Vaughan Williams: Hugh the Drover

Vaughan Williams: Hugh the Drover

Bonaventura Bottone (tenor), Corydon Orchestra, Matthew Best (conductor)


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.

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