Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ralph Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress in Context

a preliminary study
by Eric Seddon

This essay was originally published in the Journal of the RVW Society, No. 26, February 2003; the first in a series reevaluating the religious symbolism and drama in the works of RVW.  

From the time of its premiere at Covent Garden on 26 April 1951,  Ralph Vaughan Williams’s operatic masterpiece, The Pilgrim’s Progress, has been at the very least enigmatic for those who would seek to understand, categorize, support or criticize it. One of the first points of contention usually raised is the question of its suitability for the operatic stage. Its critics point to what they consider to be the static nature of the action, often described as independent tableaux rather than scenes flowing one from another. They point further to the content of those tableaux; suggesting that such noble, religious sentiment ought to be performed in cathedrals rather than opera houses. Finally, they point to the fact that the composer himself referred to the piece as a ‘Morality’ rather than as an ‘opera.’ All of these arguments tend to put the supporters of the piece on the defensive from the outset. One feels that, as a musicologist, one must deliver an apology for the piece rather than focus on its unique qualities. Indeed, to discuss how unique the work is seems dangerous, as it might further alienate the piece from a potential staging. To compound the problem, those of us who recognize the piece’s dramatic qualities, who actually find in it a supremely dramatic statement, often  find ourselves in  the most difficult of positions: trying to prove what to us seems self evident. The temptation even exists to get a bit frustrated with RVW himself for having named the piece a ‘Morality.’ It begins to seem that if he had just named it an ‘opera’ in the first place, he’d have saved us all a lot of trouble in trying to get it staged.
            This temptation, though, is better off ignored. The fact is that in designating the piece a “Morality,” the composer was illuminating the sub-genre of the piece rather than obscuring it, and that such a designation does not at all separate it from the general canon of operatic compositions. Thus,  instead of defending the piece by a discussion, primarily, of  its interior virtues in an isolated fashion, this article aims to do something slightly different: to place The Pilgrim’s Progress in the context of Vaughan Williams’s thought and in the context of the 20th century, and to compare and contrast the opera’s achievement with it’s most similar contemporaries. Two other composers’ operas in particular, produced in the same decade, will help to illuminate the unique, but necessarily operatic place in musical history The Pilgrim’s Progress occupies.
            During the 1950’s three major composers, none of them particularly known for operatic endeavors, each produced masterpieces for the stage. In September of 1951 Igor Stravinsky, who had long wanted to write an English language opera, produced The Rake’s Progress, an opera in the form of a “moral fable” based upon Hogarth’s 18th century paintings, with text by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman. Earlier in the same year, as part of the Festival of Britain, Ralph Vaughan Williams produced the results of four and a half decades of work when The Pilgrim’s Progress was staged at Covent Garden. The third of this interesting operatic triptych, Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites, was produced in Milan’s famed La Scala in 1957. It was based on the true story of the execution of 16 Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution.
            These three operas have many interesting things in common. First, they each represent the undeniable apotheosis for their respective composers in the operatic form. Second, they were all staged after World War II, with only one of them being conceived prior to the war (Vaughan Williams had conceived of a Bunyan based opera prior to even WWI, let alone WWII). Third, each of them dealt with morality on one level or another, while struggling with the questions of good and evil. It is also important to note that all three of them were written in an accessible, tonal, musical language.
            The fact that they were all written or produced in the decade following World War II is, I think, not necessarily as insignificant or coincidental as it might seem. While much has rightfully been said about the impact of World War I upon the history of music, comparatively little has been made by musical historians concerning the aftermath of the second World War. Perhaps this is because the major composers between the two wars were essentially the major composers from before the First World War as well, making the study of the war’s effects more blatant and discernible. Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Vaughan Williams, and Ravel, among others, were all well established before the war as important composers, thus any deliberate or noticeable changes in style immediately after the war were likely to be scrutinized and easily quantified. Stravinsky’s move to neoclassicism and Schoenberg’s codifying of his serial method are perhaps the best known and most aurally identifiable differences between their old and new styles, but the change in Vaughan Williams’s style is noticeable as well, particularly as the release of Richard Hickox’s recording of the London Symphony provides us with an opportunity to look into the difference between the pre-war and the post-war RVW. Gone are the romantic meanderings, the chromatic ambiguities of his older style. The new is marked by a greater clarity, stronger musical direction, and more attention to definite moments of climax and release. Whether the war had any direct impact upon this change, or whether RVW was moving in this direction anyway might be a subject for debate, but it is interesting to note that his Pastoral Symphony, directly related to his wartime experience, exhibits all of the attention to clarity and climax just mentioned as aspects of his post-war style. The dramatic shift from the “Romantic” to the “Modern” had taken place. Not long afterwards, in an article about Holst, Vaughan Williams himself was to described the “essence of modern music” as “to drive straight at the root of the matter in hand without artifice or subterfuge.” (National Music p.139). Although this same attitude might even be argued in the younger VW’s pieces,  I think it is finally and fully realized after the war.
            Less is made of the post WWII era, perhaps because the prominent composers before the war were not necessarily the most prominent  afterwards. John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Michael Tippett and others, though most of whom were active before the war (some for a considerable amount of time) they gained their greatest fame afterwards, and little attention has been given to their pre-war styles. Meanwhile, composers such as Aaron Copland and even Stravinsky himself spent their final decades writing twelve tone music, most of which isn’t performed today. In a sense they composed themselves into historical obscurity at a time when they might have been writing their most enduring works (an irony Stravinsky would have found maddening). But another thing had also happened: the enthusiastic young composers of the first half of the century had become the old guard. Vaughan Williams, though respectfully regarded as the Grand Old Man of British music in the post WWII period, had become critically marginalized in favor of the younger Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. Stravinsky was no longer considered the revolutionary  he was once hailed as, and Poulenc was simply regarded as one of the only members of “Les Six” who hadn’t dropped entirely off the musical map. Critics were looking in other places. Schoenberg’s nearly two decades of teaching in southern California had exercised a tremendous influence on an entire generation of American composers and scholars, making serialism the dominant compositional method in both Europe and North America among conservatory trained composers until probably the early 1980’s. It is telling to note, however, that no other serial composers past the first generation of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, have even come close to entering the standard repertoire. Thus the post WWII musical landscape is even more drastically different from the 1930’s than the post WWI era is from pre-1914.            
            I am not sure whether or not WWII had a specific impact on the history of music that can as yet be definitely traced, but we are just now getting to be far enough away from that era to see things more clearly in their historical context. Certainly music history was radically changed at that time, though whether the war created or facilitated that change may be debatable. One of the most fascinating things that I’ve noticed in studying this period is that the great orchestral canon seems actually to have all but completely closed shortly after the war. Until then, pieces were still regularly added to the repertoire, right up until the end of the war. Shostakovich’s 7th symphony, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s 5th: all of these are wartime pieces and all have remained in the repertoire, but almost immediately afterwards the crop begins to die off, and by the 1960’s hardly any pieces are introduced that  have remained in the standard repertoire to the present day (one of the last indisputable additions to the canon is Britten’s War Requiem). This is not to comment at all on the relative merits of any of the pieces since that time (I think MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross is a masterpiece). Rather, it is to point out that something sociological, musical, political, economic, philosophic, technological or some combination of all of these things happened to shift emphasis away from the forms, methods and standards that had dominated western art music for two hundred years or more. And this shift, even if it was only temporarily in effect for four or five decades, had a drastic effect on the orchestral and operatic repertoire, including how those repertoires are built and maintained. I bring this up here not for the sake of expounding this theory in full but to point out that in the midst of this great shift in music history, these three operas stand. They are pieces at the very end of an era not only for their composers, but possibly for the history of music itself. And particularly interesting to my current discussion is that the three of them all turned their attentions to morality and/or sacred opera.

            The term of “sacred opera” may sound a bit strange, but it is by no means an alien concept to the genre. Verdi’s Nabucco, Saint-Saens’s Samson et Delilah, Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and Wagner’s Parsifal, among others, all deal with sacred subjects of one form or another. Likewise, “moralities” are quite standard in the repertoire, as evidenced by Mozart’s Don Giovanni (which seems more a celebration of womanizing, even rape, until the moralizing ending where Don Giovanni is dragged down to hell) Gounod’s Faust and even pieces such as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The operatic high-water mark for Stravinsky, Poulenc and Vaughan Williams happened in one or both of these sub-genres. Stravinsky’s is a straight moral fable.  There is little to suggest, overtly, anything sacred about the piece, and the only ‘religious’ elements mentioned in the libretto occur when a crowd of gossips talking about the main character, Tom Rakewell, give differing accounts of his denominational status : “He’s Methodist--he’s Papist--he’s converting Jewry!” None of which was apparently true. Poulenc’s Carmelites, by contrast, deals very little with overt morality, save in the choice of an individual young woman to either remain faithful to her vow or to renounce it, but even this isn’t the central issue of the plot. Instead, the opera focuses on the sacred--the mysteries of the spiritual life vs. the physical, of the spiritual courage and strength to face death without being overcome by fear. By contrast, Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim is a merger of the two forms: it is both a morality, as the title informs us, and a sacred opera, as critics have been eager to point out (not always encouragingly). The use of sacred symbols and texts permeate the opera to a degree rarely if ever matched in the history of opera, or at least in an opera of its caliber and importance within the composer’s own canon. 
            Having said all of this, why would three such pieces, culminations for these composers, suddenly appear during the decade of the 1950’s?  Did WWII, if fact, play any role in the composition, production, or inspiration of these pieces? I think a case can be made, especially if one considers the philosophical underpinnings of at least the Poulenc and the Stravinsky, that a reaction to WWII was in the background. Stravinsky, never a composer to be shy about his musical or philosophical opinions stated in his Harvard lectures of 1939-40 that “If we take reason alone as a guide in this field, it will lead us straight to falsehoods, since it will no longer be enlightened by instinct. Instinct is infallible.” (Poetics of Music, p.25). Incidentally, this statement might have been written by Wagner, so close is it to his philosophy, a fact which would have appalled Stravinsky had it been mentioned at the time. By contrast, the Stravinsky who was busy composing the Rake less than a decade after giving these lectures seems to have been making the opposite philosophical point. He lampoons the foolish protagonist, Tom Rakewell, who follows “nature” and instinct into a brothel in London. Indeed, in the end, Rakewell must pay the price for his instinct-worship: he loses his reason altogether and ends up in a madhouse. If we take Stravinsky at his word in both instances, we are forced to draw the conclusion that his personal artistic philosophy, if not his philosophy of life itself, underwent a drastic change after the Second World War. One might argue that in the first case, Stravinsky was discussing “art” while in the second he was discussing “life” but this surely becomes a strained dichotomy when one realizes that, for an artist, the two are generally the same endeavor.
            Stravinsky, it ought to be clearly stated, was quiet strongly opposed to the Wagnerian concept of art. He rejected it outright as an abomination, as the idolatry of art--the turning of art into a religion. His criticism was thorough: he rejected even the premise of Wagner’s attempted return to the music dramas of the middle ages, pointing out that those medieval works had sprung from the soil of Christian faith rather than what he conceived to be Wagner’s perverse “aping of a religious rite.” (Autobiography, p. 39). Although Stravinsky tried very hard not to be labeled as either a reactionary or as a composer “of the future,” The Rake’s Progress most definitely betrays a reactionary spirit. In it, Stravinsky attempts to resurrect secco recitative and the standard “numbers” opera from pre-Wagnerian days. Considering the amount of Wagnerian propaganda used by the Third Reich during WWII, it is not very far fetched to think that the Rake was prodded on by a philosophical reaction to the war. It is also quite possible that Stravinsky had reevaluated his notions of  “instinct,” found the similarities between his own thought and Wagner’s, and realized that the idolatry of instinct can lead to atrocities if unchecked by reason.
            In a similar manner, it is not at all out of the question that Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites was influenced by a similar spirit of reaction. But instead of the simplistic, if sensible moral of the Rake (that reason must govern instinct), Poulenc’s criticism of society, where it exists in the opera, is against rationalism as an end in itself. The nuns in the opera are executed, quite simply, as traitors to the Republic. They are part of an organization which is governed by a foreign authority (Rome) and which was allied to the recently overthrown monarchical regime.  Therefore they are to be executed as traitors if they refuse to disband. Meticulously based on a play by Georges Bernanos, a noted monarchist reactionary and, like Poulenc, a devout Roman Catholic, the opera is a vivid statement that liberty, equality, and fraternity are not enough; that if they are enforced under the control of an atheistic “enlightenment,” they will descend immediately into barbarism: the vox populi becoming the tyranny of the mob rather than the vox dei.
            By contrast to the other two, Vaughan Williams is not a composer easily pinned down philosophically, and seems to have had a less drastic reaction to the war. Still, there is a reaction to be found, at least musically. In a technical sense, WWII  played at least a minor role in the compositional development of The Pilgrim’s Progress, in that RVW was asked to write incidental music for a BBC wartime radio production of Bunyan. Of course, it is more than likely that the final form of the opera would be virtually the same anyway, but the added incentive must have encouraged the project, possibly even providing a catalyst for composition of the final work at a crucial stage of development. Yet to speak of The Pilgrim’s Progress as a reaction in any way to the Second World War in the same manner that one might legitimately speculate concerning the Rake and the Carmelites would be unfounded. What can be said is that the Pilgrim is the culmination of a period in RVW’s compositional career. Stylistically, it fits in more comfortably in a discussion of works like the Pastoral Symphony or even the Dona Nobis Pacem than it does with the 6th and 7th symphonies, let alone the 8th and 9th. It is also worth noting that after the 5th symphony, which is intimately related to The Pilgrim’s Progress, RVW never again composed a symphony in a major key, and the last four symphonies are notably more disturbing than four of the first five (the F minor 4th excepted, for obvious reasons).
            Unlike Stravinsky and Poulenc, however, Vaughan Williams’s religious beliefs are not precisely known, and the data is decidedly ambiguous. This is perhaps unfortunate, as direct knowledge of those beliefs would shed considerable light on his pieces. In particular, our understanding of The Pilgrim’s Progress would benefit by a discussion of  these beliefs, regardless of the difficulties. In general, over the last four and a half decades since RVW’s death, much has been made over his agnosticism. Recently,  Dr. Byron Adams, in his influential article on RVW and his use of scripture, has suggested that the composer was a rational humanist (or at least implied that many of his statements ought to be understood in this context) (Frogley, p.108).  James Day has suggested that the composer “accepted the altruism of the Christian ethic  while rejecting its supernatural element.” (Day, p.100) While this may apply, in some ways, to RVW’s beliefs at certain times of his life, particularly in his very early years, I must respectfully disagree with these theories as an overall assessment of the composer’s beliefs. Furthermore, I believe a revisiting of these issues to be necessary in order to fully understand the dramatic vitality of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
            First, as to whether Vaughan Williams was a rational humanist, such a notion is thrown into serious doubt, if not refuted outright, by the composer himself in a letter to Rutland Boughton regarding The Pilgrim’s Progress:
       to what you accuse me of--i.e. ‘re-dressing an old theology’, it seems to
me that some of your ideas are a good deal more moribund than Bunyan’s
theology:--the old fashioned republicanism and Marxism which led direct
to the appalling dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, or your Rationalism,
which dates from about 1880 and has entirely failed to solve any problems of the Universe. (UVW, p. 304)

            Secondly, as to whether Vaughan Williams accepted the Christian ethic while denying the supernatural qualities of the religion, I think such a theory less likely when one considers a number of things. In the context of our present discussion, the Pilgrim itself becomes a horribly misguided and indeed a failed work of art if such a theory is applied to it. The reason is this: the charge of “static” to the drama must be considered undeniably true unless the coming of the Pilgrim to the cross at the beginning of Act I, Scene 2 isn’t charged with supernatural belief. I will talk more of this crucial scene later, when comparing it with Poulenc’s Carmelites; for now I will simply state that in order to understand the dramatic impetus of the opera overall, one must give oneself over to the notion expressed by the Pilgrim in this scene: “He has given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.” It is unlikely that a man repelled by or indifferent to the supernatural element of Christianity would make a moment such as this, even symbolically, the centerpiece of his life’s most ambitious work. It is also the centerpiece of his D major Symphony, as the thematic material of the Romanza and the note to the manuscript of the score at the beginning of this movement attest. 
            Also contrasting to this theory is the care and dramatic sense which Vaughan Williams gave to performances of the Bach passions. It is unlikely that a man concerned with Bach for solely musical purposes would bother to translate the Passions into English for performance, and even if RVW’s nationalism is taken well into account on this issue, it is quite unlikely that he would have done such innovative and dramatic things in the performance of those works. For example, he wrote in his Bach Choir program notes as early as 1923, when discussing the problems of performing the Bach Passions with a large modern choir:
It seems ridiculous and outside of the bounds of dramatic proportion to give the
words of the Apostles or the questions of Peter to more than a few voices; these
numbers have therefore been assigned to the semi-chorus. One exception, however,
has been made: the words ‘truly, this was the Son of God’ belong not to the ‘Centurion
and they that were with him’ , but are the triumphant outcry of the whole world. (UVW 426)

Unless we are willing to paint RVW as a bit of an audience manipulating cynic, we must understand these words to have truly meant something to him; we might even be so bold as to suggest that he meant exactly what he wrote. It is also worth noting that these words are roughly contemporary to the first performance of  The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, which was premiered the year before, and later incorporated into the final version of The Pilgrim.
            Another example of RVW’s dramatic approach to Bach comes in an example of his insight into the St. John. As Mrs. Vaughan Williams has written:
...he made them sing the first ‘whom seek ye’ in a truculent way, the hunting pack in full cry. Then, after that strange description ‘they went backward and fell to the ground’, the second time they answered ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ they had to be a frightened crowd. (UVW 429)
             This interpretation can only be accounted for in one of two ways: either Vaughan Williams had become an expert at suspending his disbelief--to the point of  making deep observations about the Christian understanding of these biblical verses, or he had simply understood how terrifying it would be to be involved in violent contact with the Son of God, even from the illusory security of an angry mob. Neither understanding implies any rejection on RVW’s part of the supernatural element of Christianity, at least not actively or decisively. If anything, they suggest a willingness to accept such a supernatural element. Either way, it is obvious that Vaughan Williams didn’t find the scriptural description “strange” in any way--he understood dramatically why they would have been frightened, and his interpretation of Bach’s music makes sense of the matter.
             Along with these examples, a further look into Vaughan Williams’s beliefs concerning the nature of music itself  will help to clear up a great deal of confusion as to where he stood regarding these issues. The following quote is from an article of his from 1920 called “The Letter and the Spirit”:
Before going any further may we take it that the object of an art is to obtain a partial
revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties--of that, in fact,
which is spiritual? And that the means we employ  to induce this revelation are those very
senses and faculties themselves?
        The human, visible, audible, and intelligible media which artists (of all kinds)
use, are symbols not of other visible and audible things but of what lies beyond sense
and knowledge. (National Music, p.122)

He restated this belief many times throughout his career, most succinctly perhaps, in 1954’s “The Making of Music”:
Music is a reaching out to the ultimate realities by means of ordered sound. (National Music, p 206)

Two things are easily gained by revisiting these quotes: First, that Vaughan Williams believed in a spiritual reality beyond human faculties, and second, that he believed that reality to be the “ultimate reality.” This is not such a nebulous description as some might initially think. Theologians and philosophers have used the phrase “ultimate reality”, since the time of Hegel, as a description of God. All of this is very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile to a notion of Vaughan Williams as a rational humanist opposed somehow to the supernatural elements of Christianity. Furthermore, an awareness that this predominant interpretation of Vaughan Williams’s beliefs might ultimately be incorrect actually enables us to see the Pilgrim in a more sensible light. Once we are willing to go this far, we find ourselves in a position to take the opera at face value, entering directly into the allegory. If not, we are forced to read the opera as a convoluted metaphor: a Christian allegory, explicitly stated, yet not intended to mean the things it says. I think half the reason the Pilgrim is not taken as seriously as it ought to be is that Vaughan Williams scholars seem to have bent over backwards to write disclaimers about the composer’s agnosticism, as though suggesting “Don’t worry, folks, he really didn’t mean it” would help the cause of his opera. But what if he really did mean it? It is on this premise that I will proceed, and it is on this premise that I believe the dramatic content of the opera becomes evident. Most significantly, it is with all of this in mind that we can most beneficially compare and contrast the Pilgrim to the Rake and the Carmelites regarding the two most serious charges generally leveled against it: either that it is non-dramatic or that its dramatic content belongs in a cathedral rather than an opera house.

            Defenders of the Pilgrim are quick to point out that Wagner’s operas are quite often more static in nature than it is, and yet they aren’t routinely decried as non-dramatic.  Even Mozart’s Magic Flute contains esoteric and ritualistic elements that are accepted and, I am told, enjoyed by operatic audiences. True as these examples are, the shocking fact is that one need not even look outside of the very decade in which  the Pilgrim was premiered to find examples of successful operas with these same characteristics. The Carmelites is not primarily concerned with exterior action, but with the dialogue between the characters. Poulenc was very careful that his orchestration not cover up the clarity of  Bernanos’s text, for the intricacies of the words sung  contain the central action of the plot. The crucial notion of the opera is that of spiritual substitution. It is 1793, during the reign of terror, and Sister Blanche, a young novice from a noble family is terrified of death, yet desires to become a Carmelite nun (a precarious vocation at the time). She meets the old prioress, who is dying and has never feared death, but who ultimately dies horribly, plagued by doubt in the very God she has all he life believed in. Another young nun suggests later to Blanche that the prioress must have died someone else’s death, so that the other person, who must fear death tremendously, will be enabled to die a more peaceful one: the one the prioress should, by merit, have earned. This suggestion is realized, subtly, at the end of the opera when Blanche, who has run away from the convent to escape martyrdom, and subsequently the vow of martyrdom which she took with her sisters, returns and mounts the scaffold, guillotined as she prays peacefully.
            The plot is obviously not without drama. The ending, with the constant sound of the guillotine in the music, and the number of singers dwindling from a chorus down to the solo voice of Blanche, is haunting and, even for those who can only appreciate it on a superficial level, at least shocking. Yet despite the mostly “static” nature of the convent scenes, and despite the ritual of the nuns displayed in the opera, I know of no one suggesting that it be performed in cathedrals instead of opera houses. Moreover, the central tension of the plot is strikingly similar to that of the Pilgrim. As I mentioned before, Act I  Scene 2 is crucial to our understanding of Vaughan Williams’s opera. The difference is that RVW has displayed it symbolically rather than physically, as Poulenc has. Yet the coming of the Pilgrim to the cross is permeated by this same notion of substitution: the death of Christ for the life of the Pilgrim, and of all humanity. Just as with Sister Blanche and the prioress, it doesn’t mean that the Pilgrim won’t die, but that he will die more peacefully and faithfully by that help. The major difference with the Pilgrim is that, because of its allegorical and symbolic form, the audience is invited to truly enter into the drama, personally. In other words, we can empathize with Sister Blanche, but we can actually become the Pilgrim (indeed, Bunyan comes out afterwards and asks us to do just that). Perhaps this immediacy, this entering into the spiritual struggle of the Pilgrim was precisely the thing that made it difficult to accept. Perhaps the critics found it too spiritually challenging, deciding to ignore it rather than deal with it. Unfortunately they had the perfect excuse at the time: Vaughan Williams was passé, too old, his “best” music was surely behind him. Fortunately, history tends to erase those sorts of  considerations. Bach’s B Minor Mass, quite “behind the times” musically in its day, is revered now. I think this will be the case, eventually, for the Pilgrim.
            Having said this, Poulenc’s opera has entered the repertoire, and is regularly, if not frequently, performed. Perhaps it has an advantage over the Pilgrim in it’s obviously sensational ending (“Come! See Nuns Executed!” Tawdry, but perhaps it sells tickets?) One thing, however, is that it dispels any notion that the Pilgrim is too religious for the operatic stage. Dialogues des Carmelites is far more overtly religious, in the denominational sense, than the Pilgrim. Like RVW’s opera, it is a sacred work which has invaded the predominantly secular genre of opera. But this in no way diminishes its status as operatic. Just as Sister Blanche must actually mount the scaffold, physically, for the piece to be effective dramatically, so must the Pilgrim, physically and visually come to the empty Cross, or, for that matter, enter the gates of Heaven beyond the River of Death for it to be fully realized artistically. Of course it presupposes the audience has some knowledge of what this symbolizes, but what work of art doesn’t make such presuppositions? Nothing else would convey the powerful turn of events in the opera. How else would the Pilgrim go from a neurotic mess, afraid of death, to someone willing to face death at every turn for the duration of the opera (and his life), until the end when he gladly crosses the River of Death? The answer is clear. Either Act I Scene 2 works, transforming the Pilgrim,  or the whole opera is a dramatic flop. To me, it runs right to the heart of the issue perfectly, and there is no question of its success artistically.
            The Rake’s Progress, as I have mentioned earlier, has almost no overt religious quality to it at all. A foolish young man is lured to his near-ultimate damnation by the devil (Nick Shadow--who bares a striking and, I think, direct resemblance to C.S. Lewis’s “Uncle Screwtape”, also a wartime character) . He is saved, after a series of often hilarious parodies of society, from complete damnation only by the power of his true love’s faithfulness ( His true love is called, not surprisingly, Anne Truelove). Though it is subtitled “a moral fable”, I have yet to hear of anyone suggesting that such a designation disqualifies it from operatic production. Almost the entire opera may be read as an augmentation of Act III Scene 1 of the Pilgrim, but with a difference: Tom Rakewell succumbs to every temptation available in Vanity Fair while the Pilgrim resists. As a result, Vaughan Williams’s opera must press on. Not satisfied to merely point out the fallacies of high life in the city, The Pilgrim’s Progress deals with a multitude of other spiritual issue. Among these are how to deal with physical or psychological fear of death (Apollyon), how to deal with easily accessible sensual pleasure (Vanity Fair), how to deal with despair (The Pilgrim in Prison), and how to deal with hypocrisy (The By-Ends). It will be noticed that this flow of scenes is not really static, but that one builds upon another. The most basic of fears is first, and progressively the temptations become more subtle, until the Pilgrim has conquered all of them. Thus they are real acts and scenes, and not mere independent tableaux which could have been arranged in another order.
            The Rake does not penetrate so deeply, nor does it set out to. Rather, it lampoons Rakewell while surreptitiously enticing the audience to enjoy the same debauchery it lampoons. We are not, after all, supposed to approve of Mother Goose’s brothel, but we are encouraged to enjoy looking at the half naked whores and roaring boys in the scene. Vaughan Williams’s opera really leaves little room for this sort of thing, despite Vanity Fair. There is really very little humor in the Pilgrim, save in Act IV Scene 1 (The By-Ends), and the moral is clear. Unless one finds it beautiful, one cannot find it anything but uncomfortable or annoying. Likewise, the epilogue of the Rake has the cast reappear, without their wigs on, and jokingly wag their fingers at the audience, telling them the moral equivalent of “Now, now! Be good and don’t be naughty!” while the epilogue to the Pilgrim returns to Bunyan, quietly extending  his book, entreating you to join him and embark upon a journey to the Holy Land beyond the River of Death. It is not hard to see which would be more spiritually challenging for the audience and critics.
            One final point of interest is worth recording at the present time, primarily concerning the final act of the opera, “The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.” Surely if a scene in this opera can be called non-dramatic, this would be the one most open to the criticism. Yet it is worth noting that a young C.S. Lewis witnessed a performance of the piece in its earlier form, as a one act “Pastoral Episode” in 1926. This was his response to the piece, written in his Diary: 

The Vaughan Williams Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains was
above praise: words, music, acting and lighting all really unified and
 the result quite unearthly....[Afterwards the] Bach Coffee Cantata
 and the Purcell ballet of the Gentleman Dancing Master were both
 delightful and one didn’t really mind descending from the heights.  (Lewis, p.389

A short entry, but the man who wrote it was an ardent and lifelong fan of Wagner. Also, it ought to be mentioned that Lewis, though known later as a Christian apologist, was at the time an atheist. Now whether an atheist would have reacted well to the coming of the Pilgrim to the Cross is another matter entirely, but any problems one might have with it would be theological rather than dramatic.
                        To conclude, I would like to stress the preliminary nature of this article’s inquiries. If much of what I have put forth seems more of an overarching summary of the topics at hand than an in-depth study, it is because that is precisely what they are. They are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather introductory. I would particularly stress that Dr. Byron Adams’s theories concerning Vaughan Williams’s beliefs ought not to be confined or summarized, as they may seem in this article, by the term “rational humanist” and are deserving of much deeper discussion, which I may, perhaps, respectfully partake of in the future if there is any interest. There is also much more to say about the both the “interior virtues” and the unique place which The Pilgrim’s Progress holds in the history of opera. Those, however, would prove another article or two. I consider it an honor to have written this article for the Journal, and am thrilled to be one of the newest members of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, which has already done so much to champion this composer’s indispensable music.     

Works Cited:

Adams, Byron. “Scripture, Church, and culture: biblical texts in the works of Ralph Vaughan                   Williams.” Vaughan Williams Studies, ed. Alain Frogley. Cambridge University                      press, 1996.
Day, James. Vaughan Williams.3rd edition. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lewis, Clive Staples. All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis 1922-1927, ed. Walter Hooper. Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1991.
Stravinsky, Igor. An Autobiography. Simon & Schuster, 1936.
Stravinsky, Igor. Poetics of Music. Harvard University Press, 1942.
Vaughan Williams, Ralph. National Music and other Essays. Oxford University Press, 1963.
Vaughan Williams, Ursula. R.V.W.: A Biography. Oxford University Press, 1964.


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