This remark by Ralph Vaughan Williams to Bruce Richmond, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, in 1909 or 1910, was the beginning of Hugh the Drover. Richmond found Harold Child, a Times leader-writer, and some weeks later Vaughan Williams wrote him a long letter† warning him that, ‘if our scheme ever comes to anything I see hardly any chance of an opera by an English composer ever being produced, at all events in our lifetime’, a forecast that happily proved incorrect – though in 1910 it must have seemed likely enough. He told Child that he wanted to try his hand at ‘an opera on more or less accepted lines, and preferably a comedy, to be full of tunes, and lively, and one tune that will really come off … This fitted in with another idea of mine which was to write a musical, what the Germans call Bauer Comedie – only applied to English country life (real as far as possible – not sham) – something on the lines of Smetana’s Verkaufte Braut [The Bartered Bride] – for I have an idea an opera written to real English words, with a certain amount of real English music and also a real English subject, might just hit the right nail on the head … the whole thing might be folk-song-y in character, with a certain amount of real ballad stuff thrown in’. He then outlined, as a suggestion, the essence of a plot which became Hugh the Drover and which shows that even at this early stage certain musical situations were very clear in Vaughan Williams’s mind – the fair scene, with the salesmen’s cries and the Ballad-Seller’s song, the fight, and the dawn return of the mayers after the love duet, one of the most poetic moments in the opera and based on a real-life incident told him by a Cambridgeshire folksinger.
Child soon provided a draft libretto on the lines the composer had suggested. Vaughan Williams was enthusiastic about it – whether seriously or strategically is hard to say – but, writing to Child in the summer of 1910, he had several crucial criticisms which indicate to us today the librettist’s unsuitability for the task. With a decade of folksong-collecting behind him, Vaughan Williams knew the real, unsentimental character of the English rural people. Child did not, hence this from Vaughan Williams:
I should rather be more sympathetic with the English peasantry, the laugh all the way through is at the English people … Now what I want in the opera is that the English peasant shall not be looked on as a mere clown but a person capable of such beautiful songs (and all that is implied by them) as we now know of … Don’t think me captious – but I don’t quite like the names … they suggest to me the stage village a little.
No wonder! Child had christened the heroine Annis, and the character we know as John the Butcher was originally Blogg. Elsewhere in this letter Vaughan Williams referred to the Promenade Concert performance on 1 September 1910 of his Fantasia on English Folk-Songs: Studies for an English Ballad Opera, an orchestral work he later withdrew. He told Child: ‘The slow middle section … is a sort of study for what I should like my love scene, Act II, to be like.’
Child picked 1820 for the date of the action, but Vaughan Williams took it back a few more years to the time of the Napoleonic Wars, a period much in his mind after the recent publication of Hardy’s The Dynasts.
Vaughan Williams’s letters (Child’s are lost) are a fascinating record of progress on the opera. They show that he devised most of the twists in the plot and that he was writing the music well ahead of the libretto, telling Child that he wanted words to fit a particular rhythm or situation. At one point there was evidently a near-breakdown, smoothed over by Vaughan Williams:
And this just as I am beginning to enjoy myself and things are going to hum! … I’m most awfully distressed if I gave you a wrong impression by my letter – all I meant was that there was going to be no big bow-wow about my music – but just easygoing stuff suitable (I hope) for a comic opera. Now don’t let us put each other off just as things are beginning to go with a swing.
By August 1911 Vaughan Williams felt that it was ‘beginning to go swimmingly’ and suggested ‘a romantic ending … the cart with the two lovers in it making for the open country (seen in the distance), the chorus bidding them farewell …’. He revealed that he was thinking in terms of a cast with Maggie Teyte as Mary and John Coates as Hugh, adding: ‘As there is a chance of not having Maggie Teyte, would it be better not to make Mary into a big singing part so as to be able to secure somebody tolerably good-looking and with a reasonably slim appearance?’ He returned later to the matter of the ending: ‘John having been once more led off and Hugh proved a man of means, the Constable begins to lick his boots and begs him to settle down and become his son-in-law. Hugh refuses and asks Mary to go off with him. She accepts, so after a short lecture to all concerned on the advantages of the open-air life (à la Feuersnot), he and Mary go off in their cart amid the general lamentation of the villagers (i.e., a soft romantic open-airy ending and not rumbustious).’
The reference to Richard Strauss’s Feuersnot is interesting. Presumably he had seen the Beecham performances in London in July 1910, just when he was beginning to think about Hugh the Drover. Strauss made liberal use of Bavarian folksongs in his delightful one-act opera, and at one point the hero, a sorcerer’s apprentice named Kunrad, sings an aria in which he rejects literature and magic in favour of nature and life. Vaughan Williams was still worrying over the ending of their opera in July 1913 when he wrote to Child from Innsbruck. The last series of letters dates from December 1913 when Vaughan Williams and his wife were on the Italian Riviera. By then he was cutting and revising, patching together bits of his own dialogue with Child’s, and asking for a second verse for Mary’s lovely ‘In the night-time’ song in Act I.
Most of the opera had been written in parallel with A London Symphony, first performed on 27 March 1914. They share the lavender-seller’s cry, which Vaughan Williams had noted in Chelsea in 1911. ln June 1914 the tenor Steuart Wilson and the composer/pianist Denis Browne (who was to die at Gallipoli a year later) sang and played the completed opera to an audience of three – Vaughan Williams and his wife and Harold Child – at the Vaughan Williams’s house in Chelsea. A month later Vaughan Williams took the score to Oxford to show it to Hugh Allen (to whom it is dedicated), George Butterworth and Henry Ley, and they all spent the day singing it. The last postcard to Child was postmarked, fatefully, 4 August 1914. Vaughan Williams, in his forty-second year, went to war until 1918, leaving Hugh the Drover, The Lark Ascending and the Four Hymns completed but unperformed. On his return to a musician’s life in 1919 he was in no hurry to do much about Hugh the Drover. Presumably he revised it in some way. At any rate the score was published in 1924, whereupon the Royal College of Music put it into rehearsal and the British National Opera Company, which had been formed in 1921, also decided to stage it. The honour of giving the first performances went to the RCM whose five performances between 4 and 11 July 1924 were designated ‘private dress rehearsals’. At the first professional performance at His Majesty’s on 14 July, Tudor Davies sang Hugh, Mary Lewis (an American soprano) was Mary, and Constance Willis was Aunt Jane. The conductor was the twenty-nine-year-old Malcolm Sargent. As has been the case so often with first performances of English operas, the cast was perilously under-rehearsed, but Vaughan Williams recognized that Sargent ‘saved it from disaster every few bars’. The flavour of Sargent’s interpretation and the vocal quality of the original cast can be discerned from an historic set of gramophone records made at this time (now issued on CD by Pearl).
Over the years Hugh the Drover remained fairly regularly in the Sadler’s Wells repertory and in June 1933 there was a remarkable RCM production, conducted with zest and acumen by Sir Thomas Beecham, in which the original RCM Hugh, Trefor Jones, returned to the role. For this production Child and Vaughan Williams added an extra scene at the start of Act II. They had been told that the opera was too short and did not give the public their money’s worth. But the composer was never happy with the new scene. He regarded it as poor dramatically and musically and made the valid point that it ‘entirely spoils the dramatic effect of the sudden hush at the old beginning of Act II coming sharpest after the noisy finish of Act I. So I never want to hear it or see it again’. (The curious will find it in the 1959 revision of the vocal score.)
Never entirely happy with Child’s libretto, Vaughan Williams regularly tinkered with it. An early casualty was Hugh’s Feuersnot harangue on life in the open, which was replaced with some recitative and the duet ‘Lord of my life’ for Mary and Hugh. As late as 1955, when he was 83, Vaughan Williams was still improving this finale and he now inserted a new song for Aunt Jane after the duet. Child had died in 1945 and RVW felt free to make extensive revisions to the dialogue and to tighten the action. This definitive version was performed at Sadler’s Wells in February 1956 and incorporated in the 1959 edition of the score.
Now, once again, Hugh takes the road in this recording. Vaughan Williams rarely excelled this lyrical score as an example of the melodic fertility released in him by his discovery of English folksong. Unsophisticated it may be, but not unpolished nor undramatic. Like the Songs of Travel and On Wenlock Edge, it belongs in spirit and fact to the world of English music before 1914 – ‘a fine song for singing, a rare song to hear’ in any era.
Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser © 1994