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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim's Progress, incidental music for the radio play; Rachmaninoff: Vespers

04/16/2017 1:00 pm
04/16/2017 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

The Pilgrim's Progress (1951) was Vaughan Williams's last operatic essay. He had always wanted to write an opera based on John Bunyan's Christian allegory. Three times before I have presented the opera in its 1971 world premiere recording for EMI, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting and starring baritone John Noble as the Pilgrim.

On all three past occasions I linked broadcast on a Sunday in late November to the American Thanksgiving holiday, with reference, of course, to the Pilgrims of the old Plymouth Colony. Bunyan's book was intended to guide believers in leading the Christian life by following Christ's example, so the allegory certainly lends itself to the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. Sections of the score of the opera were written separately over a span of decades. And before Pilgrim's Progress the opera, there was VW's incidental music for Pilgrim's Progress the radio play, as broadcast by BBC on September 5, 1943. Boult led the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Chorus.

Actor John Gielgud's voice was employed in the central role of Christian. The complete radio play and its music, as recorded live in radio transmission, was issued in 2015 in digitally reprocessed monaural sound on two compact discs. The British Albion record label has made this audio document available to the public through the good graces of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society. No one has ever set the words of the English Bible to music so well as Vaughan Williams. Incorporated into the incidental music is a quotation from the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis of 1910, as well as hymn tunes VW arranged for the English Hymnal of 1907.

It doesn't always happen this way, but Orthodox Easter and the Western Christian Easter fall on the same Sunday this year. Eastern Orthodoxy adheres to an antiquated calendar that most often is out of sync with the rest of Christendom. In celebration of Russian Easter I present the greatest piece of Russian Orthodox choral music ever written: Sergei Rachmaninoff's Vespers, Op. 37 for the all-night Easter Vigil. The arch-conservative Russian Orthodox clergy decried this work as modernistic sacrilege when it premiered in 1915. Yet Rachmaninoff was simply applying his own highly effective harmonizations to the ancient monodic Znamenni, Kiev, and Greek Orthodox chant. Hear the Vespers this Easter Sunday as sung in true Russian choral style by the Academy of Choral Art, Moscow, directed by Victor Popov. Their recorded Vespers reached the West in 2007, as released stateside through the Delos label on a single compact disc.