Gustav Holst The Wandering Scholar

Chamber opera in one act.
Libretto by Clifford Bax based on a story told in Helen Waddell’s book The Wandering Scholars (1928).
First performed in the David Lewis Theatre in Liverpool on 31 January 1934

The action takes place in thirteenth century France and is set in a farmhouse. 
As the opera starts, a farmer, Louis, is about to set off for the nearby town on a mission to buy provisions.  He sings a jolly farmer-type song about how all he needs is beef, ale, an old dog and a fair and lusty wife (in that order).

He tries to give his wife, whose name is Alison, a kiss, but she brushes him off and tells him to get himself off to town and not to come back until the sun goes down.  So Louis collects up his dog and sets off.  Alison breathes a sigh of relief – she was afraid that Louis might bump into Father Philippe.  Alison is clearly expecting ‘dear, fat Father Philippe’, and chatters to herself that he had better arrive soon, and that when he does, he will receive ‘everything that a cheerful man could require in the middle of April’.

She begins to prepare for the priest’s arrival: she takes a ‘rich round almond cake and a bottle of burgundy’ out of a cupboard and puts them on the table.  Then she puts an earthenware pot on the hob and comments that it contains ‘the most beautiful piece of pig’s-meat that you ever set eyes on’.  Father Philippe is obviously in for a real treat, gastronomically speaking.

Alison sings a slightly bawdy little song about almond blossom falling and why shouldn’t a girl be just as abandoned once the spring is over, and then Father Philippe puts his head round the door.  ‘Piggy, piggy, piggy!  Is my little pig at home’, he calls.  Since at this stage he does not know that Alison has put some pork on the stove, ‘Piggy’ must be a pet name he has for Alison (the mind boggles at how that may have come about) and maybe the pork that she is cooking without her husband’s knowledge is an in-joke between her and the priest.

Anyway, Father Philippe establishes that Louis the husband is not around, comments on the almond cake and the wine which he has spotted, and asks what is in the pot.  Alison replies, ‘Some pork, father, that you and I may dine’.  Father Philippe catches on fast – he asks, ‘And while the meat is cooking, what, Piggy, shall we do?’  Alison coyly suggests that the priest can decide and, no doubt fluttering her eyelids a bit, remarks that she will not deceive her husband.  But the wily priest tells her that by denying the ‘little wanton elf of mischief’ which he has spotted in her eyes, she is already half deceiving her husband, and completely deceiving herself.  So her sin is doubled, but she can, of course, halve it by stopping deceiving herself and just deceive her husband.  Clever people, priests.  A nice argument, and Father Philippe follows it up by asking where the ladder in the corner of the room leads to, and then asking how long it will be before the pork is ready.  The answer to the first question is an attic where Alison and Louis sleep, and to the second, ‘twenty minutes or so’.

Father Philippe suggests that they make use of the time by slipping up to the attic so that he might exorcise her of the ‘naughty devil of springtime’.  Before they can get up the ladder, however, someone arrives at the farmhouse.  It is Pierre, a wandering scholar in search of something to eat, and he offers to sing in return for a meal.  Father Philippe is all for sending him packing, but Alison likes the look of him and asks him to sing while she stirs the pot.

Pierre, interrupted constantly by the furious priest who starts to read his Latin text out loud, launches into a typical student’s tale of financial woe – he started out with money, but had to spend it on books, lodgings and food.  He asks for a slice of the almond cake and a glass of wine and continues with his story of creeping poverty – he has had to pawn his possessions and then his books, and now all he has left is his copy of Virgil.  Alison is sympathetic, but when she points out rather pathetically that the only dinner available is just enough for two, Father Philippe turns on Pierre, threatens him with a cudgel and turfs him out.  While Alison watches Pierre go with more than a hint of regret, Father Philippe renews his intention to rid her of the devils which are so obviously affecting her.  He gets her to the bottom of the ladder and begins to climb up when all of a sudden they hear someone humming – it is Louis returning.  Alison is in a panic – she had told her husband that there was nothing to eat, and here she is with almond cake and a bottle of wine in full view and a pot of pork on the fire.  She hides the food and the priest hides himself.  In comes Louis.

He has returned because he met a hungry wandering scholar and has brought him home for a bit of food.  The extra guest is, of course, Pierre.  Alison tells her husband that they have no food to offer the student, and reminds him that that was the reason for his trip into town.  She slyly suggests that Louis might take Pierre into the town and get a meal for him there but Louis is embarrassed – he had promised the lad something.  Pierre offers to tell a story in return for a meal.

His story is about a fine herd of pigs he saw earlier in the day – almost as fine, he says, ‘as that rich pork in yonder pot’.  What pork, flusters Alison and claims on her life that there is no pork in the house.  But Louis lifts the lid of the pot and, sure enough, there is the pork.  Pierre continues with his tale: he tells of one fine, fat sow which had strayed from the herd and was suddenly in danger from a wolf.  But Pierre saved the sow by throwing a stone at the wolf – a stone, he says, ‘in size like the delicious almond cake that lies concealed behind that cupboard door’.  And when Louis looks, sure enough, there is the cake.  Alison exclaims that the lad must be a wizard, because the cake was certainly not there before.  The bottle of wine is revealed by the next chapter of Pierre’s tale, and eventually he exposes Father Philippe as well.  Louis beats up the priest and throws him out of the house.  Pierre then gets the pork, the cake and the wine as the reward for his story and the opera ends as Louis takes Alison up the ladder – presumably for some suitable chastisement.

—ooOoo— 

  • Related OperaStory articles can be found on
  • Gustav Holst’s life and his operas
  • Operatic almond cakes
  • Operatic pork

 ©  Roger Witts 2010

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