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VAUGHAN WILLIAMS AND MY FIRST OPERA
NAAMAN - THE LEPROSY OF WAR.
But of course as soon as I got home I was assured that I had made a terrible mistake by my sister who was always like a living representative of my Father. She wasnt going to finance me. (She had been left rather more than I had.) To throw away a sound job, even if it brought in very little was nothing short of madness. My dear old Nanny, who was always secretly on my side, tried to keep the peace between us, though she would certainly miss the flitch of pork at Christmas.
When the Headmaster rang up, it became clear that I must go back for the Summer Term. One could not leave the School in the lurch like that. It turned out to be a very peaceful term, as if nothing had happened on that fateful last day. I fancy my sister really hoped that I would think better of the whole thing. But my mind was made up and when the papers came back from the Royal College of Music and I was put down as the pupil of no less a personage than Vaughan Williams, I felt a new glow of satisfaction.
But when I came to the actual moment of meeting the great man in that dark corridor in the forbidding basement of the Royal College of Music the nerves of my arms were almost giving way. Who was I to approach so great a man - the composer of Job which I almost worshipped? A man of thirty when I ought to have been no more than twenty!
However, when I met him, he immediately put me at my ease. What a wonderful person! He made me feel as if I had reached the loving Father I had always wanted. "It is never too late to learn." Instead of brushing me aside as one unworthy of his attention, he received me with words of encouragement I so sorely needed.
I showed him my setting of my own Masque of Trees which he seemed to take quite seriously. He was said to be a bad disciplinarian but I didnt need discipline, coming as I did at so late an age. He outlined a course for me.
I was to study Sixteenth Century Counterpoint with his brother-in-law, R.O. Morris. I was prepared for this. I knew that I had much to learn about the past. But V.W. promised that in the meantime he would have a look at anything I liked to show him.
So he was the ideal teacher for me. All I needed was encouragement and advice. After all a composer had to teach himself. All he needed from another was guidance and for that purpose V.W. was the ideal man.
I surged ahead in that first year of 1935-1936. It happened to be the year of the Chinese Exhibition of paintings in London and I must needs write some poems on my favourite exhibits and set them to music. Thus came into existence my Three Chinese Pictures: - Tung Fang So stealing the Peaches of Longevity, Fishing on a Snowy Day and Busy Being Idle, or The Big Toe, and set them to music. Vaughan Williams arranged for them to be performed at a College Concert and they were received very favourably by J.A. Westrup, who was then the Music Critic of the Daily Telegraph (whom I have to admit I had known at Oxford!) (He later became Professor of Music at Oxford University). We gave them a second performance at my Ninetieth Birthday Concert after sixty years, when I was delighted to find that they were as fresh as a daisy. It is true they were very well performed by my friends Donald Francke (baritone), William Lewarne Harris (piano) and Andrew Sparling (clarinet).
Also in my first year I was awarded the Foli Scholarship and was given the Cobbett Prize for a Phantasy String Quartet (my only work in this genre). I was particularly pleased about this because my Mother (and I fancy my Grandmother also) had known William Cobbett who was alive in 1936, though he died the next year. If only my Mother had been still alive!
The time had come when I must needs write my first opera. Gilbert and Sullivan had seen to that some twenty years previously! As a matter of fact it was to be a hard task, as indeed all operas are (the equivalent in length of three Symphonies if a three-acter). V.W. was greatly in favour of opera. He once confided in me that he would rather write a popular opera than anything else. Actually he did write quite a number of fine operas, Sir John in Love being one of the best. He must have been composing Riders to the Sea while I was writing my Naaman. He had actually received a libretto on my subject, so he told me, but turned it down.
All this time I was struggling with the composition of my first opera. I had chosen to set it in the form of a Greek play because I knew that the Greek plays of antiquity were really more like operas than spoken plays. As Chorus I had a bevy of Israelite women who were worried because they had heard that the formidable Syrians had sent their War-Leader Naaman to be cured of his leprosy by a Prophet of Israel. What could this be but a challenge, an excuse to make hostilities on Israel. But Elisha sees differently and tells his servant to go to the King and bid him send Naaman to him. And so Elisha returns to his house.
While Gehazi is away, the chorus sing of the occasion when Elisha had punished the street urchins who jeered at him: "Go up, thou bald-head!" I remember showing this passage to R.O. Morris when I was studying Sixteenth Century Counterpoint with him. He seemed to think I had invented the whole idea, and not to know his Bible as well as I did!
Gehazi returns with Naaman (the tenor) who explains to the chorus that he had a little Israelite maid, a captive, and it was she who had suggested her master should visit Israel and try to get their prophet to cure him of his leprosy.
Gehazi is sent out with a message for Naaman bidding him wash seven times in the River Jordan, and his flesh will be made clean. At first Naaman is furious. The Israelite Prophet has not even bothered to come out and meet him, "are not the Rivers of Syria as good as the Jordan?" But Naamans retinue persuade him at least to try the cure that has been suggested and eventually he agrees to do so.
At this point the Chorus again sing one of their stasimons as an interlude before the Syrian party returns jubilant at the cure that has taken place and ready to offer the prophet the reward they have brought with them, money and fine raiment.
But Elisha, who appears to Naaman for the first time on this occasion, refuses everything, much to the dismay of his servant. It has been an act of God and the Prophet can take no reward for what has happened.
When the Syrian party has retired, and Elisha has gone back into his house, Gehazi cannot resist the temptation to run after the Syrian party and say that Elisha has changed his mind and will take the reward as offered,
The final scene is the most tragic. The Chorus have sung their "exodus" and disappeared. The stage darkens. Elisha enters to confront Gehazi as he returns laden with precious clothes. Elisha seems to know what has happened. "The leprosy of Naaman be upon thee and upon thy seed for ever!" As Gehazi turns away from Elisha a white spotlight illumines his cheek. He goes off slowly intoning the word "Unclean. Unclean." and is heard off-stage, ringing the leper bell, as the curtain falls. The leprosy of war is kept alive by the greed for material things.
That bell gave me no little trouble. I wanted to have the effect of a bell on the orchestra rather than a bell itself and was uncertain of what I had written. I was studying orchestration with Gordon Jacob at the time and he too was uncertain whether my recipe would give the required effect. He suggested that I should write out the parts which he would try on the Second Orchestra which he was taking at the time. He did so and we both listened to the result. It seemed all right, so I left it as it was in the score.
So this was my introduction to the art of opera. I had hopes that the Palmer Fund would give it one of their productions, such as I had attended when A Village Romeo and Juliet was performed, and other works were done in the Parry Theatre. But though V.W. handed me over to S.P. Waddington whom he once described as "the authority on opera in this country" and Mr. Waddington arranged for a play-through of Naaman by one of these brilliant pianists who can play anything at sight with myself trying to sing the vocal parts and though he praised it as a "fiery message with passages of great beauty", the Palmer Fund remained deaf to such recommendation and I left the College without hearing anything in the way of opera.
At least it made me realise what hard work opera was to be. At the end of the score of my Naaman I wrote a little poem, which shows perhaps how exhausting it had been.
I wonder if Naaman will ever be performed. Who is to say that it is of no value, if it has never been tried out? Perhaps one day I shall hear it. All I can say is that it "looks good" on paper. It is quite the most beautiful score that I have written. Will it ever be performed?
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