Ralph Vaughan Williams knew that he wasn’t what most people would consider an operatic composer: ‘They won’t like it. They don’t want an opera with no heroine and no love duets – and I don’t care. It’s what I meant and there it is.’

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Driving back to Dorking from the premiere of his final opera The Pilgrim’s Progress on 26 April 1951, he had a fair idea of what the general audience felt and what the critics would say next morning – and he was more or less right.

Having previously written four full-length operas and a few shorter theatrical works, he knew just how to work the genre for his own distinctive purpose. That the inexperienced team allocated to his score at Covent Garden didn’t really understand how to realise his very personal vision was hardly his fault. But what should have been the crowning glory of his public career was suddenly to him ‘a flop’ and he would soon remark bitterly that, ‘The Pilgrim is dead and that’s that.’

When did Vaughan Williams compose The Pilgrim’s Progress?

Few in that first audience could have known just how long the composer had been on his creative journey with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and that the origins of what had become a lifelong obsession lay way back in Edwardian 1906: indeed, Vaughan Williams himself would hardly have dreamt then that nearly half a century later he would be sitting in the Royal Opera House as British music’s uncontested Grand Old Man.

But that status often sat uncomfortably with a composer of uncompromising integrity and determination, so the apparent failure of Pilgrim’s Progress – a project in which he had invested heart and soul – hurt him more deeply than any other creative rebuff. The work had emerged very gradually and in distinctive stages over several decades (almost accidentally) so that the final score of 1951 literally represented a lifetime’s thought and labour.

It was, however, pure chance that friends at Reigate Priory in Surrey were presenting a theatrical version of the classic Puritan allegory in 1906 and thus needed some simple incidental music. The circumstances were rough and ready but the experience brought a vivid childhood recollection back to Vaughan Williams of having the book read to him in the late 1870s. Although now based in London, he spent a lot of time at his family home in nearby Leith Hill Place (where his mother and sister lived) and in 1905 had just become involved in the new Leith Hill Festival.

Almost fortuitously, his music for this amateur production of Pilgrim’s Progress came in the wake of two interconnected and life-changing explorations: the collecting of folksongs in rural England and the editing and creation of The English Hymnal, both of which were put to immediate good use.

The noble Scottish hymn-tune York (which Vaughan Williams connected to Bunyanesque Roundheads) fitted the bill perfectly to open and close – and this same melody was to be heard on sonorous G major brass at Covent Garden in 1951 as the curtain went up on Bunyan writing in his prison-cell in Bedford: ‘So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.’

It returns two-and-a-half hours later as he sings directly to the audience: ‘O, then come hither, And lay my book, thy head and heart together.’ It seems that even at Reigate in 1906 Vaughan Williams had registered that The Pilgrim’s Progress had operatic possibilities so such continuity between 1906 and ’51 only serves to underline the degree to which the opera itself is the summation of a career-long endeavour – but for the time being the idea went to the back of the composer’s teeming mind.

The next encounter with Bunyan came in 1921. If, in 1906, Vaughan Williams was only known for a handful of memorable songs, he’d survived the Great War as the acknowledged leader of a new generation of English composers: A Sea Symphony, the Tallis Fantasia, On Wenlock Edge and A London Symphony had made their mark and he was now on the staff of the Royal College of Music.

For a theatrical presentation there in 1922 he wrote a short one-act opera which he termed ‘a pastoral episode’, based on a scene towards the end of The Pilgrim’s Progress and entitled The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. This also used a fragment of the 1906 music but woven now into the richly ambiguous language which had gradually evolved from The Lark Ascending (largely pre-war) into that of the war-incubated A Pastoral Symphony. While the Pastoral’s landscape was largely French and haunted by death, Bunyan’s Chilterns restored an English radiance to Vaughan Williams’s vision, one which would quickly lead to his first full-length opera, Hugh the Drover, in 1924.

Things now become a little less clear. It could well be that the experience of writing a bucolic and folk-saturated opera led naturally to thoughts of a further encounter with John Bunyan – Vaughan Williams’s later confidant Michael Kennedy thought that work on drafting a full opera may have begun as early as 1925.

Yet between 1928 and ’36, three operas and a ballet were written which had nothing to do with The Pilgrim’s Progress. Sir John in Love (1928), Job (1930), The Poisoned Kiss and Riders to the Sea (both 1936 but the latter ‘in progress’ since 1925) explore a wide range of subjects and genres with a simultaneous broadening of the composer’s expressive range.

Still, it seems likely that work also continued sporadically on Pilgrim throughout this period, for after a rare bit of ‘composer’s block’ in 1937 Vaughan Williams started to talk of using its material in a new symphony, just in case the opera was never realised. Then a new muse came into his life in 1938, when he met the writer Ursula Wood (later his second wife) – no coincidence, perhaps, that the first music written after their encounter was the radiant Serenade to Music, whose rapturous idiom features prominently in the later opera.

The outbreak of World War II would have thrown a further spanner in any attempt at the opera, but in 1942 a chance commission from the BBC for incidental music to accompany a full version of The Pilgrim’s Progress gave Vaughan Williams the perfect opportunity to move a step closer to fulfilling his ultimate dream.

With so much material already to hand, the radio score provides what is virtually a bird’s eye view of the opera as ‘work-in-progress’ – 21 scenes and some familiar music, notably the ‘theme by Thomas Tallis’ which had emerged back in 1906 in connection with Bunyan, four years before becoming the basis of his Fantasia.

Then in 1943, a Proms audience was both entranced and becalmed by the beneficent vision of a distant peaceable kingdom in a war-torn world, as Vaughan Williams conducted the premiere of the Fifth Symphony. But again, very few of those present would have known just how much in this transfigured music was directly connected in the composer’s mind to The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Finally in 1944-45, he embarked on creating the fully-operatic version of Bunyan’s text, and by 1949 tentative ‘play-throughs’ to carefully selected friends, of what Vaughan Williams was now calling a ‘Morality’, were held to canvas opinion. These eventually led his long-standing friend Steuart Wilson, then deputy general administrator of the Royal Opera House, to arrange its premiere production at Covent Garden in 1951, as part of the general celebrations to mark the Festival of Britain. So we reach that fateful gala night and one of the greatest disappointments of the composer’s life. He was partly reassured and comforted by the appreciative support of many respected friends and colleagues, and he knew in his heart of hearts that he’d written what he wanted to achieve.

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So what went wrong? In part, it was the famous curse of Covent Garden itself – which was later to blight (in varying degrees) Gloriana, The Midsummer Marriage, Troilus and Cressida and The Ice Break. In 1950, when Vaughan Williams had virtually given up hope of seeing his opera staged by the Royal Opera, he began to approach Cambridge’s Arts Theatre with a view to presenting the opera there instead. Perhaps he should have persisted. In 1954 it was to his alma mater that he returned to see a fresh production by the Cambridge University Musical Society in the city’s Guildhall. With an ardent-voiced undergraduate John Noble as the Pilgrim and a supporting cast of vividly enthusiastic young students on stage, the composer could finally say categorically, ‘This is what I meant!’

Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress directed by Yoshi Oida and conducted by Martyn Brabbins
Colin Judson as Lord Lechery with artists of the company in English National Opera's production of Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress directed by Yoshi Oida and conducted by Martyn Brabbins at the London Coliseum. (Photo by robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images)

Productions and performances since 1954, however, have been thin on the ground and only two commercial recordings exist. Maybe The Pilgrim’s Progress was never destined to be a popular ‘opera’ and a box-office success, but it enshrines every aspect of his creative personality. It has sublime transcendence as well as fairground jollity, a mingling of both heavenly and hellish experience plus most things in between – all expressed with a voice of supreme humanity and wisdom.

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