Ralph Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
During a long career that spanned the first half of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams sparked a new Renaissance of English music. In works ranging from symphonies and concerti to operas, ballets, and hymns, Vaughan Williams blended English folk song, hymnody, and Elizabethan music with themes inspired both by classical masters such as Bach and Handel and the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy. His work in transforming traditional sources into modern settings led the way for later British composers such as Benjamin Britten and William Walton.
Born in Gloucestershire, Vaughan Williams studied both in England, at the Royal College of Music in London and at Trinity College in Cambridge, and with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. A dedicated musicologist, he collected and catalogued over 800 English folk songs; this work led to his editing the new English Hymnal of 1906, to which he added several new hymns of his own. In compositions such as his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1909) and his first symphony
("A Sea Symphony," 1910) he acknowledged his strong debt to historical sources. Yet modern events affected him as well, and his turbulent fourth symphony (1934) is generally considered to reflect his anguish at the growing turmoil during the period before the second World War. In general, his music often evokes both reverence for
England's bucolic past and a modern meditiation upon its inevitable passing.
In The Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams found inspiration not only in English folk themes but in a poem by the English poet George Meredith
(1828-1909). 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.
Vaughan Williams's orchestral romance offers an impressionistic image of the
lark's song and the countryside, with "our valley" represented by two folk tunes. He completed an early version of the piece in 1914 for violinist Marie Hall, who consulted with him on revisions and first performed the work in a violin-piano arrangement in December 1920. The orchestral version premiered in London at a
Queen's Hall concert in June, 1921.
The formal structure of the piece is a straightforward ABA development, with each theme introduced and linked by the solo intervals. Yet within that structure, the violin solo is notable for its fluid writing and the organic way in which it emerges from and blends back into the orchestral texture throughout the piece.
The work opens with a calm set of sustained chords from the strings and winds. The violin enters as the lark, with a series of ascending, repeated intervals and nimble, then elongated arpeggios. These rise into the first theme, and the orchestra quietly enters to accompany the solo in the development of this somewhat introspective, folk-like motif. The solo cadenza is reprised, then the woodwinds, led by flute and clarinet, announce the second theme, a folk dance. The full orchestra joins in, though Vaughan Williams always keeps the orchestration restrained, never forceful. At one point the soloist pauses in a trill while woodwinds play a series of bird-like calls themselves. Then the violin soars in cadenzas over the orchestra, an effect seen by some as representing the lark flying over the countryside. Another solo lark episode leads to the reprise of the original theme, finally stated by the full strings. The work comes to a quiet close, with the soloist returning to the original ascending, repeated intervals as the
lark's song is, indeed, "lost on aerial rings."
April 13, 2003