Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Evelyn Sharp

Letter No.: 
Friday [22nd May 1936]

The White Gates

Dear Mrs Nevinson

I dictate this so as to make it more legible!
I don’t think we need worry too much about the press. The fact remains that people enjoyed our joint effort very much and some people came three times which would be impossible if they thought too badly either of words or music - One cannot dissociate these two in opera.1
But I think we shall both agree that if it is ever done again we shall want to make omissions and alterations both in words & music - Musically I feel inclined to agree with Colles2 whose letter I enclose - that the end of Act I is scrappy.  We might improve that by cutting Dipsacus’ ballad and carrying on the entry of the milliners musically right into the finale.  I feel that the whole episode of Dipsacus’ story is rather long winded, partly owing to the fact that we have to tell it all over twice in dialogue and in song - Also I have always felt and I think have said to you - that the ballad is not quite amusing enough.
In Act 2 I want to cut the journalists and perhaps restore the Hobs first trio. Act 3 suffers from being cut up by too many songs.  I think the Empress’ song ‘When I was young’ must go and certainly the chorus ‘Out of the dawn’ which I only left in out of deference to the C.U.M.S.3 chorus.  The ensemble - I forget its name where the figure of Dipsacus appears on the screen did not come off as it stood - partly because it was sung off stage which was not intended; and I think it is too long.  On the other hand we ought to restore ‘Love in a hut’ - the present dialogue is too obvious a makeshift for the purposes of getting the characters off stage - It gets a laugh I know but one can get a laugh on the stage by any reference to intemperance or profanity.
Now as regards the words - The song texts were in almost all cases quite satisfactory to me.  I can think however of two exceptions which have always worried me and which I ought to have mentioned earlier in the day; but I feel so strongly that collaborators have equal rights that I did not like to press the point.  Now however, in case there is ever another performance I should be very grateful if they could be altered.  One is the line “upsets the apple cart” and the other “my father’s spell doesn’t work very well” which seem to me misfits since they are facetious remarks at purely romantic moments and of course, as such things would, they stuck out very clearly, and perhaps led to the criticism that words and music did not always fit -  One single instance of this kind can be spread out into a generalisation-
Now as regards the dialogue -
Most of it seems to bear repeated hearing very well.  The low comedy part I now confess alarmed me in cold print but there is no doubt that it got across - But it is a question, as someone said to me - whether one would care to hear it twice, and I think one ought to be able to do that.  So much for quality - as regards quantity I think it still might be cut a bit (1) the explanations between Angelica & Gallanthus after the duet ‘It does not appear’.  Are these necessary?  Gallanthus says that he is going to warn his master but apparently he does not do so - Is not this a weakness?  I should feel inclined to cut all explanations between these two at this point and merely keep the assignation to meet at supper, which would explain Angelica’s absence at the critical moment (I think generally all through the opera we have too many explanations about poisons etc)
(2) The scene in Act 3 Empress Angelica and Empress Tormentilla seems to be rather long & clumsy and must they all come out of that bathing hut?  Could we not cut the scene with Angelica altogether - I know it makes a difficulty owing to the necessary explanation about the poison chocs but I believe this could be got over.
We have now heard the opera more or less as we wrote it - If any manager nibbles after it I am prepared to let him have a free hand, reserving only a right of veto.  Are you prepared to do the same?
Please forgive this long rigmarole.
Let me have Colles’ letter back when you have done with it4


1. The Poisoned Kiss, with a libretto by Evelyn Sharp (later Mrs Nevinson).
2. Henry Colles, Chief Critic of The Times, 1911-1943, and essayist. The letter is at British Library, MS Mus. 1714/1/9, ff. 186-192, and offers a good deal of criticism.
3. Cambridge University Musical Society.
4. Last two lines in the hand of VW.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 161, ff.104-107
General notes: 

This letter was clearly written soon after the first performance of The Poisoned Kiss (Catalogue of Works 1936/2) at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 12 May 1936. Colles had written to VW on 16th May, and his letter (now British Library MS Mus. 1714/1/9, ff. 186–92), mentioned in VW's postscript, was enclosed with this one, suggesting this letter was written on Friday, 22nd May.
In the hand of AVW, signed by VW.

Cobbe 269
Original database number: