The Lark Ascending
The Lark Ascending is a work by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, inspired by George Meredith's 122-line poem of the same name about the skylark. It premiered in a violin/piano version in 1920, and violin/orchestra version in 1921.
The work was written in two versions: violin and piano, written in 1914; and violin and orchestra, written in 1920. The orchestral version is the one that is most frequently performed. 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.
Vaughan Williams worked on The Lark Ascending prior to the outbreak of the Great War. Inspired by the Meredith poem, he set about writing a "pastoral romance for orchestra". 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.
The composer included this portion of Meredith's poem on the flyleaf of the published work:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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