from Vaughan Williams, Ralph, 1872-1958 to Holst, Gustav, 1874-1934

Letter No. VWL884

Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Gustav Holst

Letter No.: VWL884

The White Gates
Westcott Road

[about 20th December 1930]

Dear Gustav

I’ve never written to you since the great night at S.P.G.S.1  – I somehow thought we should meet & talk it over.
The Organ Concerto2 is it all right, – there is only one place where I have any doubts – & that is I think where the chorus first enters in harmony; [it] sounds a little bit respectable & out of the picture – I shd  like very much to talk about that place one day.  The organ part is magnificent – I suppose Nora3 couldn’t play it in Oxford Gloucester? I can’t think who can sing your soprano solo at the end – Dorothy4 might manage it – Of course if you say “impersonal” Sumsion5 will put a choir boy on to it which will be fatal – Any way you know of course that it mustn’t sound in the least like that young woman the other day. (By the way what is the matter with her – she seems to have imbibed all the worst faults of the worst RCM style (1) wobble (2) edge on the voice (3) sacrificing words to supposed “tone” – I noticed that especially in the opera6 – where she lengthened all her final syllables so as to get “tone” – with the result that you could hear nothing of the words[)].
By the way –  it was interesting to note that the most obvious amateur of your lot (the schoolmaster) was far the most successful – because he was thinking of his words and his part all the time and not worrying about his damned tone. 
I know the answer to this is that in a larger place he would not be heard – But is there no way of preserving that natural singing and yet getting the voice big enough?  One thing is that it is impossible to get a big tone on English words – & the sooner singing masters recognize this the better – either sing English with a small tone (Plunket Greene) or don’t sing English at all (Caruso)
By the way (ii) have you heard the soprano who sings the little bits of solo in the wireless singers7 [?] it is perfect – she’d do for your end bit (I am harking back to the organ concerto). I rather think she is Nixon a pupil of D. Webb at the RCM8 – I wonder if the moral is obvious.
The opera gave me quite a new idea – the concert opera[:] sit round a table with copies & sing with a minimum of action (no costumes).  I thought it was a perfect representation. 
Do you think there’s a little bit too much 6/8 in the opera?  I wonder if Nigel Playfair9 would do it at his light opera season – But I daresay you’ve thought of that. 
The one thing I can’t yet get hold of is “Hammersmith” – but you are (like your daughter10 a realist & you are almost unique in that your stuff sounds better when it is played on the instrument it was originally written for.
I want very much to have a lesson on “Riders”11 soon.  I’ve been revising & rough scoring it.
I wrote to E.E.12 re: Job13 but have had no answer.


1. On 12 December three new works of Holst has been tried over on the piano at St Paul’s Girls’ School: The Wandering Scholar,op.50, H.176, A Choral Fantasia, op.51, H.177, and Hammersmith, op.52, H.178. See Michael Short, Gustav Holst, the man and his music, p.294.
2. i.e. A Choral Fantasia – a work with a concertante organ part had been commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester.
3. Nora Day, an assistant music mistress at St Paul’s Girls’ School. 
4. Dorothy Silk.
5. Herbert Sumsion, organist at Gloucester Cathedral  1928-1967. He became a close friend of VW.
6. Holsts’s opera The Wandering Scholar, op. 50, H176, to a libretto by Clifford Bax, first performed in 1934 at the David Lewis Theatre, Liverpool.
7. The Wireless Singers were a full-time octet of soloists drawn from the Wireless Chorus (later to become the BBC Singers).
8. Royal College of Music
9. Nigel Playfair was actor-manager of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith in the 1920s and 1930s.
10. Imogen Holst.
11. VW’s Riders to the Sea, Catalogue of Works 1936/6.
12. Edwin Evans, a music critic who took a particular interest in contemporary British music.
13.  Job received its first performance at Norwich on 23 October. VW is presumably referring to a notice by Edwin Evans.