The Delectable Mountains

Had things been different, I would probably have spent part of this weekend preparing for my talk in the Hub about a Gloucestershire composer during World War Two. That composer was Ralph Vaughan Williams and, although I explained when asked to speak, that VW was in Surrey or London or Wiltshire for most of the war, but Vaughan Williams was after all a local man. As things have turned out my talk won’t happen and I am locked down in Yorkshire – Delius country, if we keep the musical analogy, or perhaps Black Dyke Mills. But I can still listen to Vaughan Williams on my headphones, and imagine the Cotswolds.

Vaughan Williams rehearsing his Opera the Pilgrim’s Progress in 1951

            That is not too difficult because, just as last year when I made my audience sit through a recording of Holst’s Egdon Heath and imagine Hardy’s Dorset, so my plan this time was to play you part of the fifth symphony by Vaughan Williams, the most important and enduring work that he completed during wartime, and tell you about its background.

When war broke out the composer was almost 67 years old, so hardly eligible for active service – more of a Private Godfrey than a Captain Mainwaring. But he stridently believed that musicians should be part of the wartime community, doing their bit by boosting morale and providing solace and relief. He set out his views in a radio talk, ‘The composer in wartime’, broadcast in 1940. In practical terms he turned to writing music scores for patriotic films, with titles such as Coastal Command and The People’s Land. Had my talk happened I would probably have played you his stirring principal theme for the 1941 Powell and Pressburger film 49th Parallel. All that was the public war effort of an old soldier – he had been in the thick of World War One as a medical orderly on the western front.

            But a more private undercurrent was what I planned to introduce to you. A work that had haunted Vaughan Williams’s imagination at least since 1906 was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not much read these days, I suspect, but he was not the only musician who had a cherished copy. A fellow composer of wartime film music, a young woman whose first string quartet, written in 1945, Vaughan Williams knew and admired, was Doreen Carwithen. I know she owned a Pilgrim’s Progress, because I am looking at her copy now, picked up in a junk shop for a fiver some years ago, an 1819 edition published by the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge and inscribed with her name on the flyleaf (I would have brought it along to show you).

            It took more than forty years for the opera which Vaughan Williams had been ruminating on, based on Bunyan’s masterpiece, to be completed and performed (in 1951), and in the dark days of the war he despaired of ever seeing it finished. In 1922 he had written one episode, The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains, for women’s voices, and heard it performed. He worked on the project in the 1930s but seems then to have decided, as many despairing composers have done over the years, to abandon it and divert the best bits into another work – his fifth symphony. As the symphony was nearing completion for its first performance (in June 1943), however, the BBC commissioned him to write incidental music for a production of The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he did, and this reawakened his dormant opera so that he completed it after war ended.

            Vaughan Williams’ opera (he called it a ‘morality’) has so many memorable tunes, but none so moving as the ‘Detectable Mountains’ theme, which also permeates the third movement, romance, of the fifth symphony. It is at the heart of the work and, one imagines, close to the composer’s heart too, as he confronted, endured and survived the fearful years of war. Bunyan’s ‘delectable mountains’ were the Chilterns, close to his Bedfordshire home, and I happen to know that Vaughan Williams was working on the fifth symphony while living at Stapleford in a ‘delectable’ valley below Salisbury Plain. But when he read Bunyan’s description of the pilgrims going up to the mountains, ‘to behold the gardens and orchards, the vineyards and fountains of water,’ and the shepherds feeding their flocks, it is hard not to imagine that he was transported back to his native county, and the many rambles that he and his fellow Gloucestershire pilgrim and native, Gustav Holst, had enjoyed together as they explored the hills and sequestered lanes of the Cotswolds.

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