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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Information on Select Stage Works

The Pilgrim's Progress

The last of Vaughan Williams' operas, one of his greatest works, and a labour of about forty years. This work to me is the key to Vaughan Williams' music. Musical ideas that reappear throughout his catalogue find their most meaningful expression here. Unfortunately, it will never be a popular work, since it lacks any sexual element at all (the Vanity Fair sequence, though brilliant, has all the allure of Hogarth and Breughel) and the melodramma approach to character and situation. Furthermore, it has no vocal displays to impress the voice groupies, just magnificent music in the service of story.
In the 20s, Vaughan Williams wrote "The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains," an extended act – or "pastoral episode" – which he later incorporated into The Pilgrim's Progress. Since the composer was at an advanced age with the opera still incomplete and unsure that he would live long enough, he released some of the material in other forms. The Fifth Symphony is the greatest of these, but there is also the so-called "Bunyan Sequence" for radio. The complete opera, still available on EMI, should be preferred over the latter, although the radio piece will interest the Vaughan Williams fanatic in how the composer shaped and tightened the final version.
The opera exhibits all of Vaughan Williams' range, from the Tallis Fantasia (which receives its apotheosis as Pilgrim enters the Celestial City) through Sancta Civitas, the Pastoral Symphony, the English Hymnal, Symphonies 4 and 6, and a lifetime of setting great English poetry to tunes that fit. The work has its low spots, notably the fight with Apollyon, more suited to stage spectacle (like Wagner's dragon) than sound, but they are incredibly few. Credit is also due to the poet Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composer's second wife) for wrenching a wonderful libretto from what seems to me a dramatically recalcitrant original. Adrian Boult conducts the only complete recording, with the happily-named John Noble as Pilgrim, the role he created, and just about every first-rate singer in the British isles. However, EMI recorded it, so it's not likely to linger in the shops.

Recommended Recordings:
John Noble, Pilgrim; London Philharmonic Choir; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CMS764212-2

Riders to the Sea

Irish dramatist H.M Synge's play provided Vaughan Williams with his best libretto and most effective theatrical work. Still, no one will produce the opera, for all the usual reasons and because the piece is so short. The story centres around a family's lament for sons lost at sea off the Donegal coast. It's notable for the orchestral portraits of the sea and the wind, which ultimately lead to the Sinfonia Antartica.
Meredith Davies conducted a performance with Norma Burrowes, Margaret Price, Benjamin Luxon, and the magnificent Helen Watts as Maurya. EMI produced it, and you'll be happy to hear that they've recently reissued it.

Recommended Recordings:
Norma Burrowes, Nora; Margaret Price, Cathleen; Benjamin Luxon, Bartley; Helen Watts, Maurya;
Ambrosian Singers; Orchestra Nova of London; Meredith Davies. EMI CDC764730-2

Sir John in Love

Vaughan Williams wrote five operas: Hugh the Drover, The Poisoned Kiss, John in Love, Riders to the Sea, and Pilgrim's Progress. All except the Poisoned Kiss (Overture excepted) have appeared on recording at one time or another. All are to some extent 'problem' operas. Hugh the Drover and, to some extent, The Poisoned Kiss suffer from weak libretti. Pilgrim's Progress is too far from the normal stuff of successful opera. Riders to the Sea is too short.
Based on Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor", John in Love competes with Verdi's Falstaff. Although Verdi's work is an undeniable masterpiece, I prefer Sir John. The music is one long chain of glorious tunes. In the last act especially, Vaughan Williams seems to play a successful game of "Can You Top This?"; until a spectacular finale. For those of you who love opera for the melodies, you won't find a better; even Puccini seems a bit sparse in comparison. The only recording appeared on EMI LP. Perhaps they will transfer to CD.

Recommended Recordings:
Raimund Herincx, Falstaff; Wendy Eathorne, Anne Page; Felicity Palmer, Mrs. Page; Elizabeth Bainbridge, Mrs. Ford; Robert Tear, Fenton; Gerald English, Dr. Caius; Helen Watts, Mrs. Quickly; Robert Lloyd, Ford;
John Alldis Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Meredith Davies. EMI (LP) SCLX-3822

The Wasps – Aristophanic Suite

Vaughan Williams wrote incidental music for the Cambridge University production of Aristophanes' "The Wasps", The source – which can be seen by following the link – is a satirical play. It's one of the first works in which he found his own voice, and it's a masterpiece of wit and fancy, from the fantastic buzzing of the "wasps" (actually the citizens of Athens) to a delightfully loopy speedup of themes from Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and a Haydnesque surprise. The complete suite is to be preferred to recordings which contain only the overture. Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley have recorded the complete suite.

Recommended Recordings:
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDC747216-2

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