Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Percy Scholes

Letter No.: 
July 13 [1922]

From R. Vaughan Williams,

Dear Scholes

Re my opera

(a) Is it finished.  Vocal score was completed 1914 (May).  Full score June - Aug 1920.  The only thing not ready yet is the title which will probably be -

                                                               “Hugh the Drover"              
                                                            (or Love in the Stocks)

                                                    A Romantic Ballad opera in 2 acts
                                   Text by Harold Child music by R. Vaughan Williams

(b) Is any performance arranged  No: but possibly the Patrons’ Fund are going to try through a scene or two.
(c) What is the nature of the work.   In 1910 I was introduced to Harold Child (whose books you doubtless know and also his work in the Times Lit: Sup.) and asked him to write me a libretto for an opera which should be a sort of English parallel to Smetana’s ‘Verkaufte Braut’.  I stipulated that it should hinge round a scene from Borrow’s ‘Zincali’1  which describes a gypsy and a prize fight, also I wanted to indroduce the Fowlmere “May Day Song” which I had lately heard.  Also I suggested (or between us we evolved) that the form, situations etc should be conventionally operatic as it was our first shot.  (As a matter of fact it is not at all conventional except superficially as that would be impossible for H.C. but he did his best.)
I call it a ballad opera because it is frankly in song and ensembles with recitative in between - I meant to use a lot of traditional tunes - as a matter of fact I have used very few.


                                                                   Scene  a Cotswold village.
                                                                     Period  l800-12 about.
                                          Time  Monday morning April 30 & early Tuesday morning May    1st.

Act I  A fair in progress.  The chief feature of which is the Showman who exhibits a dummy of Napoleon for cock-shies.  Then a ballad singer who sings “Tuesday Morning” (F.S. from Somerset). Enter Mary (heroine, soprano) - bursts into tears on hearing the words “I’m to be married on Tuesday morning” - obviously she is to be married & it makes her unhappy.  She is comforted by Aunt Jane (conventional operatic contralto)

‘Enter Constable (Mary’s father) & John the butcher (her lover) who upbraids her for being unhappy the day before her marriage - He tries to take her arm - she refuses - general scrimmage interrupted by entry of Morris Men who sweep the whole crowd off the stage except Mary & Aunt Jane - Aunt Jane sings the joys of domesticity but Mary seems to prefer a “free life under heaven” (we used to imagine we liked that kind of thing before the war when we had not experienced it).

Meanwhile Hugh the Drover (Hero - Tenor) has entered unseen - he enters into conversation (much against Aunt Jane’s will) & gradually fascinates Mary with his description of the joys of the road.  Meanwhile Aunt Jane who disapproves of the proceedings at last goes off to fetch the Constable (Mary’s father) to put a stop to things.  This gives an opportunity for the first

                                                                                          Grand Duo

Interrupted by entry of Aunt Jane & Constable.  A short cursing match between Hugh & Constable then enter Showman and chorus announcing that John the Butcher will fight all comers for £20. Hugh accepts the challenge but the prize is to be the hand of Mary.

                                                                                         (big ensemble)

They fight - 3 rounds - & John is knocked out.  Acclamation from the crowd but John & the Constable after a secret consultation denounce Hugh as a french spy - consternation - The crowd immediately turn against Hugh - He is seized and marched off - Mary faints in Aunt Jane’s arms.


                                                                                                  Act II

Early morning of May 1st. - Clock strikes four.  Hugh is sitting in the stocks in the market place.  Sounds of revelry from the pub.  John and his friends come out very drunk on their way to go out & gather the May blossom - They abuse Hugh & tell him the soldiers are coming to fetch him to Gloster gaol.  They go off & enter Mary softly - She has stolen her father’s keys and lets Hugh out - They agree to fly together.

                                                                                            (Grand Duo no 2)

As they are escaping a light appears in the Constable’s house. He is heard shouting (This the critics will say is a crib from Meistersingers - so I make you a present of it beforehand)

Hugh and Mary crouch behind the stocks & cover themselves with his big cloak - Enter Constable - Aunt Jane - all seems well & they go off again.  The Dawn gradually breaks.  Hugh “Now my love ‘tis time” They start again to escape.  This time they are stopped by the distant sound of the May-horn.

Hugh “What are we to do”

Mary “Obey me get back into the stocks & I will get in also”

They both sit in the stocks covered completely by Hugh’s cloak. John’s voice heard off stage singing the May Song.

“A branch of May I’ve brought to you
 And at your door it stands”

Enter John and chorus - and sing below Mary’s window.  No answer - Constable enters “Where’s my daughter” -  general ensemble during which John discovers that Hugh is not alone.

“Why there’s a girl with him - here goes for a kiss”

Mary throws off the cloak “Mary”! general shout

Constable “Here John how do you feel about managing a trull like that.”

John Marriage - certainly not - but perhaps some other arrangement!

General indignation from the chorus - a grand scrimmage interrupted by the sound of a bugle & dawn.  Enter Sergeant & Squad.

Sergeant “Where is the spy”?

Hugh comes forward wrapped in his cloak

Sergeant “Take off your cloak”  “Why - this is no spy -This is my old friend Hugh the drover - well - I won’t go back empty handed.  We’ll take that butcher there & make a soldier of him”.

Exeunt soldiers dragging John with them.

Constable who has been much impressed with the proceedings goes up to Hugh & invites him to settle down & marry Mary.

Hugh. “No not this quiet respectable life for me - Mary will you come on the roads with me?”

Mary   “Yes”.

Hugh  “Now for the road again
   The blessed sun & rain
   Come Mary by my side
   So the Drover claims his bride”

Exeunt.  Constable tries to stop them but Aunt Jane prevents him
 “They’re not for us nor for our quiet days
  Life calls these lovers out to wilder ways



1. The Zincali, published in 1841

Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
General notes: 

Sent from Cordelia Curle’s house where the VWs spent their summer holiday in 1922 as house-sitters while Cordelia and her son Adam were in France. See R.V.W.: a biography, p.145.
The synopsis is entirely in the hand AVW.

Cobbe 132
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