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The Pilgrim's Progress: Ralph Vaughan Williams' neglected opera a spiritual journey

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Ralph Vaughan Williams, right, discusses The Pilgrim's Progress with Covent Garden premiere conductor Leonard Hancock in 1951.

Finding unusual, spiritually uplifting, yet religiously non-specific music for Easter Day is no easy task. But Ralph Vaughan Williams has ridden boldy to the rescue.

The English composer’s life — born in 1872, died in 1958 — spanned three different eras and the British Empire from its apogee to its demise. His music easily embraces something of all points in between and can’t be confused with that of any other composer.

With the exception of some songs, his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams’ music is, unfortunately, not well known on this side of the Atlantic, so I thought I’d offer up a tidbit or two from his one great opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, based on the John Bunyan’s massive, 1678 allegory.

A scene from the Covent Garden premiere.

The composer started working on it in his 30s, and he was 78 when it finally has its (unsuccessful) premiere at Covent Garden in April, 1951. Fortunately, there was a later, student production in Cambridge that gave people a better chance to appreciate its greatness.

It has a singing cast of about 40. There are four acts, plus Prologue and Epilogue. It is virtually unstageable in any sort of dynamic way, so few people have had the guts to take it on. It would be a lot easier to present if people treated it as a cantata.

No matter how it’s presented, the music is rich, varied and mesmerizing.

There’s an excellent 1998 audio recording featuring Canadian baritone Gerald Findley and the late-and-lamented conductor Richard Hickox, available from Chandos.

Here is the first scene of Act 1, followed by “The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains,” from Act 4, which Vaughan Williams presented as a standalone operatic piece in 1921. After that come the closing scene of that act, and the Epilogue (which picks up the same hymn tune setting as the Prologue), from the original 1971 recording, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

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