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The Pilgrim’s Progress

by Ralph Vaughan Williams


The_Pilgrims_Progress

The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the story of an everyman figure – Pilgrim – who journeys from his home, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City on Mount Zion.

Inspired by John Bunyan’s text, Vaughan Williams turned the 1678 religious allegory in to a universal tale of spirituality moving beyond the confines of Christianity. However, The Pilgrim’s Progress unashamedly sides with the Pilgrim in stressing the righteousness of his journey.

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Supported by the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

David Parry conductor
Jonathan Cocker director
Bob Bailey set and costume designer
Ian Sommerville lighting designer
Rebecca Tong assistant conductor
Kevin Thraves chorus master
Bethan Rhys Wiliam production assistant/movement
RNCM Opera Orchestra
RNCM Opera Chorus

The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the story of an Everyman figure – Pilgrim – who journeys from his home, the City of Destruction, through a series of challenges and temptations to the Celestial City and salvation. This new RNCM Opera production is set during the First World War, and we see the Pilgrim as a deserter who leaves his fellow soldiers behind to embark on a quest for better things.

Inspired by John Bunyan’s text (Vaughan Williams actually kept a copy of the book with him while he served in the trenches) the composer turned the 1678 religious allegory into a universal tale of spirituality moving beyond the confines of Christianity. However, The Pilgrim’s Progress unashamedly sides with the Pilgrim in stressing the righteousness of his journey.

This unconventional piece (Vaughan Williams called it a ‘morality’ rather than an opera) is the culmination of the composer’s 45-year musical journey, the ultimate expression of the wide variety of his musical style, exhibiting fabulous transparency of orchestration and a luminous sound. It is spiritual rather than religious and very uplifting, focussing on the light rather than the dark. We see the two sides of Vaughan Williams – the gentle lyricism of his pastoral style and his darker side that lived with the horrors of war. It is a defining work for the composer – a coherent time-lapse of his music.

This production will be sung in English with surtitles.

New to Opera? Click here to read our handy guide to all things opera…

It took 40 years for Vaughan Williams to complete The Pilgrim’s Progress. As a result the work encompasses a wide variety of styles and gives great contrast to the opera. It is clear in the beginning of act four this was the first part he composed, it is written in a spare style with very small instrumentation.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has had a chequered performance history. It was not well received at it’s premiere in Covent Garden. However, it was produced 3 years later in Cambridge and was a massive success.

The work is rarely performed largely due logistical issues with such a large cast, including 37 solo roles. ‘It’s a once or twice in a lifetime opportunity to see such a work, it’s very rarely performed. A colossal undertaking. It is a spiritual and radiant experience that you’ll never forget‘ Richard Hickox

Vaughan Williams was never a Christian (he moved from ‘atheism into cheerful agnosticism’ according to his second wife, Ursula), but he felt sufficiently inspired by Bunyan’s text that he kept a copy of the book with him while he served in the first world war’s trenches.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was related to Charles Darwin (Ralph’s great-uncle) and the ceramics giant Josiah Wedgwood (his great-great-grandfather). Young Ralph studied piano and violin and collected traditional folk songs from an early age. These tunes went on to inspire many of his subsequent works.

The composer never took his privileged background for granted and worked all his life for democratic and egalitarian ideals. He viewed music as being part of everyone’s everyday life, rather than being the preserve of an elite.