21 August 2022

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Sunday 21 August 2022

The countryside along Cross in Hand Lane, on the edges of Lichfield … Hugh MacDonald says Vaughan Williams evokes the spirit of the English countryside in ‘The Lark Ascending’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (21 August 2022). I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles, Stony Stratford, this morning. Later in the day, I hope to catch a train to Lichfield to take part in the first stage of the three-day Lichfield Peace Walk tomorrow.

But, before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, by James Tissot (1886-1896)

Luke 13: 10-17 (NRSVA):

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15 But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Today’s reflection: ‘The Lark Ascending’

As I prepare to walk through the countryside along Cross in Hand Lane near Lichfield tomorrow, and to think about war and peace, 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.

The 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 morning.

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 English 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 BBC polls, it has been chosen as Britain’s all-time favourite, and it has been 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 some years ago, Kerry Andrew said ‘The Lark Ascending’ ‘seems a typically English choice – as English as cricket, cream teas, queueing and saying ‘sorry’ when you don’t need to.’

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 the Eucharist this morning:

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.

‘For singing till his heaven fills, / ’Tis love of earth that he instils’ (George Meredith) … walking along Cross in Hand in Lane, from Lichfield to Farewell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer, Sunday 21 August 2022 (Trinity X):

The Collect:

Let your merciful ears, O Lord,
be open to the prayers of your humble servants;
and that they may obtain their petitions
make them to ask such things as shall please you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have willed that the gate of mercy
should stand open for those who trust in you:
look upon us with your favour
that we who follow the path of your will
may never wander from the way of life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘The Pursuit of Justice.’ This theme is introduced this morning by Javanie Byfield and Robert Green, ordinands at the United Theological College of the West Indies:

‘Today we celebrate the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition. For the people of the Caribbean and many other nations, it is an occasion to commemorate centuries of brutality of people dragged from their homelands and brought to regions unfamiliar to them.

‘However, on this date in 1791, the pursuit of justice became a visible emblem. As we commemorate this day, we bring to our awareness the harsh realities that prevailed in the days of slavery. Yet, we celebrate the steps and routes taken by those who were relentless in their pursuit of the abolition of the slave trade.

‘Today is a day to say ‘no more’ of the brutality yet also a time to recommit to nurturing societies that reflect justice, equality and freedom in God and in relationship with each other. Here we have the opportunity to put up a resistance, that is, to reject all forms of oppression, racism and classism which seeks to show their ugly heads in our societies. Choosing to rise, take action and reflect the image of God in the rainbow Caribbean, reflecting all races, class, ethnicity, gender and status.’

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

‘In You, O Lord, I take refuge …
You are my hope, my trust’.
Let us trust fully in God,
and depend on him in times of need.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Walking along Cross in Hand Lane and through the countryside on the edges of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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