With ISLA grant, musicologist researches The Pilgrim’s Progress in London

Author: Joshua Hubbard

Christopher Chowrimootoo recently traveled to London to research the history of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. Based on Paul Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical novel, the opera began as a one-act production in 1921 before evolving into a motet in 1940 and a radio dramatization in 1942. In 1951, The Pilgrim’s Progress premiered at the Royal Opera House.

Supported by an ISLA Small Grant for Research and Creative Work, Chowrimootoo worked at the British Library for two weeks during the summer of 2019, studying librettos, scores, and photographs of the original production. The research yielded valuable insight into Vaughan Williams’ process and the reception of the work as reported in contemporary newspapers.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is “a particularly good case study” for thinking about a “broader cultural understanding of spiritual experience” and a “more plural vision of spirituality, whose purview stretches beyond the confines of religious dogma or institutions to a wider set of practices and experience,” Chowrimootoo claims. “Not only was it an opera based on a sacred subject, but it mixed Biblical and secular texts in ways that spoke to broader tensions between sacred and secular culture.”

The research is part of a new book project tentatively titled Sacred Secularism: Music and Religion in the Twentieth-Century Public Sphere. The book will analyze The Pilgrim’s Progress along with works by Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Bernstein to “explore the persistence of ‘spiritual’ registers in the supposedly secular spaces of the twentieth-century concert hall and opera house,” Chowrimootoo writes. This work builds on Chowrimootoo’s first book Middlebrow Modernism: Britten’s Operas and the Great Divide, published by University of California Press in 2018.

Christopher Chowrimootoo is an associate professor in the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame. He holds a concurrent appointment in the Department of Music and is a faculty fellow of the Program of Sacred Music and the Nanovic Institute.


Originally published at isla.nd.edu.