bewitched by a wicked sorceress it is our pleasure that he be confined in our highest tower until he be recovered from his unhappy infatuation” - Guards! Seize the prince!
Am: Do with me as you wish - I have kissed like a prince & am willing to die like a prince
Tor: (starting) Who are you?
Am: I am Prince Amaryllus
Tor: O father (etc as before)
Herald: Now hear further “whereas this same sorceress has proved herself to be an unhallowed witch, in that she ate of the Imperial chocolates and has not even suffered from indigestion, our command is that she be confined in our foulest dungeon there to await her doom” Guards! seize the witch
Tor: Willingly I go to die for I have killed your prince  (Then follows slow finale as before)
I don’t know if you think this at all possible - Perhaps you will reject it altogether - But in case not I send you an awful re-hash of your text (with some additions of my own!) to which I have already set music
I fear it is rather too serious & grand opera-ish - but perhaps this won’t matter if we keep all the rest quite light
Now as to Act III
I don’t feel happy about that yet. - It doesn’t go straight enough - also the denoument in the story is so good - & it seems a pity to sophisticate it
Also we have missed a point in the story namely that the young woman to be cured finally of her poisonous propensities must become the bride of her lover - is not this a poetical & romantic point which shd not be missed.
I make the following suggestions for Act III into which we can fit a lot of your already written text.
Empress summons Tormentilla & says that her son is always calling for her in his prison & perhaps she can after all cure him to which Tor: answers that she not only can’t cure him but is responsible for his death by her poison kiss.
Empress says this talk of poisons rouses old memories - perhaps an explanation is at hand.  ‘Who was your father?’ - explanation on the part of Tormantilla
Empress summons Dipsacus by her magic crystal - he comes in triumph at his supposed revenge - but the empress explains that she dosed her son with antidotes
(I should have all this dialogue except an opening chorus (mediums) incantation & arrival of Dipsacus).
Dip: then says ‘Well we may as well make the best of it - go to your lover my child and complete your cure’.  (Exit Tormentilla) Scene of reconciliation between Dip & empress with a humorously sentimental duet about old times & they decide to marry once more.
Then Tor: & Am are seen in the distance (transparency?) singing a love duet. Followed by clattering & love-making & quarrelling sextet (3 mediums & 3 Hobgoblins).
Empress at first angry but finally relents seeing that she also is to be married
And to complete the whole there arrives a procession escorting Am & Tor for their wedding feast.
Final chorus with solos (perhaps we might work in a duet for Angelica & Gall: before this).
Now one or two remarks as to words. I shd like somewhere a regular 4tet or 5tet of the part-song or madrigal type (this might come in the finale) and please could I have some spondaic or trochaic songs - yours are all iambic or anapaestic3 - even when you start trochaically (eg “wearily I go to rest) extra syllables creep in very soon which make it very difficult for the tune - the good old “choric” metre always ‘carries’ a good tune

   — v        —    v            —       v   —    v
(Lo he / comes with / clouds / descending4
   —    v     —  v          —  v        — 
Once for / favoured / sinners / slain)

I am now getting to work on the songs in Act I which I had not done - & revising the others.
I expect on receipt of this you will chuck the whole thing - & I shall not be surprized - but I hope not as I’ve managed to make one or two rather nice tunes5
Yrs sincerely

R Vaughan Williams

P.K.  End of Act I

Tormentilla There was a time …….and sadness
(spoken through music)
Angelica: Dear lady do not weep - try to get some rest
- It’s really time we went to bed
(and for me to summon Gallanthus to my arms)
Tor: Very good - follow me up to my room
Alas! I am too unhappy to sleep
(sung) Wearily I go to rest ……
…… sleepily
(Exeunt Tor: & Ang: enter Amaryllus)
Am ‘twas here he came
…….  falls from the sky
Enter Angelica
Angelica: At last I’m free, my duties done
 ………(Am:) Exactly is that bedroom stair
(This will have to be altered and enlarged - I shd feel to keep it all in the metre of above - it is I think the best way for a musical ensemble with action)

Song Amaryllus
1. Dear love … beloved hands
2. Dear woman  … is ours
3. Beloved … so dear
the way to (the eternal) stars

(I have cut this down to 3 verses - too long - also a song like this wants to deal in generalities - I suggest an alteration of last line to avoid awkward false accent of
“the way to the stars”
Enter Tormentilla
 My lover haunts me … (Am) Ah tell me the meaning of that
(rushes towards her)
P.K. Act II


T: Amaryllus
A: Tormentilla, I come to you I fly
T: Away
You must not stay
A: I implore you, I pray
T: Away
A: Tomentilla!
T: You must obey
A: One only will I obey
For her I go or stay
Who over me holds perfect sway
T: Dear lover ‘tis a little thing I ask
A: The world contains no mightier task
T:  Yet do I ask it as a parting boon
A: So soon to part, to part so soon
T: Yet do I ask this boon
A: Beloved, see I go at your demand
Vanquished I obey your dear command
T: Dear lover ‘tis a little thing I ask
A: In all the world no mightier task
T: Yet this is all I ask
A: Yet ere I go
Tell me, Tormentilla, that you love me
Have you told me so?
T: Love you?
You are the whole world to me
When you are there
I see no earth, nor heaven
Nor moon, nor stars
A: Tormentilla why do you spurn me
Tormentilla passions burn me
Let me hold you
Let me enfold you (coming towards her)
T: Touch not my lips
My lips are cursed
A: Press them to mine and the curse is fled
T: No, No
No man may touch my lips
Who kisses me shall die
A: Then let me die and live for evermore
(“or words to that effect”)
(Tor: is retreating back to her room but the whole background is filled with mysterious figures of goblins)

T: Ah: (wildly)
Amaryllus flee from me, lest fate be too strong
Goblins (To T)  Yield now, it is too late
              (To A)  Kiss now, it is your fate
T: (in a trance) What spell steals over me
Holding me as in a dream
A lovely dream
(This might be another verse of the song “There was a time”)
Goblins (To A)  Kiss now and pluck the bloom
              (To T)   Yeild6 now it is your doom
T: O could I dream for ever in my lover’s arms!
Amaryllus I come to you
(She advances unsteadily towards him)
A: (Tormentilla!)
T: O save me from the awakening!
A: (Holding her hands)
Long have I wanted, Tormentilla
Thus to enfold you
Men do as they are fated
And for this one hour I’ve waited
Thus, thus, to hold you
T: (Softly)  I cannot see, a mist before my eyes
A world of grief like lead upon me lies
- (3 more lines)
A: Thus were we fated Tormentilla
So my arms enlace you
We do as we were fated
All too long I’ve awaited
Thus, thus to embrace you
(He kisses her passionately - they sink down on a seat in a sort of swoon)
(The goblins surround them and dance and sing a sort of jingle something like this)

Goblins: Tis done, tis done, the deed is done
The kiss, the kiss, the poison kiss
Her fate she can no longer shun
The curse to work has now begun
The curse she did evade in vain
The roost it has come home again
No matter whether he go or stay
No power can banish* the curse away
So let him be, so let him fly
He’ll soon discover the reason why
(*a bad word but I must have a syllable here)

(Goblins disappear, Tor: suddenly starts up crying out “The poison kiss!” - repulses Am: and crouches in a corner.  At the same moment Gall: and Ang: come in running - then follows this ensemble)


Gall: Dear Master come
Evade your doom
The cause of your indisposition
The royal physician
Will doubtless be able to cure
Ang:  Dear Mistress say
You will obey
Entreat him to leave you
No more to deceive you
O tell him he can no longer
(See how he falters with steps unsteady
the poison has begun to work already)
Amar: What means all this?
I did but kiss
This din so clamorous
Passion burns me and I so amorous
All’s gone amiss
For one poor kiss
Hob, Lob and Gob (appearing in background)
‘Tis done tis done
The deed is done
No mortal physician
This indisposition
Is likely to cure
The kiss, the kiss
The poison kiss
Revenge O magician
Which sweet in addition
Seems now doubly sure
Tor: The poison kiss
It is, it is
Great Heavens come and hide me
Cruel gods who thus deride me
Gall: (to Am) Go hence, go hence
And seek some cure
This grim suspense
This fear intense
I cannot endure
Ang: (to Tor) Aye! Tell him he must straightway go
(aside) The reason why he need not know
Amar: Who is this?
Must I die for the sake of a kiss?
Alas my love
And must I die for that one kiss?
Tor: Alas my love!
Hob, gob: Too late! Her fate!
Lob Her power leaves her lips too late
Chorus: No matter whether he go or stay
No power can banish the curse away
Then spoken dialogue
Then slow concerted finale

Concerted Finale - I found I left this out by accident  RVW
Tor: Too dark for me has been my fate
My lover leaves my lips too late
O cruel gods who thus deride me
Great heavens come and hide me
Angelica: See he falters with steps unsteady
See the curse is at work already
The curse did evade in vain
Gall: To roost it has come home again
Ang: The poison kiss has done the trick
Gall: Here to the doctor take him quick
Dear lady you he will obey
Entreat him now to go away
Amaryllus: I did but kiss, one burning kiss
So let me die of that one moments bliss
Now welcome death from those dear lips
O happy fate.
Gall: Dear master come, evade your doom
The poison kiss, don’t trifle thus
Go hence go hence & seek some cure
This grim suspense, this fear intense
I really can’t endure
Dear master come, before it is too late
(Herald)  The deed is done
Her fate she can no longer shun
The poison kiss shall be her doom
No matter if she go or stay
No power can take the curse away
Hob, Lob & Gob No mortal physician, this indisposition
Is likely to cure
Revenge & magician, which sweet in addition
Is now doubly sure
Chorus (Goblins)(hidden?):  
Too late, too late, the deed is done
Her fate she can no longer shun
What use is now her boasted bloom
The poison kiss has been her doom
Amaryllus:  Beloved kiss me once more
(duet)   Then let me die
Tor I kiss you Farewell once more
For ever
All the rest: Too late
The poison kiss has been her doom
Hidden chorus:  The poison kiss has been her doom
(very soft)


You will notice that I have used up old words a lot - so we shall want new ones (except the hob-goblins & chorus who might well repeat their former sentiments) - I shd like the metre & syllables & rhyme arrangement kept as far as possible - any sort of ‘Greek chorus’ comment on the situation will do - each more or less in keeping with the character - the words here won’t be heard much - avoid words which “stick-out” too much

1. Sir John in Love.
2. sic.
3. VW is referring to different metrical feet used in prosody: Spondee (— — ), trochee (— v ), iambus (v —) and anapaest (v  v  —).
4. VW has misplaced the slash marking the end of the 3rd foot by a syllable.
5. This passage is printed in Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.200. Evelyn Sharp replied on 14th September (the letter is British Library MS Mus.161, f.71) :
Dear Dr Vaughan-Williams,  I do not call this the last straw; it seems to me more to resemble a whole stack!  However ….. I am delighted to hear that you have done such a lot, and I do want to hear some of the music. When can I?
The trouble is that I cannot work seriously at the opera at the moment because I have to finish a difficult book by December 1st, and I have got behind with it as it is, though I gave up my holiday for it.  Now, are you held up for want of fresh copy from me?  Because that must not be.  In that case, or in any case, could you let me know what, if anything you are actually waiting for, or must have first, and I could perhaps work some of it in with my book, I mean in lucid intervals. But if it fell in with your plans to work at what you have got already until December, I must confess that would suit me best, because then I could give my hole [sic] mind to it till it was done.  Is that at all possible?  Please understand I am anxious not to keep you waiting if you can’t get on without fresh copy.

I’d awfully like to talk over the alterations with you, because I find some of them a little difficult to follow though on the whole you have made them wonderfully clear.  I am not quite sure I agree with them all; for one thing, if we use up so much incident in Act II, we have so little action left for Act III, haven’t we? I mean, when there is no more mystery between Tormentilla and Amaryllus, most of the excitement is gone.
At the same time, I don’t pretend to know what is effective on the stage; you have written operas and I haven’t, and seeing that it is a fluke in any case you are much more likely to be right than I am.  Besides, the music must decide finally because it is the more important of the two.  So please go ahead if the spirit moves you, without waiting for consultation.  I am sure it will work out all right in the end.
If, all the same, you are likely to be back in town soon, I feel it would be rather nice to talk over the plot a little, if only to get my mind a little clearer on it.  Sorry to be so unsatisfactory.
6. sic


Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 161, ff.42-70
Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.200
Original database number: