Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Evelyn Sharp

Letter No.: 
[Early August 1927]

Lemons Cottage
Abinger Common

Dear Miss Sharp

I have now made more or less complete sketches for 6 numbers of the “Poison Kiss”.  Viz song “Its really time” (Gallanthus).  Duet “It’s true” (Am1 & Gall)  Duet “Blue Larkspur” (Tor2 & Am)  Song “I thought I loved” (Am) Ballad “The sun it shone” (Sorcerer3) Song “O who wd be” (Tor) - also rough notes for one or two others - I am going to ask for one or two alterations in the text of these - but I will tell you about that when I have really completed them.  I think they are satisfactory enough to justify our going on - but I hope to make them better still.
Now as regards the Act as a whole - you were quite right to start with Angelica I found - so if you approve we will revert to that start (The goblins chorus might come in on Dipsacus’ entrance before his 1st song)
But I think Angelica ought to start off with a song - I imagine perhaps a sort of scena - which wd give an opportunity for vocal ejaculations between little bits of orchestra (e.g. opening of Figaro) - perhaps enumerating all the bottles etc as she tidies up & arranges them & then a little refrain about her life as a slavey - but I shd be quite content with an ordinary song - indeed I leave it to you - I don’t believe in dictating to other people

Entry of Dipsacus

I suggest that this starts with the chorus of Hobgoblins, then a few lines for Dipsacus to sing & some sham homage (all bowing or kneeling) on the part of Angelica & the Hobgobs) & a short recitative (or speaking through music) leading up to Dipsacus’ song.

p.15. Dialogue Am & Gall

- I suggest that he did not kill the cobra which introduces rather too tragic an element - but that he hit it over the head & that afterwards (as we shall see) it recovered

p.18.  Tormentilla & Angelica -

Do you think we have too many of these neologisms - they are very amusing as contrast but I feel that they might be reserved for Angelica in contrast to the purely romantic speeches of Tormentilla

I suggest at the Tormentilla’s song “Father where are you” Angelica shd say “The cobra is not dead - only has a bad headache

Tor: let me cure it

Sham lullaby by Tormentilla

“Dear little cobra asleep in my arms” that sort of thing & metre - possibly 6 line stanzas then

Tor: “Angelica I feel faint bring me a soothing drink”.

Angelica: “What about a little vitriol etc

Then I think when Am: rushes in it must be music from the beginning - but I will see about that when I try to set it.

p. 22.

I feel it’s a little weak -wd it not be better if at the end of the duet they are about to kiss but Dipsacus rushes in & stops them & calls up the hurricane in a burlesque romantic song or scena
“Arise ye subterranean winds” that sort of thing.


I suggest the ballad first & the dialogue after
I’m hoping for some second act soon - I like to pick about & not go straight a head4  - I am getting v. fond of the libretto - But there are one or two points which worry me.
Have we got enough variety of metre
E.g. Gall’s song p.7 & Tormentilla’s p. 32  are the same metre
Also the duet for Am & Gall “What is this you tell me” “I refuse to adopt” are all more or less in the “limerick” metre.
I only point this out for future guidance

Occasional short lines & mid-rhymes are useful to a composer - also 5 & 7 lines occasionally (not always 4 or 6).
Then we want occasionally some pure lyric & romantic moments I think to give the poor sentimental old composer a chance.

A few suggestions for useful ensembles are
(1) a quiet lyrical 4tet or 5tet with solo lines (eg Sullivan “Brightly dawns” or “Tower Tomb” in “Yeoman of the Guard”.
(2) An ensemble consisting of a slow tune for one singer or group followed by a quick “patter” verse for another singer or group & then both together (vide Sullivan passim)
and finally - avoid closed vowel sounds (eg me, be, see, thin etc) when I am likely to want a high note (eg Tormentilla’s song “O flee from me”)  But this is better altered after I have written the music.
And to conclude - I hope you will pay no attention to any of my suggestions - every one works better with a free hand - & as you have already discovered I find you are right & I am wrong usually when it comes to the point.5
P.S. I think we might have one moment of passion with a big scena even in a comic opera - what do you think[?] 
Yrs very sincerely

R Vaughan Williams

1. Amaryllus
2. Tormentilla
3. i.e. Dipsacus
4. sic.
Sharp was writing the libretto for The Poisoned Kiss.


Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 161, ff.24-36
General notes: 

This letter is printed in part in Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams pp.198-199.
Typescript copy - British Library, MS Mus. 1714/1/27, ff.28-29.

Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.198-199
Original database number: