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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS AND MY NINTH OPERA
THE PRINCE OF COXCOMBS
When I left the R.C.M., Vaughan Williams most generously offered to continue looking at my things if I cared to bring then to Max Gate, his house at Dorking. This was too noble an offer not to be accepted. So, whenever I had anything worth showing him, I used to make an appointment with him and bring my efforts down to him to show him. At the time he lived at Dorking in a kind of glorified bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac off one of the main Dorking roads. It was probably chosen because his wife was an invalid and there were no stairs to cope with. This house consisted of one large living room facing the road with the hall on the North side and with smaller rooms opening out into the main room on the other side and with bedrooms and kitchen and perhaps dining-room leading into garden. But I never penetrated as far as this. It was into one of the smaller rooms leading out of the main room that V.W. was to take me, into his private sanctum, where I think he used to compose, a small room in the right wing of the house, looking out on the cul-de-sac from which I had come. It had only an upright piano, and I remember him showing me, rather proudly, "Old Beethovens tuning fork. So even Beethoven, I thought to myself, remembering my childhood days, had to have a tuning fork to tell him what key he was in. Perhaps only Mozart, among the great composers had "perfect pitch".
When we had finished we came back into the large room to tea. I had already passed and been introduced to the first Mrs. Vaughan Williams, who was disabled with terrible arthritis. She sat against a high stool like that of a double-bass player and I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of compassion for her, but it was before the days of spiritual healing and I felt, as no doubt V.W. felt, that there was nothing that could be done for her.
We sat down near the fire-place facing the window with Mrs. Vaughan Williams opposite sitting on her high chair with her back to the light. V.W. had to be provided with his large cup, being a big man he had to be provided with a giant cup, about twice the size of everybody elses. I remember on one occasion the sun shone through some red-coloured glass they had in the upper part of the window opposite and illumined all our faces." You all look transfigured", said Mrs. Vaughan Williams, with a smile. We laughed, but I remember thinking: "Its you who are transfigured", for I always thought of her as a saint-like person.
When I went again, she was always there at her post, correcting her husbands orchestral parts with her arthritic hands, until on one of my final visits, there was no Mrs. V.W. on duty as there had always been before, and I gathered that she was too ill to put in an appearance and it was not long after that, that I heard she had died.
Soon after that Max Gate ceased to exist. V.W. came to live in London near Regents Park. Some time later he married his secretary, Ursula Wood. They came together to hear my Avon and in 1953 to hear my Tinners of Cornwall. Vaughan Williams was always a Londoner at heart, as is suggested by his London Symphony, and he had lived at Chelsea when he first married.
When I used to go for my lessons with V.W. at the R.C.M. I was anxious that one day I might be able to write a libretto for him, and he did eventually give me one or two subjects that had been suggested to him for me to try out. I remember one of these was Merediths "Diana of the Crossways", which had been one of my fathers favourite novels, but I did not think it was suitable for opera. Eventually V.W. did give me a subject, which I made into a libretto for him, but then heard no more about it and it went completely out of my mind. It was a libretto based on Vanbrughs "The Relapse", which had been rewritten by Sheridan as "A Trip to Scarborough". Years later, when I had forgotten all about it, I received the libretto back from V.W. with the words: "I shall never write it now, but why dont you write it?". It seemed like a command, coming from such a source. It was not quite my sort of subject, but evidently was recommended by the great man himself, so I had to consider it seriously. I rewrote the libretto and came to think of it as rather a good subject, though not my usual kind of thing. Lord Foppington, who was "The Prince of Coxcombs" (the eventual title used) had fallen foul of his agent Mrs. Coupler, who had put him in touch with her rich relative, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, who was nursing an heiress in his daughter, Hoyden. This lady, Mrs. Coupler (Mr. Coupler in "The Relapse") is so annoyed with Lord Foppington because he continually refuses to pay any advances on her due as his agent. It is in putting him in touch with her rich relative, Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, that she makes a compact with his Lordships younger brother Tom, a likeable young man, to reach the mansion first and, if possible, carry off the heiress before Lord Foppington arrives. So this is what happens. Tom arrives impersonating his brother, falls in love with Hoyden, and she with him and the true Lord Foppington is taken for an impostor, who is nearly subjected to the ignominy of the dog kennel, had not Mrs. Coupler arrived in the nick of time to explain everything. The gullible Sir Tunbelly Clumsy is mollified by the thought that a title may easily be secured elsewhere and even his Lordship is glad not to be connected with such unfashionable people.
I entered this opera first for the John Barnes competition. They wanted a work for their opera group. I had seen their production of V.W.s Sir John in Love, conducted by my friend, Geoffrey Corbett, and felt that it was a better production than the one which had been given at the Wells. As I had done some work for their weekend school of adult education I thought that I might have a good chance of success, especially if Geoffrey conducted. However, it was not to be without comment.
Next I rather naively thought that I might have a go at my old Universitys Doctorate of Music. At the time composers were invited to submit a work of some length and my opera was accepted as the kind of work that could be submitted. You were told that you must submit it in a leather-bound jacket with "Doctor of Music" printed in gold lettering on the spine. I almost felt that I had received the degree already! But I might have known that there would be a snag, having made me go to all the expense of a leather binding and the gold lettering of the title and "Doctor of Music" on the cover, they wrote back to say that I had failed to meet their requirement. I can tell you that my opinion of my old University did not rise on that occasion.
Third time lucky! Morley College offered a prize and performance by their opera group. With a change of title to the more colourful Prince of Coxcombs, I put the same work in for another competition and won it. It only shows what a chancy business this is of putting works in for a particular competition. If the judges happen to like your effort you stand a chance of success. If not you are finished. It was a great privilege to have won a Morley College competition, and incidentally a slap in the face of Oxford University.
Production photographs here
All went well, to start with. We managed to get the resourceful Edith Coates as Mrs. Coupler and Donald Francke could hardly have been better as Sir Tunbelly Clumsy. All the soloists were good and the chorus excellent. I remember a wonderful moment at the dress rehearsal when all seemed to be going as well as it could and I felt we were going to have a spectacular success, such as I needed for my music to come across, but the orchestra was not up to the performers. I had written with a fully professional orchestra in mind and of course this was an amateur orchestra, excellent as far as it went, but not quite up to being an accompanying body for the opera to come fully across. Observing this my friend Geoffrey Corbett, who was conducting, did his best to make things go as well as they could, but even he, with his wonderful skill, could not make up for the deficiencies of some of the players.
Unfortunately for me there was a performance of another English Opera at the Wells almost at the same time with the great advantage of a professional orchestra, which naturally made our production seem second-rate in comparison, so that we did not get as good criticisms as we might have done.
So I had to retire humbly to my job of building operas, as I was later to describe it in "The Theatre under the Stars": "She (Rowena Cade) was building a theatre, I was building operas."
Perhaps, I should never have built so many, if I had had more early successes.
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