Pilgrim was inspired, it will be no surprise to learn, by reading Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress - Vaughan Williams’s great opera on the subject had fascinated me from its first performance, yet it was a long time before I caught up with this essential item in any well-stocked library of English classics. It made a great impression, not least because of its theme of a journey of self-discovery, and a rediscovery or renewal of faith. These are ideas which have a strong interest for me, not in religious terms but in their application to every aspect of human life (including great journeys), and this piece reflects my response in musical terms to this concern.
The tempo of the whole piece, which lasts about 18 minutes, is basically slow. There are two quick episodes, but these act somewhat like the trio sections of a classical scherzo, save that the tempo relationships are inverted (the classical trios would have been slower, not quicker) and the canvas is much larger, being that of a single, substantial, slow movement. The form of the whole is perhaps fantasia-like rather than having any relationship to classical forms such as sonata or rondo - some motifs and themes are varied as the work develops, and the opening chords are of primary importance throughout the work.
There has been no attempt to convey any pictorial elements deriving from Bunyan’s great book. There is, however, one feature which, upon completion of the score, struck me with some force, which is that almost all the thematic material is essentially striving upwards - there is a constant upward movement (sometimes over a lengthy period) throughout the work.
Pilgrim was commissioned by the Luton Music Club for the Raphael Ensemble with funds provided by the Eastern Arts Board and Bedfordshire County Council, and is dedicated to the Luton Music Club. The first performance was given in Luton on February 10th 1997 and followed, as part of a joint scheme, by performances in the same week at the Music Clubs of Bedford and Leighton Buzzard.
© 1997 John McCabe
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
John McCabe (piano)