Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Cedric Glover

Letter No.: 
VWL786
[April 1924]

13 Cheyne Walk
SW 3

Dear Mr Glover1

I once heard a Bach performance with harpsichord throughout (in Queens Hall) & it sounded intolerable in a large place - I think a harpsichord & a small organ is ideal for the recitatives (as they do at Amsterdam) - but this is out of practical politics - & who is to play it?  Also the harpsichord by itself at once gives an “antiquarian” flavour to the music which we want to avoid at all costs.  I do not propose to use the pfte in the choruses except to strengthen the bass in one or two places.
And we must remember that the modern violin oboe & horns are as about as remote from the instruments of Bachs time as the pfte is from the harpsichord.
As to the figuring in the confiteor and other places - it does not follow that because Bach did not mark them he did not want them (see Schweitzer2)
I think Bach probably wrote no solos for viola because no one cd play it - his viola parts look like this - I rather like the viola in the agnus.
I am having some of the recitatives done on the organ
But please bring it up at the Ctee I am quite open to argument3
Yrs sincerely

R. Vaughan Williams

P.S. On Bach’s instrumentation generally read Schweitzer-  Do you remember Allens4 magnificent trombones at the end of the mass.

P.P.S.  The harpsichord is all right with a small band & small choir - but 350 in Q. Hall!


1.  A member of the Bach Choir who was later a neighbour in Dorking. He played the viola in the Leith Hill Musical Festival orchestra and was Treasurer of the Royal Musical Association from 1949 to 1962.
2. Albert Schweitzer’s J.S. Bach, le musicien-poète (Leipzig, 1905) had been published in an English translation by Ernest Newman as J.S.Bach in 1911 and re-issued in 1923.
3. VW was to conduct Bach’s B minor Mass for the first time on 13th May at the Queen’s Hall - see R.V.W.: a biography, p.154. VW remained convinced about the ineffectiveness of the harpsichord in performances of the Mass and the Passions to the end of his life, in the face of the growing trend towards the use of authentic instruments.
4. Hugh Allen, VW's predecessor as conductor of the Bach Choir.

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 1116, ff.135-136

Location of copy:

Shelfmark of copy: 
MS Mus. 1714/1/6, ff.36-37
Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Cobbe 141; R.V.W.: a biography, p.427
Original database number: 
2404xa