The other day, on a walk, I spotted a tiny bird flying above the spring-laden expanses of Richmond Park. The sky was almost too bright to look at and the bird was a dark dot, rising ever higher and making a great deal of noise as it went. It sounded more like techno music than Vaughan Williams, more like an old-fashioned electronic machine going out of control than a violin, but this was the real thing, a skylark ascending, and I could well understand why someone would want to write a piece of music about it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams composed The Lark Ascending in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War One. With hindsight, the work has assumed a deeper significance in the UK’s national consciousness. A haunting ‘pastoral romance’ for solo violin and orchestra, it has become a symbol of the calm before the storm, perhaps of the summer countryside in the last days of peace before thousands of young men were sent away to their deaths (though suggestions that the piece was written while Vaughan Williams watched troops setting out for France are probably apocryphal).
The premiere of The Lark Ascending was delayed because of the outbreak of war and did not take place until 15 December 1920. The first version to be heard was for violin and piano; the orchestral premiere followed on 14 June 1921. On both occasions the violinist was Marie Hall, for whom Vaughan Williams composed it. A review in The Times noted that the piece “showed serene disregard of the fashions of to-day or of yesterday. It dreams its way along in ‘many links without a break’ … the music is that of the clean countryside, not of the sophisticated concert-room”.
The inspiration for The Lark Ascending
Vaughan Williams took the idea from an 1881 poem by George Meredith, selected lines from which he inscribed on the manuscript:
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 violin soars like a bird above the orchestral landscape
Chirrup, whistle, slur and shake is true enough when you hear a real lark; yet Vaughan Williams allows everything to unfold as if in slow motion. The piece’s structure is simple: the violin soars like a bird above the orchestral landscape, and a central, contrasting section seems to evoke a rural idyll through a melody that resembles a folksong. At the work’s conclusion, the solo line soars up into the stratospheres, as if merging with the sky, and vanishes.
Want to play it yourself? You’re a brave soul. Too often we imagine that playing fast and loud is the most difficult thing, but any solo violinist will tell you that quite the opposite is true. Just try playing this instrument quietly, slowly and purely in front of a large audience when you’re really nervous …
It is no wonder that The Lark Ascending is a frequent chart-topper for the Classic FM Hall of Fame, including for 2021. It crops up often, too, at the Last Night of the Proms – and was performed by Nicola Benedetti in 2020. In 2011 a poll to find the UK’s Desert Island Discs named it as the country’s favourite work. That year, too, a radio poll in New York for favourite works to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 put it in second place.
The Lark Ascending is a favourite in theatre, film and TV: just a few of its appearances have included Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem; a poignant section of Coronation Street; the Blur documentary No Distance Left To Run, and the film Man On Wire (2008) about high-wire walker Philippe Petit.