A Pilgrim’s Progress

Tom Sutcliffe on a remarkable ENO production of Vaughan Williams’s opera based on Bunyan

I was given a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress by my grandmother as a present to mark my confirmation by Bishop Bell on 10 March 1955 in the Lady Chapel at Chichester. The same grandmother (we called her Ditty) had taken me to my first opera, Carmen, in Southsea at the King’s Theatre in 1947. She was my father’s mother, widowed at Gallipoli when she was 22, and she never remarried, in part because she had an officer’s widow’s pension since my grandfather who was a Sergeant-Major aged 38 when he arrived in Gallipoli was promoted Lieutenant during the campaign a few weeks before he was killed.

Born in 1876 he had I think been a choirboy at St Luke’s Old Street. We have a photo of him around 14 or so in a surplice. He was a good tenor, my grandmother told me, and sang solos in oratorios. He also was a gifted young cricketer and later captained the navy team once and played for Hampshire. My grandmother’s father Charles Mills was a professional musician, a marine band-leader who later ran the music at one of Portsmouth’s music halls, the Coliseum Palace of Varieties. A cousin recently dug up a photo showing Charles Mills’s family before the First World War, and there towering over the rest of them on the right (and somebody the cousin could not recognize, of course) was my grandfather – the photo perhaps taken in 1911. Music was what brought them together.

Early influences

That early exposure to Carmen when I was 4 and reading Bunyan when I was 11 were major influences on me. My 1953 edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress was, I see, edited by Hugh Ross Williamson whose father was a congregationalist minister and who passed fairly briefly through the CofE on his way to Rome (the cause of his conversion was Geoffrey Fisher’s 1955 recognition as valid of the ordinations by the Church of South India). Williamson’s introduction, which I am sure I did not read as a child, trots out Bernard Shaw’s pointless attempt to praise Bunyan at the expense of Shakespeare. But I remember being absorbed by the story and the characters of The Pilgrim’s Progress as Bunyan I think wanted, and not by any interpretation of its message. It is great because it rings true and gives one a real foundation.

Serious and spiritual

Bizet or at least Mérimée and Bunyan may seem like strange bedfellows. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Festival of Britain opera based on Bunyan and Bizet’s masterpiece have both just been staged rather well by English National Opera which is why they are in mind. Vaughan Williams is supposed to have been ‘cheerfully agnostic’ and was some steps away from organized religion. But the composer of ‘O Taste and See’ for the Coronation was really no less a Christian than Bunyan – a seeker, however, who did not concern himself with using the Bible as a guide so much as an inspiration.

Vaughan Williams’s music is serious and spiritual and not dramatic so much as atmospheric. When I was a choirboy Vaughan Williams’s hymns were a major part of my experience – we sang ‘Hail Thee Festival Day’ in procession every Sunday at Chichester between mattins and sung eucharist. Vaughan Williams formed my mind because his melodies are so contemplative even when they are marching.

Glowing celebration

ENO’s production by Yoshi Oïda, a Japanese actor long associated with Peter Brook, worked on the narrative very differently from how it worked in the book – but in a sense the opera is a series of tableaux that grow out of and in some ways away from Bunyan’s work towards a sort of glowing celebration of the original – not all that much a dramatic realization of it. There was so much good and remarkable about the ENO performance, not least Martyn Brabbins’s sterling conducting of its cool, affirmative, moving and cumulative spirituality, and the wonderful singing and acting of Roland Wood as Bunyan and the Pilgrim (whom the opera does not name as Christian since Vaughan Williams intended it ‘to be universal and apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life’), that I simply hope it is revived and gets seen by far more people in some future season.

Oïda and his designer Tom Schenk drew on Vaughan Williams’s own crucially important first world wartime experience. Maybe Vanity Fair was too comfortable and comic and maybe the monstrous Apollyon was too much of a vast splurging puppet to shock or alarm. But what rang more bells than almost anything was the way the libretto by Ursula Vaughan Williams used the Psalms and the Bible as well as serving the needs of the narrative. This is an opera remarkably close to the religion that is built into our English culture. I totally understand why Vaughan Williams never wanted it to be done in a cathedral. He felt if that ever happened, it would never get back into the theatre again. ND