The Lark Ascending
The Lark Ascending is a poem of 122 lines by the English poet George Meredith about the song of the skylark. It has been called matchless of its kind, '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 the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams to write a musical work of the same name, which is now more widely known than the poem. It was originally composed in 1914 for violin and piano. This had its first public performance in 1920: in the same year the composer re-scored it for solo violin and orchestra, which premiered in 1921, and is the more frequently performed version. It is one of the most popular pieces in the Classical repertoire among British listeners, as well as New Yorkers and classical music fans in New Zealand.
Meredith's poem The Lark Ascending (1881) is a hymn or pæan to the skylark and his song, written in rhyming tetrameter couplets in two long continuous sections. It first appeared in The Fortnightly Review for May 1881, at a time when (as Meredith wrote in March 1881 to Cotter Morison) he was afflicted by 'the dreadful curse of Verse'. It was then included in his volume Poems and Lyrics of the Joy of Earth, which first appeared in an unsatisfactory edition in June 1883, and a month later was reprinted by Macmillan at the author's expense in a second issue with corrections. Siegfried Sassoon in his commentary on the 1883 Poems ('one of the landmarks of 19th-Century poetry') observed, 'to write of such a poem is to be reminded of its incomparable aloofness from the ploddings of the journeyman critic.'
It is a richly devotional pastoral, pantheist and humanist in feeling. 'The press of hurried notes' run repeating, changing, trilling and ringing, and bring to our inner being a song of mirth and light like a fountain piercing the 'shining tops of day'. The joyfulness, purity and unrestrained delight of the 'starry voice ascending' awakens 'the best in us to him akin.' The lark's song is the wine which lifts us with him in the golden cup, the valley of this world: the lark is the woods and brooks, the creatures and the human line, the dance and the marriage of life within it. The hearts of men shall feel them better, shall feel them celestially, 'as long as you crave nothing but the song.' The poet's voice becomes choric.
The human voice (the song proceeds) cannot express so sweetly what is inmost. Unlike the skylark, Man has not such a 'song seraphically free Of taint of personality'. In the lark's song, the human 'millions rejoice For giving their one spirit voice.' Yet there are those revered human lives, made substantial by trials and in loving the earth, which though themselves unsinging yet come forth as a song worthy to greet heaven. It rises in that pure song into the highest heavens and is maintained there, so that our soul rises with theirs 'through self-forgetfulness divine,' filling the skies, showering the world 'from human stores,' soaring nearer towards silence.
Origin of the musical work
George Meredith died in 1909. Vaughan Williams worked on his "pastoral romance for orchestra" The Lark Ascending prior to the outbreak of the Great War, and inscribed selected lines (not a consecutive passage) from Meredith's poem on the flyleaf of the published work. They are the opening and closing lines (so 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.
- 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.
There is no reliable evidence to support the claim that he was working on it while watching British troops embarking for France. This was presented in a 2007 documentary about the composer, O Thou Transcendent, and the subsequent related BBC programme on this work. The original source for this story is RVW, the biography by his wife Ursula. She did not meet Vaughan Williams until 1938, 24 years after he'd composed the work. George Butterworth [killed in WW1], who knew Vaughan Williams at the time of these events, recorded the fact that the composer was preparing for a lecture on Purcell when he wrote the piece.
On the day that Britain entered the Great War, Vaughan Williams visited Margate for a week's holiday. It was not an embarkation point, so he would not have seen departing soldiers. The ships that he did see were engaged in preparatory fleet exercises. These were noted and documented by members of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance, which departed Margate around this time on its trans-Antarctic expedition.
A small boy observed the composer making notes and, thinking the man was jotting a secret code, informed a police officer. He arrested the composer. The war halted Vaughan Williams' composing. He revised the work in 1920 with the help of the English violinist Marie Hall, during their stay at Kings Weston House near Bristol.
Premiere and reception
Vaughan Williams dedicated The Lark Ascending to Hall, who premiered both versions. The piano-accompanied premiere was in December 1920, in conjunction with the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society at Shirehampton Public Hall. This was followed by the first London performance, and first orchestral performance, on 14 June 1921, under conductor Adrian Boult. The critic from The Times wrote, "It showed serene disregard of the fashions of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along." 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 are written without bar lines, lending them a sense of meditational release.
In a 2011 poll of listeners to choose the nation's Desert Island Discs, the work was chosen as Britain's all-time favourite. From 2007 to 2010, the piece was voted number one in the Classic FM annual Hall of Fame poll, over Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and another work of Vaughan Williams, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In 2011 it was usurped by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.
The Lark Ascending has been a consistent favourite in Radio New Zealand Concert's annual New Year's Day countdown programme, Settling the Score. It has ranked number one every year from 2007 to 2012, and placed highly in other years. Frustrated by its seemingly intractable hold on the top spot, a small group of listeners joined a Facebook group called 'Unsettling the Score', which encouraged members to "[u]se your vote to bring Vaughan Williams' reign to an end" and suggested pieces by Brian Ferneyhough, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Harrison Birtwistle, Helmut Lachenmann, Anton Webern and Iannis Xenakis in its place.
The Lark Ascending influenced at least two British composers, firstly, Robin Milford whose The Darkling Thrush Op.17 (based on the poem by Thomas Hardy) has been described as "...the Lark re-ascending" in an article on the centenary of the composers birth. Secondly, William Alwyn's 1939 Pastoral Fantasia for Viola and Orchestra which was dubbed "The Hawk Ascending" by a reviewer following the release of the 2008 Naxos recording.
In popular culture
- The Lark Ascending inspired some of the violin parts in the latter half of the track "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One" on the album Larks' Tongues in Aspic by King Crimson (1973).
- The piece was used as the main theme for the 1987 Australian film The Year My Voice Broke.
- This piece was used by David Crowder Band on "The Lark Ascending or (Perhaps More Accurately, I'm Trying to Make You Sing)", the last song on their album A Collision (or 3 + 4 = 7).
- Dreadzone's homage to the English countryside, "A Canterbury Tale", uses the initial solo violin theme from The Lark Ascending as a recurring melody.
- The Jez Butterworth play, Jerusalem (2009), used this piece as its preset music.
- The piece is referred to repeatedly in the novel Cricket Kings by William McInnes.
- Excerpts are used repeatedly in the Blur documentary No Distance Left to Run (these are the only music in the film not recorded by Blur).
- The work was featured in the 2008 documentary, "Man On Wire" about high-wire walker, Phillipe Petit.
- In figure skating, The Lark Ascending was used in 2007 World Figure Skating Championships by Kim Yuna in her free program.
- In Coronation Street in 2014, The Lark Ascending was used in Hayley Cropper's final scene.
- Siegfried Sassoon, Meredith (Constable, London 1948), pp. 163-64.
- It is the male of the species which soars and sings.
- Sassoon, Meredith, pp. 159-164.
- Heffer, Simon (2012). Vaughan Williams. ISBN 9780571287215.
- Lynne Walker, "Just Williams", The Independent (archived at SimonKeenlyside.info), Review of the documentary, O Thou Transcendent: the Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams (2007); published 28 November 2007; retrieved 11 November 2012
- Lee, Douglas (2013). Masterworks of 20th-Century Music: The Modern Repertory of the Symphony Orchestra. ISBN 9781136066900.
- Megan Hobbs, "Birds of a feather", Limelight, October 2002
- Top Desert Island Disc, BBC
- Classic FM
- "911 Soundtrack New York Radio", The Guardian, 26 August 2011
- "Radio New Zealand : Concert : Programmes : Settling the Score". Radionz.co.nz. Retrieved 7 September 2013.
- "Unsettling the Score", Facebook
- Anderson, Martin; Hunter, Peter. "The Robin Milford Centenary: A Cause for Celebration". Musicweb. Retrieved July 2013.
- McQuiston, Bob (8 September 2008). "Classical Lost and Found: Reviews 8 September 2008". Classical Lost and Found. Retrieved July 2013.
Copyrighted in the UK, EU and US until 2028 and not available at IMSLP.
- The Lark Ascending: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- George Meredith's poem, "The Lark Ascending", Bartleby
- Video of performance, Michael Bochmann (violin) with the English Symphony Orchestra