Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Known now as one of the most beloved 20th Century British composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ was focused on creating a distinctive ‘English music sound’. This was certainly achieved by the composer, with many of his works being described as ‘quintessentially British’. A distinctive aspect of Vaughan Williams’ catalogue of music is the wide variety of genres. He composed operas, symphonies, songs, film scores, chamber music and choral works, to name but a few genres. He, alongside his peers, devised a different way to compose music than their European contemporaries. Vaughan Williams evidently had strong feelings on compositional traditions that other English composers were using:
“As long as composers persist in serving up at second hand the externals of the music of other nations, they must not be surprised if audiences prefer the real Brahms, the real Wagner, the real Debussy or the real Stravinsky to their pale reflections … Every composer cannot expect to have a world-wide message, but he may reasonably expect to have a special message for his own people.”
So, Vaughan Williams, alongside friend and fellow composer Gustav Holst, went out exploring in the English countryside, recording, collecting and learning about the rich cultural heritage of folk music. For both composers, folk songs became the basis for many of their works, whether literally, spiritually or musically. The English pastoral style was mastered by Vaughan Williams, with his work for solo violin and orchestra, The Lark Ascending, perhaps being the most popular example of this style. Inspired by George Meredith’s poem of the same name, Vaughan Williams inscribed the following lines from Meredith’s poem on the opening page of the score:
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 life us with him as he goes,
Till lost on his aerial ring,
In light, and then the fancy sings.
The poem is longer than the excerpt that Vaughan Williams uses on the score, but the themes and feelings are presented loud and clear. The poem follows a skylark’s journey through the countryside, describing the sights, the various noises heard and how the skylark interacts with nature. Vaughan Williams uses various melodies and techniques for the soloist to imitate the sounds of the skylark throughout different times of the day, such as the placed silences, cadenzas and communication between soloist and orchestra.
Originally composed for solo violin and piano, Vaughan Williams also orchestrated the work for solo violin and orchestra, which he was more happy with. The orchestral version is much more popular today than the original version, however it is still performed as part of recitals and chamber concerts. The orchestral version was premiered in 1921, with Marie Hall as the soloist – who was also the work’s dedicatee. Often described as one of the ‘supreme achievements of English landscape painting’, The Lark Ascending has become one of the nation’s most beloved works.
The piece begins with warm opening chords from the orchestra in a lilting 6/8 time. The modal roots of these chords sets the scene very quickly for the solo violin to join in. The violin cadenza is based around the fluctuation between two notes a step apart, as the music ascends, so does the tempo. The lilt in the rhythm represents the lark taking flight across the picturesque English countryside. The range of octaves written for this cadenza is one of the most striking elements of it. From the mid-range to the tip top range is emotionally driven, and the listener is instantly hooked.
The initial lark song that first appears in the soloists cadenza is then developed when the orchestra return, playing the opening modal chords. The soloist develops the lark’s theme here. The communication between the soloist (the lark) and the orchestra (the countryside) is pertinent throughout the work. The world makes room for the lark, and the two work together in glorious harmony throughout.
The soloist grows with the orchestra to first real climax of the piece, which leads to the violin playing some strong double stopping that creates a slightly edgier timbre. Some instruments within the orchestra communicate directly to the soloist, such as the horn, bassoon and cor anglais, and this further strengthens the links between the musicians.
The opening solo cadenza makes a comeback and acts as a seamless segue into the next, more upbeat, section. Paying homage to English folk song traditions, this section’s focus is more on the orchestra. Although different in pace and atmosphere, the music remains gentle and still in focus in the context.
After more communication between instruments in the orchestra and the soloist, the orchestra die away to a very quiet dynamic. This paves the way for the lark to return for the final time. The soloist proclaims the opening cadenza once more, although this time with even more delicacy. A few variations are also heard, which plays towards the natural feel of the work. The lark rises up and up until it reaches the peak, before it very quietly flies away into the deep sunset ahead.
Ⓒ Alex Burns