The Lark Ascending was originally written as a single-movement work for violin and piano by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer was inspired by George Meredith’s 1881 poem of the same name, and completed his musical tribute in 1914. However, The Lark Ascending was not performed until 1920, having fallen into obscurity until Williams decided to rework it for solo violin and orchestra after World War One. This is the most popular version of the piece, and is subtitled “A Romance” in reference to the composer’s habit of labelling all slow thoughtful music in this manner.
Ralph Vaughan Williams had trained as a violinist in his youth, and he admired English poets of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Apart from Meredith, these included the likes of Tennyson, Swinburne, Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Hardy, and Housman. Vaughn Williams’ second wife, the poet Ursula ????, wrote that what made The Lark Ascending such a special musical creation lay in her then-husband having “taken a literary idea on which to build his musical thought … and [having] made the violin become both the bird’s song and its flight, being, rather than illustrating the poem from which the title was taken”. At the head of the original score for The Lark Ascending (now sadly lost), Vaughan Williams wrote twelve lines from Meredith’s lengthy poem:
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.
The Lark Ascending was written for and dedicated to Marie Hall, a leading British violinist of the time who had studied with the composer Edward Elgar. She worked with Vaughn Williams to tailor the piece more closely to her style of playing, but no record exists of what specific changes she proposed to the composer. Hall premiered the original violin and piano version of The Lark Ascending with the pianist Geoffrey Mendham at the Shirehampton Public Hall on the 15th of December, 1920. Hall also served as the soloist for the first performance of the orchestral version. This version debuted at a concert presented by the British Music Society, and was held in the Queen’s Hall, London, on the 14th of June 1921.
The first recording of The Lark Ascending took place in 1928, with Isolde Menges serving as the violin soloist. Her playing was supported on the recording by an unnamed orchestra, conducted by one Malcolm Sargent. Having heard this recording, the critic A. H. Fox Strangways wrote in his publication Music & Letters that “The violin floats in a long rapture over some homegrown tunes in the accompaniment, taking little bits of them into its song at intervals. Violin cadenzas are apt to have a family likeness, but these jubilations will hardly remind anybody of anything else. There is very little of the harmless necessary arpeggio or of ingeniously wonderful double stops. It is pure carolling.”
Pure carolling it might have been, but the deceptive simplicity of Vaughn Williams’ piece was buttressed by an undercurrent of musical complexity, and this is particularly true of the orchestral version. Beginning with a two-bar introduction by woodwind and muted strings in 6/8 time, the soloist enters with an unaccompanied cadenza. This entrance is marked pianissimo and sur la touche, which means that the player places their bow over the fingerboard to reduce higher harmonics and produce an ethereal tone. Near the end of the cadenza, a melody in G major is introduced which allows the violin soloist to lead the orchestra back in. A second cadenza follows, this one of shorter duration, and builds to the Allegretto tranquillo quasi andante. In this section, Vaughn Williams provides the flutes with a new melody. Soon, the oboe enters with yet another new melody (marked scherzando) develops a complex passage in which the melody introduced by the flutes makes a reappearance in the violin soloist’s melodic line. There is a reprise of the 6/8 section, followed by an unaccompanied violin cadenza to close out the piece.
Musicologist Christopher Mark, in his modal analysis of The Lark Ascending, finds that the work “begins in the Dorian mode and switches between that and the Aeolian mode interspersed with extensive use of the Pentatonic scale.” Fellow musicologist Lewis Foreman maintains that “It is possible to forget what a revolutionary piece this was in the context of the British music of 1914 [with] its rhythmic freedom and flow and its avoidance of tonic-and-dominant cadencing, together with its imagery”. And Jeffrey Davis maintains that, “At one level it seems to be an idyll of rural England [but] in view of its composition on the eve of the First World War, there is perhaps an underlying layer of sadness to the music. Rather like the Edwardian era, as viewed retrospectively from the other side of World War One, it seems to reflect nostalgia for a partly mythological lost age of innocence.”
The orchestral version of The Lark Ascending (scored for solo violin with an orchestra of two flutes, one oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, triangle and strings) is not the only version which was created after the First World War. Vaughan Williams also wrote a version for chamber orchestra, which included flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and triangle, with three or four first violins, the same of second violins, two violas, two cellos and one double bass. Yet it is the orchestral version of this legendary piece of music that stands above all other arrangements, truly a testament to the artistry of its composer and the magic of a bygone era which continues to charm us all. You can watch your Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra take wing with The Lark Ascending at our Trip to the Country Concert!