08 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams
(19): ‘The Lark Ascending’

Hugh MacDonald looks at how Vaughan Williams famously evoked the spirit of the British countryside in ‘The Lark Ascending’

Patrick Comerford

This is the Third Sunday in Lent, and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for this morning [8 March 2015] are: Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; I Corinthians 1: 18-25; and John 2: 13-22.

The Psalm says:

1 The heavens are telling the glory of God •
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 One day pours out its song to another •
and one night unfolds knowledge to another.

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

With these thoughts in Psalm 19, and with Christ’s promise of the Resurrection in the Gospel reading, I thought it appropriate this morning to reflect on ‘The Lark Ascending,’ which is one of the most popular pieces in the classical repertoire.

This work by Vaughan Williams is now better known that the poem that inspired his composition. ‘The Lark Ascending’ is a 122-line poem written in 1881 by the English poet George Meredith (1828-1909) about the song of the skylark, which begins:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

Meredith was part of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of writers and artists, and he posed as the model for The Death of Chatterton, a hugely popular painting by Henry Wallis. His circle of friends included William and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and later Thomas Hardy, and his work was admired by Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Siegfried Sassoon described Meredith’s poem as “a sustained lyric which never for a moment falls short of the effect aimed at, soars up and up with the song it imitates, and unites inspired spontaneity with a demonstration of effortless technical ingenuity... one has only to read the poem a few times to become aware of its perfection.”

The poem inspired Vaughan Williams to write his musical work of the same name, which he described as a “romance for violin and orchestra.”

It was originally composed for violin and piano in 1914, before the outbreak of World War I, and it received its first public performance in 1920. In the same year, Vaughan Williams re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra, and this had its premiere in 1921, becoming the more frequently performed version.

There is no reliable evidence to support the claim that Vaughan Williams was working on this as he watched British troops embarking for France.

This claim was made in 2007 in a documentary about the composer, O Thou Transcendent, and a BBC programme on this work. The original source for this story is RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964), by his second wife Ursula, but she did not meet Vaughan Williams until 1938, 24 years after he had composed the work.

On the day that Britain entered World War I, Vaughan Williams visited Margate for a week’s holiday. But Margate was not an embarkation point, so he would not have seen departing soldiers.

The ships Vaughan Williams saw were engaged in preparatory fleet exercises. The composer later said the tune came into his head as he walked along the cliff, at which point he jotted down the notes. A young scout then made a citizen‘s arrest, assuming he was scribbling details in a secret code of the coastline for the enemy.

World War I interrupted Vaughan Williams’s work as a composer, and he volunteered to serve in the Field Ambulance Service. There he witnessed the horrors of war. But after the war he returned to ‘The Lark Ascending’ and revised it in 1920 with the help of the English violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956), during their stay at Kings Weston House near Bristol as the guests of Philip Napier Miles, a great patron of the arts. (Later, Vaughan Williams would give the name Kings Weston to the tune he composed specially for the hymn ‘At the name of Jesus’.)

Vaughan Williams dedicated ‘The Lark Ascending’ to Marie Hall. She had studied under Edward Elgar, and premiered both versions of ‘The Lark Ascending.’

The piano-accompanied premiere was on 15 December 1920, in Shirehampton Public Hall, near Bristol, when the pianist was Geoffrey Mendham. This was followed by the first orchestral performance in London on 14 June 1921, with the British Symphony Orchestra under the conductor Sir Adrian Boult. Marie Hall owned one of the two Viotti Stradivarius violins, and played it at both performances.

The critic from The Times wrote: “It showed serene disregard of the fashions of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along.”

It has heart-soaring moments, from the shimmering solo violin lines to the open chords moving in parallel which harbour just a hint of darkness, rain clouds in the distance. The bucolic violin trills and florid noodlings evoke a bird’s-eye swoop over long swaths of cornfields on a glorious English summer’s morn.

The use of pentatonic scale patterns frees the violin from a strong tonal centre, and expresses impressionistic elements. This liberty also extends to the metre. The cadenzas for solo violin, which have been its trademark ever since, are written without bar lines, lending them a sense of meditational release.

Listen out for the soaring violin melody ascending so high into the instrument’s upper register that, at times, it is barely audible. Shimmering strings provide much of the beautifully sensitive accompaniment, evoking glorious images of the rolling British countryside. Midway through ‘The Lark Ascending,’ Vaughan Williams provides an orchestral section that borrows from his love of folk songs. It is not long though before the lark returns, with the melody entwining itself around the orchestra and then breaking free, rising to ever loftier heights.

Although no folksong is quoted, Michael Kennedy says the violin’s soaring line anticipates Messiaen’s obsession with birdsong by 30 years and encapsulates the lyric-pastoral atmosphere of English Georgian poetry in music.

It is so vividly pictorial that we can almost see the lark spiralling up higher into the sky above the lush green rolling hills. Vaughan Williams himself described it as “an English landscape transcribed into musical terms.”

‘The Lark Ascending’ is notoriously difficult to play, and while the best performances of it are seemingly effortless and free, each performance is different from the next. For the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, the popularity of Vaughan Williams is both interesting and deserved. “He has tapped into something about the English. There is a kind of nostalgic essence there and a real interest in English folk songs, along with his friend Holst.” He believes each live performance even of a well-known work can still be different. “A piece like this lives and breathes in performance. It is never the same.”

‘The Lark Ascending’ remains the most popular work by Vaughan Williams. In a BBC poll of listeners to choose the nation’s Desert Island Discs in 2011, the work was chosen as Britain’s all-time favourite. Last year [2014], it was voted Britain’s favourite piece of classical music in a poll of more than 100,000 people in the annual Classic FM Hall Of Fame list. In third place was another work by Vaughan Williams, ‘Fantasia On A Theme by Thomas Tallis.’

Writing in The Guardian last year, Kerry Andrew said ‘The Lark Ascending’ “seems a typically English choice – as English as cricket, cream teas, queuing and saying ‘sorry’ when you don’t need to. It’s worth pointing out that the main reason this has booted Rachmaninov off the top spot is because it was used to accompany a teary recent death scene in Coronation Street.”

The original orchestral manuscript is lost. But Vaughan Williams inscribed selected lines – though not a consecutive passage – from Meredith’s poem on the flyleaf of the published work. These are the opening and closing lines, so that the entire poem is invoked, and between them the six lines in which the lark is made to embody the wine.

In choosing these lines, Vaughan Williams may have been drawing out a Eucharistic resonance in Meredith’s image, which provides another reason to think about this poem as I prepare for this morning’s celebration of the Eucharist:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.
For singing till his heaven fills,
’Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.


Merciful Lord,
Grant your people grace to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh and the devil
and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord our God,
you feed us in this life with bread from heaven,
the pledge and foreshadowing of future glory.
Grant that the working of this sacrament within us
may bear fruit in our daily lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow: Three Preludes Founded on Welsh Hymn Tunes, 1, ‘Bryn Calfaria

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