Wednesday 14 November 2012

Pilgrim revisited

I dreamed a Dream – it must be about four years ago now – that Vaughan Williams’s very selective, semi-operatic take on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress had enough in it to attain the celestial city of masterpiece status. I saw a man in the very likeness of a good pilgrim – Roderick Williams – and a conductor, Richard Hickox, whom I’d been wary of in dynamic, intensely rhythmic scores but who had the spiritual measure of the music. This was the Philharmonia performance, which turned out to be one of Hickox's last, at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, minimally but movingly staged by the director I knew so well from City Opera days, David Edwards.

It’s curious to look back on what I wrote then and see how drastically it differed from my experience of what might have been another work altogether at English National Opera last week. Very decently conducted it was by Martyn Brabbins, and the chorus seized their multiple roles with fervour. But it seemed to me that a lot of the music, especially in the first half, was mired in a handful of chord progressions or else horribly invertebrate. The male soloists weren’t a patch on their Philharmonia counterparts, and I now conclude – especially as I take my City Lit students through the Boult and Hickox recordings – that much of the spiritual inner light must have been missing, at least until the scene (composed by VW back in the 1920s, decades before the finished ceremonial) where Pilgrim meets the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.

Musically that was so affecting in its restraint; but since director Yoshi Oida had the simple men got up as establishment figures – a priest, a lawyer and a doctor - telling prisoner Pilgrim to ready himself for death, the message was confused. As I thought it was throughout this very fitfully interesting interpretation of Bunyan’s allegorical dream. The prison walls and grills moved around the stage very malleably, and there is of course cause in the circumstances under which Bunyan wrote the work (in Bedford Gaol). Certain tableaux like the dramatically redundant and rather old-fashioned spectacle of Pilgrim’s setting out on the King’s Highway were visually interesting (ENO production photos by Mike Hoban).

Yet the prison re-enactment didn’t always mesh with the rest. That musically interminable conflict with fiend Apollyon seemed like a flimsy pretext for a bit of puppetry

while the Vanity Fair scene, which likewise came across as screamingly monotonous on the musical front as it had not at Sadler’s Wells, lavished a lot of expensive colourful costumes to an effect no naughtier than a camp carnival. There has to be threat here, doesn’t there?

Similarly the World War 1 footage in the second half, which often seemed hard pressed to remind us of the prison ritual, served only to nod rather vaguely at VW’s participation as stretcher-bearer. And the electric chair as gateway to paradise spelled out a messsage that was ambivalent at best. Roland Wood’s rather bottled baritone, doubling Bunyan and Pilgrim, improved as the evening wore on, but never touched any spiritual sympathy for me, and George von Bergen in various roles forced the voice into a colossal wobble. The celestial women were better, Eleanor Dennis especially, but never did I get any sense that VW had given anybody anything really grateful to sing.

There was cause for dread, then, that I’d allotted three classes on the work for my Opera in Focus course. But after one session – admittedly dealing with the best music apart from the Shepherds sequence, Act One – I felt much happier. There’s real radiance in Hickox’s Chandos recording, and it boasts Gerald Finley as Pilgrim alongside a stalwart supporting cast.  We looked at the background of VW’s seminal work on the English Hymnal from 1904 to 1906, which in part ties in with his folksong hunt: it was fun to find the original, ‘Our Captain cried all hands’, of ‘He who would valiant be’ (the original text of which, beginning 'Who would true valour see', appears in the lesser-known Second Part of Bunyan's book, the journey of Christian/Pilgrim's wife Christiana and their four sons). I've chosen instead of 'Our captain' here the great Maddy Prior singing the hymn with consciousness of its roots.

Why, incidentally – and contrary to what’s twice stated in some factually dodgy ENO programme notes – does VW not use his original setting when ‘He who would valiant be’ pops up in the opera’s King’s Highway scene? It’s so much better than the alternative, which comes from I know not where. Anyway, I have such a soft spot for the Hymnal setting, as I do now for Bunyan’s book. It puzzles me why VW adapts so little of it, especially as he drafts in new 'types' (above all in the interminable Vanity Fair sequence) and even whole scenes. Some of Bunyan’s dialogues lose me, but I love the homespun, anyone-can-read-this approach to the fantastical. Bunyan’s most eloquent critic, as Alasdair Gray points out in his splendid Book of Prefaces, was Thomas Macaulay in the 1830 Edinburgh Review:

The vocabulary is the vocabulary of the common people. There is not an expression, if we except a few technical terms of theology, which would puzzle the rudest peasant. Many pages do not contain a single word of more than two syllables. Yet no writer has said more exactly what he meant to say. For magnificence, for pathos, for vehement exhortation, for every purpose of the poet, the orator and the divine, this homely dialect – the dialect of plain working men – was sufficient. There is no book in our literature which shows how rich the old unpolluted English language is in its own proper wealth, and how little it has been improved by all it has borrowed.

And to think that Milton’s Paradise Lost, the antithesis of Bunyan, had appeared only a decade earlier. I wonder if something of what Macaulay writes about doesn’t hover behind the purpose of Vaughan Williams’s sacred rite too. So much depends on the dedication of the performers. The same goes for the composer's perhaps greater symphonies. I don't always melt to the Romanza of the Fifth Symphony - part of which corresponds to the 'House Beautiful' sequence of the opera - but it shines with a rare light in the late Vernon Handley's phenomenal performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.


Susan Scheid said...

The excerpt from the 1830 review is a little jewel, particularly this: “There is no book in our literature which shows how rich the old unpolluted English language is in its own proper wealth, and how little it has been improved by all it has borrowed.”

Jackie (a friend from England) arrived today for a visit. We walked the paths on our hill in the brisk fall air and watched the sunset come on—a particularly gorgeous one tonight. We're sitting reading now, she a book and I your posts. I know of, but don’t know this opera. I have, though, just listened to the Romanza, a beautiful accompaniment for the end of a lovely day, so thank you for that.

Laurent said...

Well here I was thinking I wonder what he is up to and bang, a post by you. What a nice surprise.

David said...

Sue - I love the serendipity of blogworld, that I can put up the Romanza one day, and the next you can be walking in the Hudson valley under circumstances which tie in so well with its autumnal/sunset mood. Indeed, I can picture your surroundings with VW as soundtrack.

I have to say that, as I move in to examining Act 2, the opera's weaknesses become more apparent. Its strengths, though, are well up to the symphonies.

Laurent - does VW take your fancy? Or Bunyan?

Laurent said...

If you ask me if I prefer to hear the opera instead of reading the book by Bunyan, I would say I prefer to hear the opera because of the element of music.
I also will say that thanks to you I have a better understanding of music because of the way you present it.

Willym said...

Good to see you back and in fine form dear friend.

Well you've done it again - I remember when you posted about that performance in 2008 and spoke of the Chandos recording (if not on that post then on a slightly later one) - I had meant to see to getting it. Well I finally did this evening and plan to listen over the next few days.

I'm just glad I didn't experience the ENO production. Is it me or have then been having a run of less than successful productions recently?

And glad to see you and I share another guilty pleasure - Mady is one singer who certainly follows Wesley's admonition.

David Damant said...

Mr Nice

Your comment has the elements of genius

May I just warn everyone about Macaulay. Young people in particular can be seduced by his prose - clear and precise and admirable as in the comment on Bunyan, completely over the top yet still admirable in ( for example)his essay on Lord Holland - read the last three pages ( "They will remember.....they will remember etc ). He was flawed, not in his intelligence but in his fundamental philosophies.He was too much the creature of his time. Take note always of the comment by Lord Melbourne, which should be pasted on the front of every work by Macaulay "I wish I was as damn sure of any one thing as Tom Macaulay is of everything" Read him for pleasure but with care.

David said...

Willym - ENO have had two supposed stinkers in a row, Rufus Norris's production of Don Giovanni and a Carry on Cleo version of Giulio Cesare. But Julietta, as you no doubt read below, couldn't have been better from either the performing or production aspects. Now it's 'the Bieito Carmen', and if I enjoy it, that will be a first for me with CB (though his Ballo started quite well; his Don G was just plain dull and repetitive rather than shocking). Hope you enjoy the recording - about as good as it gets, with a superb cast. Wesley = Bunyan??

Sir David - this bit of Macaulay is surely trustworthy? I wish I was as damn sure etc re Bunyan (and VW!)

David Damant said...

I did not say that Macaulay was always untrustworthy - and yes, his view of Bunyan is magnificent as we can judge, But read his oeuvres with care! He embodies the (optimistic) Whig idea of History.

And as you mention Wesley......remember what that wise man Sydney Smith said to him - " A pretence to direct revelation from the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing, Sir, a very horrid thing"

Will said...

Thank you for all this -- I have recently thought of getting a recording of Pilgrim's Progress (with which I am not familiar in any wise) and was unsure whether to buy Boult or Hickox. I now lean toward the latter.

Fritz and I have just finished the first draft of our latest libretto which is based on the trial and banishment of Anne Hutchinson, religious dissident and proto-feminist, from Boston in 1638. We were mulling over titles with some friends (wine was involved) and one of them came up with Pilgrims Without Progress, which had us all laughing. We'll go with something else, however.

David said...

Sir D - pretence to direct revelation is not only a horrid thing but a disaster for this world, on the reasonable supposition that there is no next.

Will - I never thought I'd end up recommending a Hickox recording above others (as I explained above, I never was a fan until I heard him conduct PP live), but in this instance I put him above shining Boult, a hero, because his cast on the male side is so much better. You've got Gerald Finley as Pilgrim for a start. Good luck with your Hutchinson project, which sounds fascinating.

Howard Lane said...

Silently singing my old Guildfordian school song courtesy of VW and Bishop Bunyan, by his tomb in Bunhill Fields where also reside his fellows B Blake and D Defoe, I look forward to the upcoming Pilgim's Progress broadcast, which for me may well benefit from being audio only. If time allows I will also compare it to the Boult version on youtube. (Oddly, stuck in the middle of the 15 Pilgrim's Progress videos there is a King Crimson live performance, although not their 1972 tour de force Larks' Tongues in Aspic, even if this is an oblique reference to The Lark Ascending).

I doubt I'd return to Bunyan now though - VW will suffice.

David said...

Ah yes, the tomb in melancholy Bunhill Fields...but surely JB was too unorthodox to become a Bish?

I do find it strange how my agnostic self is so drawn to the preachy book - there's something both naive and haunting about its allegories.

Willym said...

Oh dear did I get it wrong - was it not Wesley who said to "sing lustily and with great courage" - which is what Mady certainly does.

David said...

Oh, I see - you're quite right.

David Damant said...

It is not surprising that an agnostic self is drawn to the preachy book. As Jung said, if the Christian religion is not true, it is still psycologically valid [ otherwise it would not have suceeded ]