Opera Scotland

Hugh the Drover 1924British National Opera Company

Read more about the opera Hugh the Drover

Hugh the Drover was taken on tour by BNOC within a few weeks of its first professional performance, with the principal singers and conductor also appearing. A certain confidence on the part of management is indicated by the scheduling of two performances in each city - an unusual compliment for a new piece.

At all performances the entertainment was completed by a brief ballet, Phoebus and Pan, with music derived from J S Bach, in which Eily Gerald portrayed Day and Olive Joyner Night.

The cast for the Glasgow performance on 21 November is as shown in a programme in the Mitchell Library.


An Edinburgh Review

The Scotsman of Thursday, 30 October (p6) produced a review of the previous day's performances - Madam Butterfly at the matinee (very briefly), and the Scottish premiere of Hugh the Drover in the evening:

'As was the case with The Perfect Fool, Savitri, and The Boatswain's Mate, on the occasion of the previous visit to Edinburgh of the British National Opera Company, there was the gratifying experience last night of the first performance in Edinburgh of a new opera by a British composer, Dr Vaughan Williams's Hugh the Drover, drawing a large and enthusiastic audience to the King's Theatre. It was, in fact, the largest audience, so far, of the present season.

'It used to be a matter of complaint that British impresarios were reluctant to give the British operatic composer a chance. The complaint was scarcely justified. A considerable number of operas by British composers have been produced within the last forty or fifty years, mainly with discouraging results, so far as public support was concerned, and it is perhaps scarcely to be wondered at if managers, in the face of repeated disappointments, came to regard the opera of British origin as pre-destined to failure.

'It is by no means the least service to musical art of those responsible for the direction of the British National Opera Company that they have taken a more courageous view, and last year they found their reward in the success of the operas of Dame Ethel Smyth and of Mr Gustav Holst.

They have continued their policy of encouraging the British composer, and this season they have in their repertory three further operas by British musicians, Sir Alexander Mackenzie's St John's Eve, which will not, however be heard in Edinburgh; Dr Vaughan Williams's opera; and Mr Rutland Boughton's Alkestis, which will be given here next week.  It looks as if British opera was coming into its own.

'Hugh the Drover is described by its composer as a ''romantic ballad opera'', and, in the main, the definition serves. There is a skilful employment of the idioms of English folk-music, and the opera abounds in hearty, straightforwad tunes, and characteristically English dance-rhythms. Much of the vocal part-writing is a great deal more intricate than is commonly associated with the idea of a ballad opera, and the orchestration is elaborate. As a whole, however, the opera conveys a fine impression of a Georgian solidity, and downright, unaffected sentiment.

'The scene is laid out in a small town in the Cotswolds, about the year 1812, and the curtain rises on the animation of a fair.  Among the busy comings and goings of the scene, with a cheap-jack, and others, pushing their wares, interest is presently concentrated upon Mary, the downcast daughter of the local constable. Mary is to be married on the following day to a suitor, approved by her father but distasteful to herself, John, the town butcher, and, incidentally, it would appear, the town bully.

A boxing competition, promoted by the cheap-jack, promises the butcher an opportunity of displaying his prowess, but he meets with defeat at the hands of a stranger, Hugh the Drover, who embitters the contest by declining to fight for a money stake, choosing instead, as a prize, the hand of Mary, with whom, as with Hugh, it is a case of love at first sight.

'The butcher is beaten, but turns the tables on his rival by denouncing him as a spy. Hugh is lodged in the stocks overnight, awaiting the arrival of a guard of soldiers in the morning. Mary, meantime, has sought release from her hated betrothed by being discovered in the stocks along with Hugh.  She is cast off by the butcher, but retribution overtakes him when the soldiers arrive, and the sergeant, recognising Hugh as a friend, scouts the idea of his being a spy, and carries off the butcher as an unwilling recruit, while the constable welcomes Hugh as a substitute for the son-in-law of his original designs.

'The opera has a large cast. Mr Walter Widdop made a fine Hugh, Mr Frederic Collier's butcher was also good; Mr William Anderson, as the constable, was another success;  and Miss Mary Lewis was an attractive heroine.  Mr Parry Jones gave an admirable study of the old ballad-seller; Miss Constance Willis, as the constable's sister, provided another admirable impersonation; and the cheap-jack of Mr John Miles, Mr Sydney Russell as the turnkey, Mr Franklyn Kelsey as the sergeant, and the rest, were all good.

'Mr Malcolm Sargent conducted, and under his direction, the elaborate music of the opera was given with an admirable smoothness. 

The opera was received with obvious delight, and at the close the curtain had to be raised about half-a-dozen times.

'Following the opera there was the charming ballet suite from Phoebus and Pan, with the Misses Eily Gerald and Olive Joyner as the principal dancers.'


A Second Edinburgh Notice

The Scotsman of Monday, 10 November (p6) carried a composite review of the two Saturday performances -  a full account of the evening Aïda, as well as a cursory mention of the matinee of Hugh the Drover:

'At the King's Theatre on Saturday the British National Opera Company concluded what has been, artistically, a most successful fortnight's stay in Edinburgh, with a repetition of Dr Vaughan William's Hugh the Drover in the afternoon, while Verdi's unfailingly popular Aïda was given at night.

'Except that Mr Tudor Davies replaced Mr Walter Widdop as Hugh, the cast for Dr Vaughan Williams's opera was practically identical with that of the previous performance. 

There was a crowded audience.


A Glasgow Preview

The Glasgow Herald, in reviewing the double bill of works by Mackenzie and Holst (Friday, 21 November p10), also provides a preview of that evening's premiere:

'To-night at 7.30 will be given the first Glasgow performance of Vaughan Williams's opera Hugh the Drover, which had its first public performance in July of this year, during the London summer season of the company.  It is a very English work, both in subject and musical treatment.  The action takes place in an imaginary small town in the Cotswolds on April 30 and May 1 of an early year in the nineteenth century, during the period when the Napoleonic scare was at its height.  The eve of May Day has brought the usual fair to the town, and the sights and sounds of a country fair furnish the scenic and musical background for the first act.

'In the foreground are Mary, daughter of the pompous constable, her spinster Aunt Jane, and John the butcher, who is to be married to Mary on the following morning. John is something of an animal by nature, who glories in the brutal side of his business, and has adopted prize-fighting as the chief pastime of his leisure hours. Mary dreads him, and is only going through with the marriage under the compulsion of her pompous father.  

'Hugh the Drover arrives on the scene and falls in love with Mary at first sight. She is equally swift in returning his love, and after he has sung to her of the joys of the open road they resolve to seek together the free, happy life which they both require, and which cannot be found in the small-minded atmosphere of the little town.

But many things must happen ere this can be, one of the most exciting being a bout of fisticuffs between John the Butcher and Hugh the Drover for the hand of Mary.  Hugh wins, of course, but is denounced by John, in revenge, as a spy in the service of Napoleon. How this is all finally put right is shown in the second act.

'The music contains many actual folk-songs, and is largely written in a folk-song idiom, and the score is notable for its melodious and rhythmic interests.

'The performance will be followed by the ballet from Phoebus and Pan.  Mr Sargent will conduct.'


BNOC's 1924 Scottish tour

The BNOC tour of Scotland in 1924 lasted five weeks - two in Edinburgh (King's) then three in Glasgow (Theatre Royal).

Amazingly, four operas by British composers were toured, as well as four French, though only one by Verdi.  As usual, Wagner and Puccini seem to enjoy undying popularity.  One Russian piece also puts in an appearance.

A total of 19 works were performed:

Mozart (Marriage of Figaro,  Magic Flute);   Wagner (Tannhäuser,  MastersingersSiegfried);  Verdi (Aïda);  Gounod (Faust);  Offenbach (Tales of Hoffmann);  Bizet (Carmen);  Rimsky-Korsakov (Golden Cockerel);  Leoncavallo (Pagliacci);   Puccini (BohèmeMadam ButterflyGianni Schicchi);  Debussy (Pelléas and Mélisande);  Mackenzie (Eve of St John);  Vaughan Williams (Hugh the Drover);  Holst (Perfect Fool);  Boughton (Alkestis).

The performance schedule is as follows:

Edinburgh,  w/c 27 October:  Mon 27 Marriage of Figaro;  Tue 28 Carmen;  Wed 29 mat Madam Butterfly;  Wed 29 eve Hugh the Drover:  Thu 30 Perfect Fool & Gianni Schicchi;  Fri 31 Siegfried;  Sat 01 mat  Marriage of Figaro;  Sat 01 eve Tales of Hoffmann.

Edinburgh, w/c 3 November:  Mon 03 Golden Cockerel;  Tue 04 Pelléas et Mélisande;  Wed 05 mat  Magic Flute;  Wed 05 eve Tannhäuser;  Thu 06 Mastersingers;  Fri 07 Alkestis;  Sat 08 mat  Hugh the Drover;  Sat 08 eve  Aïda.

Glasgow, w/c 10 November:  Mon 10 Carmen;  Tue 11 Mastersingers;  Wed 12 mat Alkestis;  Wed 12 eve  Tales of Hoffmann;  Thu 13 Magic Flute;  Fri 14  Golden Cockerel;  Sat 15 mat Aïda;  Sat 15 eve Marriage of Figaro.

Glasgow, w/c 17 November:  Mon 17 Tales of Hoffmann;  Tue 18 Bohème;  Wed 19 mat  Magic Flute;  Med 19 eve  Aïda;  Thu 20 Eve of St John & Perfect Fool;  Fri 21 Hugh the Drover;  Sat 22 mat Gianni Schicchi  Pagliacci;  Sat 22 eve Tannhäuser.

Glasgow, w/c 24 November:  Mon 24 Marriage of Figaro;  Tue 25  Faust;  Wed 26 mat Golden Cockerel;  Wed 26 eve Magic Flute;  Thu 27 Hugh the Drover;  Fri 28  Carmen;  Sat 29 mat Madam Butterfly;  Sat 29 eve Mastersingers.

Performance Cast


John Miles (Oct 29 e)

Raymond Ellis (Nov 21)

Shellfish seller

Eric Fort (Nov 21)


Frances Frost (Nov 21)


William Michael (Nov 21)


Parry Jones (Oct 29 e; Nov 21)


Gladys Leathwood (Nov 21)


Hilda Fox (Nov 21)


Archibald Cooper (Nov 21)


Philip Bertram (Nov 21)

Mary the Constable's daughter

Mary Lewis (Oct 29 e; Nov 21)

Aunt Jane the Constable's sister

Constance Willis (Oct 29 e)

Muriel Brunskill (Nov 21)


Sydney Russell (Oct 29 e; Nov 21)


William Anderson (Oct 29 e; Nov 21)

John the Butcher

Frederic Collier (Oct 29 e; Nov 21)


Kendal Young (Nov 21)

Hugh the Drover

Walter Widdop (Oct 29 e)

Tudor Davies (Nov 8 m, 21)


Harold Wilton (Nov 21)


Franklyn Kelsey (Oct 29 e; Nov 21)

Production Cast


Malcolm Sargent (Oct 29 e; Nov 21)


George King

Performance DatesHugh the Drover 1924

Map List

King's Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

29 Oct, 19.30 8 Nov, 14.00

Theatre Royal, Glasgow | Glasgow

21 Nov, 19.30 27 Nov, 19.30

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