Ralph Vaughan Williams ‘The Lark Ascending’: A Dreamy Songbird

Good day, dearest readers! I cannot believe we are in the home stretch now of my August Alphabet challenge – only 5 blogs left to go! It’s day V and there’s a composer who I’ve wanted to look into for a while now and that’s the undeniable force of – Vaughan Williams! I’ve been asked now on multiple occasions to look into one of his most loved works – The Lark Ascending. So here we go readers, I hope you enjoy this work!

Ralph Vaughan Williams on October 12th, 1872 in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. His father, Arthys Vaughan Williams, died suddenly in 1875, and Ralph and his siblings were taken care of by his widow and their nurse. When Vaughan Williams turned 5, he started receiving piano lessons from his aunt. His talent for music was spotted very quickly – in the same year he composed his first piece called, “The Robin’s Nest” which was four bars long and for solo piano. Interestingly, he didn’t like the piano, so the coming year he began taking violin lessons. Amazingly, he completed the correspondence music course at Edinburgh University in 1880 (when he was 8) and passed. Vaughan Williams went to both a prep school in Rottingdean and a public school in his younger years. While there his musical abilities were challenged and encouraged to develop. While at public school, Vaughan Williams realised that religion actually didn’t mean anything to him, and he became an atheist (although he continued to attend church to avoid upsetting his family).

In 1890, Vaughan Williams enrolled at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Hubert Parry. This was not the route his family wanted for him though, as they did not believe he was talented enough to make it as a composer. They ideally wanted him to stay at Charterhouse for another two years so that he could enrol at Cambridge University and gain a ‘proper education.’ So in 1892, he temporarily left RCM and entered Trinity College, Cambridge and studied history and music for three years. Vaughan Williams still received composition lessons from Parry during this time. However, when he returned to RCM in 1894, Parry had left the college, and Charles Villiers Stanford became his new composition tutor. The relationship between Vaughan Williams and Standford was turbulent – they had very different ideas of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music. Whilst at RCM, Vaughan Williams met Gustav Holst, and they became the best of friends for the rest of their days.

In his early career, Vaughan Williams worked with various choirs as an organist, and also worked with famous teachers to excel his violin technique, such as with Max Bruch. In 1899, he passed the exam for the degree of Doctor of Music at Cambridge and he was conferred in 1901. Vaughan Williams was very involved in music journalism as well as composition, and many of his writings were published. The works that were composed in this time were not his most popular, however his Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 is pretty great! After not being happy with his compositional techniques, he sought to be taught by Sir Edward Elgar, though was unsuccessful. Instead he began working alongside Maurice Ravel. Whilst working in Paris with Ravel, his style changed somewhat and his textures became lighter and his music more poignant. It was this time when he wrote his wonderful orchestral work – A Sea Symphony. When World War I broke out, Vaughan Williams was on the rise in Britain as a household name within classical music. Between 1910 and 1915 he composed some of his most famous works such as – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), A London Symphony (1914) and The Lark Ascending (1914).

In 1914, despite him being an older man (42), he volunteered for military service on the outbreak of WW1. He drove ambulance wagons in France and Greece during his service. The war left an emotional stain on Vaughan Williams, as he lost a lot of his comrades, including the young composer, George Butterworth. In 1917 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. Tragically, the continual loud sounds and gun shots slowly destroyed his hearing, leaving him deaf in his later years. After the war, Vaughan Williams took some time to adjust back to civilian life before composing again. During the 1920s, Vaughan Williams’ wife became immobilised by arthritis, so they moved from London to Dorking. Here, Vaughan Williams composed more music, such as his opera Sir John in Love. During the 1930s Vaughan Williams was regarded as a leading figure in British music. In 1934, Holst died, which was a significant blow for Vaughan Williams, as they were such good friends. This decade saw some of the composer’s most aggressive works, which may have come as a direct result from his depression due to the loss of Holst. His Fourth Symphony is a prime example of this.

A distinctive aspect of Vaughan Williams’ catalogue of compositions is the wide variety of different kinds of music. He composed operas, symphonies, songs, film scores and choral works to name but a few genres. Vaughan Williams composed throughout the rest of his life until his sudden death in 1958. His influences within British classical music are still prevalent today and his techniques and style in his lifetime were seen as revolutionary.

The Lark Ascending is based on George Meredith’s poem by the same name. It is written in rhyming tetrameter and is in two long continuous sections. The poem is about a skylark and his song, and it has a very pastoral feeling about it. The poem is rather long, but I feel its important to include it within the blog so you can see where the music is originating from, so the poem is going to be situated at the bottom of this blog, below the recommended recordings.

The Lark Ascending was originally composed for solo violin and piano, however, Vaughan Williams was not happy with the outcome, and soon he orchestrated for solo violin and orchestra (which received its premiere in 1921). The work is largely based on both Vaughan Williams’ reading of Meredith’s poem and English folk song. It was first a Romance for Violin and Piano. The Lark Ascending is a prime example of English landscape painting within music. With Vaughan Williams’ smooth pastoral writing, this work exploits the joy of nature and the life of the lark.

The piece begins with warm modal chords by the ensemble (without the soloist), I think, by looking at the score that they’re based around Dorian on E, as the E pedal below is very pertinent. This is a very impressionist thing to do, which shows Ravel’s input on Vaughan Williams’ compositional style. These chords lead into a solo cadence segment, which is based around a fast trill-like figure from the solo violin. Opening the piece with this is very interesting and at the time it was very unique. This solo segment represents the lark its song. There are fast passages consisting of scalic runs, which creates intensity. The pedal plays throughout from the lower strings. The violin plays in an incredibly high register, which is when the pedal drops out and you are literally being held on by the wonderful luscious sound of the soloist. The orchestra return after some time, with their modal progressions below the soloist, who is playing a wealth of small variations based on the initial ‘song theme.’ The sound is very warm and this opening section is perhaps the most famous of the whole work. The musical dialogue between the soloist and orchestra interesting as it seems that the lark (the soloist) is talking to the world (the orchestra) about the joys of nature. The orchestra play a more climactic section, which leads to some neat double stopping by the soloist. Vaughan Williams has a wonderful stylistic feature of highlighting different instruments within an ensemble, for me the cor anglais, horn, bassoon and cellos are highlighted and emphasised brilliantly in this work.

The opening solo cadence returns once more, which acts as a transition into the next section of the work. The next section is slightly more upbeat in tempo – with it bearing obvious ties with folk song. It is introduced by a bouncy theme by the orchestra, and then is answered by the soloist. This new theme is taken and passed around the ensemble, which creates a sense of unity and harmony (no pun intended!) within the orchestra. The soloist then plays a set of trills, which is accompanied by the triangle. Certain instruments then enter one by one, creating a fugue-like section based around the soloist. This new texture is very light and the variation of this theme leads to a climax section which dies away very quickly. The atmosphere is still very friendly and the music is incredibly easy to listen to. The solo violin and clarinet have a musical conversation, which leads into another developmental section. The woody timbre of the clarinet serves as a nice foundation for the brighter sound that is made on the violin.

The solo cadence section is repeated, although this time slightly varied. The use of double stopping in the solo part creates a much more exciting texture within the ensemble. All of the previous themes heard all return and are developed to their full potential in this section. This music can so easily take you away to another realm, and before you know it you’ve listened to this work for 11:30 minutes! Carrying on, the solo violin uses a lot of vibrato, which creates dimension and density within the timbre. The orchestra die away slowly to a quaint pp dynamic, which leads to the solo cadence returning for the final time. The orchestra drop out and it is just the soloist now. The lark is singing its final song of the day, what a delight. The use of modes and the pentatonic scale within these cadences are just mesmerizing to hear. A variation of the theme can be heard, and you are literally being held on with anticipation by this dainty solo violin. The piece ends with the soloist in its top range, slowly dying away. I find this ending absolutely magnificent and incredibly beautiful.

The Lark Ascending is set out in a complex triparte system – A-B-A*-Coda. However, the use of the returning solo cadence section makes it quite easy to hear when the next section starts. The Lark Ascending is such a wonderful piece of music, and is a favourite with a lot of people! An expressive work which embodies the idea of nature and the lark itself. The impressionist nature of the solo part gives the violin a pathway away from a strong tonal centre, which is why it sounds so dreamy. I hope you have enjoyed this blog and the equally as wonderful piece – I am glad to have finally written about it! Watch this space to see what day W has in store for us tomorrow!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

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,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,         5
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,         10
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,         15
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her musci’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air         20
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill         25
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,         30
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright         35
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,         40
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives         45
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,         50
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,         55
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,         60
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.
For singing till his heaven fills,         65
’T is 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:         70
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;         75
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,         80
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say         85
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,         90
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns         95
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.
Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,         100
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,         105
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,         110
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,         115
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,         120
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.