Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

This meditative piece was written in 1914. With the onset of the Great War, Vaughan Williams was soon to enlist as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and composition and premières were on hold for the duration. The piece takes its name from the title of a poem by George Meredith (1828-1909) and the following quotation heads the score:-

The Lark Ascending

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 the fancy sings.

George Meredith (1828-1909)

The composer left no programme note to accompany his work, but it is not difficult to allow one’s mind to wander when listening to or writing about the music. It is redolent of the English countryside, especially the wide open hills of Vaughan Williams’ native Cotswold landscape.

The Romance opens almost imperceptibly, with the orchestra sustaining the most delicate of chords, out of which the “Lark” takes wing, rising, undulating, falling. (Throughout this charismatic meander there is but one bar line!) At this moment the orchestra evaporates, leaving the soloist to carry the Lark’s song skyward into a gently rocking cantabile theme, to the gentlest of string accompaniment and brief delicate variants from the woodwind. But the Lark re-asserts her freedom in a beautiful rising cadenza, and she looks down from on high – upon a village fete with dancing below? The pulse of the music has changed perceptibly (Allegretto tranquillo). The Lark continues to wing her way above, but her song becomes somewhat “agitated”. While the orchestra luxuriates in its own music below; her song becomes more florid. Finally the music of mere mortal musicians falls away, leaving her to sing herself into silence.

Vaughan Williams dedicated this work to the distinguished English violinist Marie Hall, who gave the first performance at the Queen’s Hall, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, in 1921.