Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Edward J. Dent

Letter No.: 
17th May, 1951

Dear Dent

I have been a long time answering your most interesting and helpful letters.1  I am now sending some comments on your notes, together with a copy of the vocal score in case you have not got one.  If you have already got one you can pass this one on to anyone you think would like to have it.
I will take your notes on the production first.
I agree that the main curtain should only come down between the Acts and not even then when, as in Act I and Act II, they are joined together.  I was told that it was necessary to have the House curtain down between Acts I and II or the noise of the changing scenery would be heard, but as a matter of fact they used the Red curtain, which was very effective.
As regards the Religious aspect of the H.B., I like the landscape back-cloths on the whole.  In “House Beautiful” what we want is a scene of initiation, which I have made by expanding two sentences in Bunyan.
I agree there is too much kneeling.  On the other hand you must remember that the Opera is to be acted almost like a ritual and not in the ordinary dramatic sense.
The “Apollyon” scene I admit is unsatisfactory at present.  I  still believe that my shadow scheme can be carried out and I am keeping it in the score but perhaps as an alternative.
On the whole I like the ballet, and therefore do not agree with you over this.  I think it was right to stress the dolefulness, not the terror.
As regards “Vanity Fair”, both you and Coghill have told me that I ought to enlarge the scene when Judas Iscariot &c come on.  Here I cannot agree.  They are mere momentary incidents and it does not much matter if people do not recognize them.  If we “establish their characters” we should upset the whole balance, to my mind, and when they have said their little say they, quite rightly, retire to the background and once again become one of the chorus.
The “Prison” scene I admit is a difficulty and you will see from my stage direction it is not quite what I meant, but it is partly my own fault because I insisted that the road into the distance must be seen from all parts of the house.
Incidentally they did not carry out quite what I meant either there or in the Armoury scene.
I wanted the backcloth to represent a road stretching straight out into the distance.  This, for some reason they said could not be done - I never quite understood why, because the same effect was produced very effectively in the last Act of Bliss's opera.2
To go back for a minute.  I agree that “Vanity Fair” is too short, but I am not prepared to lengthen the Judas Iscariot scene.  Instead I am adding a song for Lechery and a little more for Madam Bubble and Madam Wanton and also am enlarging the scene of the witnesses.  I think that will make the difference to Act III.
As regards Pilgrim's burden, it is usually represented by that in all the illustrated editions I have ever seen, even the quite early ones.
In the “House Beautiful” we tried a faldstool but it looked rather painfully like a commode, so we dropped it and had a cushion instead.
I agree about Bunyan in the Epilogue.  I do not like all his gestures.
Act II.  Here and elsewhere there is, I admit, too much kneeling and I never wanted the characters from “House Beautiful” to reappear.  He ought not to be armed by three young women, but by a lot of soldiers, I think.  Of course the end of the scene was a last minute affair.  You will see in the score that the original idea was the Pilgrim should go off singing and his voice be gradually lost in the distance after which there would be a black-out and a curtain (not the House curtain), but we found that on the large Covent Garden stage his voice could not be heard as soon as he got “off-stage” and so we had to alter it at the last minute, but it is not meant to be a curtain in the conventional sense of the word.  I am, however, altering it.  I am cutting out his exit and putting a short shout for the chorus to bring the curtain down.
I had great difficulty over the “Watchful” scene.  My instructions were that the house curtain must come down or the noise of the shifting scenery would be heard; also that it must come down while Watchful was singing, otherwise half the audience would applaud and the rest go out to the bar.  So I had to arrange that he came right down stage and sang his song in front of the house curtain.  I did not like it, but after all it is done in Mozart - at all events in Glyndebourne, although I know that is not much of a recommendation to you.
The end of Act II where the Evangelist appears I think ought to be all right if they will keep quite still.  I always feel a long silence, if properly held, is very effective.  Originally the Pilgrim's dress is put on during that end, but we felt it was too fussy and cut it out.  Anyway there is almost too much dressing and undressing of the Pilgrim throughout, but I can put an optional cut in the music in case the Producer finds that his actors cannot hold their tableau.
You say, I think rightly, that in Act II, Scene 2 on page 42 of the vocal score, the 2 young women have difficulty in filling out the music.  You will note that there is a repeat - I begged Coghill to cut it, but he said he wanted it all - so what was I to do?
I have already dealt with the prison scene and it is largely my fault. 
You refer a good deal to Bunyan, but remember that this is not Bunyan but only adapted from Bunyan.  He would certainly have had a fit at some of the things that I do!
What we have got to decide is whether it is good and effective drama without any reference to Bunyan.
As regards Hancock's tempi, I hardly interfered with him at all except that he was inclined to get a little bit too slow in places.  Perhaps that was the singers' fault - they were apt to drag a bit, I know.
Of course the Opera suffers from what people call “the Eternal Andante”, but I do not see how it can be helped short of rewriting the Opera which I must leave my successor to do.
I may think of some more later on in which case I shall worry you again.
Yrs gratefully

R. Vaughan Williams

1. See VWL2223 and VWL2226.
2. The Olympian

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Mus. 1714/2/2/1, ff. 140-143

Location of copy:

Shelfmark of copy: 
MS Mus. 1714/2/2/1, ff. 144-146
General notes: 

Printed in Catalogue of Works, pp.216-218. Typewritten, signed.

Kennedy, Works of Vaughan Williams, p.216-218.
Original database number: