This premiere digital studio recording of Vaughan Williams’s powerful and moving epic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was made following a highly successful performance at the Barbican Hall, London. The excitement which marked that occasion is reflected in this new (studio) recording.
Vaughan Williams always held the view that John Bunyan’s allegory would provide a wonderful basis for an opera, and he worked on it for over forty years. Acts I and II were written between 1925 and 1936, after which there was a pause for a number of years until 1944 when work on the project was resumed. ’The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains’ scene, originally written in 1921, was incorporated into Act IV in 1951-2, which completed the core in its final version. It was premiered at Covent Garden in 1951.
In the prologue, Bunyan is seen in Bedford gaol writing the last words of his book, which leads into Act I, where the Pilgrim is seen with a burden on his back. The Pilgrim is subjected to a number of experiences and temptations, from the seductive pleaseure in the ’Vanity Fair’ scene, to the desolation of the ’Valley of Humiliation’. Finally, he is triumphant, and passes through the River of Death and ascends the gates of the Celestial City. In the epilogue, we return to the opening scene, and Bunyan offers his book to the audience.
As recent performances have shown, The Pilgrim’s Progress can be a moving and impressive theatrical experience. The contrast between the howling of the Doleful Creatures and the bustle of Vanity Fair is contrasted with the powerfully haunting music of the Pilgrim, particularly as he reaches the Celestial City. The composer said of his opera just after its premiere at Covent Garden in 1951, ’It’s not like the operas they are used to, but it’s the sort of opera I wanted to write, and there it is."