Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

The Lark Ascending (1921)

One of the most memorable sights of the British countryside in spring and early summer is the courting flight of the skylark. The bird ascends in steps while singing continuously. He hovers for a short while then rises almost vertically to a new point of pause, and them on and up until almost lost from sight. Shelley called the skylark "blythe spirit" and Wordsworth called him the "ethereal minstrel" The Victorian poet George Meredith in his poem "The Lark Ascending" associates the lark with rural English life:

'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:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine,
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labour in the town;
He sings the sap, the quickened veins;
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;

It was this poem that inspired Vaughan Williams to write one of his best loved and most enduring works.

The lark is depicted by the solo violin. The piece opens with a beautiful cadenza, played very quietly and delicately, that describes the hovering flight of the bird climbing higher and higher. The music avoids any tonal centre, and is written without bars giving the soloist an almost improvisatory freedom to describe the ethereal minstrel. The cadenza returns in the middle and at the end of the work, and the two intervening episodes draw on English folk music idioms. The solo violin combines with the orchestra to become the woods and brooks, the meadows green and the dance of children, blending into an intensely beautiful and idyllic tableaux of English life.

The composition was begun in 1914, but was put aside during the first world war. It was completed in 1920 and first performed by its dedicatee Marie Hall on the 14th June 1921, with the orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. In many ways the work was an escape from the the hard realities of a changing way of life. A critic wrote of the first performance, "It showed supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along". In his dreaming Vaughan Williams creates a picture of a perfect world as he saw it.

The Lark Ascending was performed by the Portobello orchestra on the 14th March 2009 and on the 3rd September 2011, conducted by Anthony Weeden. The soloist was Mihkel Kerem.