Did you know
… about John Bunyan & the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress
- John Bunyan was a traveling tinker, and was penniless when he wrote his book The Pilgrim’s Progress.
- This story was written between 1667–1672 during the 12-year period when John Bunyan was imprisoned for not conforming to the Church of England.
- The first edition of the book was published in 1678. By Bunyan’s death in 1688, there were 100,000 copies of his book in print.
- The book was first published in America in 1681.
- John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most beloved books in the English language and has become the best-selling book (apart from the Bible) in publishing history.
- Remarkably, there has never been a time that this book has been out of print.
- There have been over 200 translations of this work into other languages.
- In 1942 a radio adaptation was aired starring John Gielgud, including, as background music, several excerpts from Vaughan Williams’s orchestral works.
Did you know
… about Ralph Vaughan Williams & the Opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress
- The opera was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and based on John Bunyan’s allegory of the same title.
- Vaughan Williams described the work as a “morality,” rather than an opera, and intended it for performance on the stage.
- This opera occupied Vaughan Williams’s thoughts for forty-five years. Its premiere in 1951 was given a mixed reception, but a performance three years later vindicated Vaughan Williams’s original thoughts on the work.
- Vaughan Williams, an admitted agnostic, changed the main character’s name from “Christian” to “Pilgrim” so that the central message encompassed all faiths.
- Unlike most operas, this one has an unusual number of singing roles, numbering more than forty.
- The libretto comes from several sources, including Vaughan Williams’s own extractions from Bunyan’s book, verses from the Bible, and original text by Ursula Wood, who was later to become Vaughan Williams’s second wife.
- While at first glance Vaughan Williams’s musical language and orchestration seem ultra-conservative, they in fact illuminate the text in moving and appealing ways. The transparency of the orchestration creates a luminous sound that carries the spiritual message. Vaughan Williams also had a gift for dramatic intention: the wide variety of forms—arias, recitatives, and small and large choruses—along with a keen rhythmic sense vividly dramatize each scene. Ursula Wood commented during rehearsals for the premiere that she thought the rhythms of the words were just right.
As noted earlier, Vaughan Williams spent over forty years contemplating The Pilgrim’s Progress. The following is a timeline of musical themes and sections that were assembled into the opera:
1906: Vaughan Williams was in the midst of editing and contributing to The English Hymnal. At the same time, he was asked to provide incidental music for a dramatization of parts of the Bunyan book. For this he used a hymn that he adapted from an English folk song with the text, “He who would valiant be.”
1922: Vaughan Williams composed a one-act opera based on the section of the book called “The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.” A section of this found its way into the completed opera.
1925–1935: Vaughan Williams began to work on the opera, writing the first two acts. He decided that it was unlikely to be staged, so he used some of the opera’s themes in his Fifth Symphony (1943).
1943: The BBC commissioned Vaughan Williams to write music for a radio dramatization of Bunyan’s book that stared John Gielgud as Pilgrim.
1943–1949: Vaughan Williams returned to the opera and completed it before the dawn of the 1950s.
1951: After the mixed reception the opera received at the premiere, Vaughan Williams went about making changes, including extending the Vanity Fair scene with the help of Ursula Wood.
– Vaughan Williams served in World War I and kept a copy of Bunyan’s book with him, even in the trenches.
– For those familiar with Vaughan Williams’s music, The Pilgrim’s Progress has all of the specific characteristics of his writing: lovely, reflective “pastoral” writing, alongside highly rhythmic, even violent musical gestures (much like his great oratorio Dona Nobis Pacem).
– There is little question that a dramatic highlight is the opening of Act 3, Vanity Fair. Here we get Vaughan Williams at his most inventive, with marvelous cameos from many characters, each specifically characterized in the music. It’s interesting to note that the aria for Lord Lechery was added in Vaughan Williams’s revision after the premiere.
– Vaughan Williams preferred to call this opera a “morality.” A morality play is a dramatized allegory of a representative Christian life who is seeking salvation. Usually the protagonist meets with both good and evil characters as he searches for salvation, and his spirit has the feel of Everyman, a universal representative of mankind.
– Vaughan Williams was hurt and disappointed by the reception the opera received. His most famous quote afterwards is: “They don’t like it, they won’t like it, and perhaps they never will like it, but it is the sort of opera I wanted to write, and there it is.”
– It is worth noting that although Vaughan Williams’s feelings about the work were vindicated by a splendid production in Cambridge in 1954, the opera is rarely performed. It was therefore heartening to know that English National Opera put on a well-received production in 2012, its first professional production in nearly sixty years.