Cox the elder, David; The Skylark; Birmingham Museums Trust;

Birdsong for the Soul

A composition inspired by nature and aspiring to the impulse of liberation that a bird in flight represents, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending is also a gentle love letter to the rolling English countryside. By Jehangir Batiwala

Never underestimate nature. The truth of this statement normally becomes apparent when nature is at its most destructive. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, tornadoes or pandemics, like the one we are experiencing now, make us feel great awe for nature. But for artists, poets and composers, it is the colour of insects, the behaviour of reptiles, the rustling of leaves, a pastoral landscape or the song of a bird that makes this statement truer than life itself.

The grandnephew of Charles Darwin, Ralph Vaughan Williams was born in a Gloucestershire village in the picturesque Cotswolds. As a young boy of three, he was brought to Surrey, following his father’s death, and was subsequently educated at Charterhouse School, the Royal College of Music and Trinity College London. He studied with Charles Stanford, Hubert Parry and later with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris.

As an ethnomusicologist, Vaughan Williams travelled through the English countryside, often with Gustav Holst, collecting folk songs and hymns and notating them for future generations. His love of nature inspired many of his compositions, amongst which was The Lark Ascending. A Romance for solo violin and orchestra, it was conceived by Vaughan Williams in 1914, when he prefaced the score with lines from George Meredith’s 1881 poem of the same name.

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…

Soaring strains

At the outbreak of the First World War, like thousands of others, Vaughan Williams’s loyalty to his country came first, and he went off to France to serve in the war. As a stretcher bearer, ambulance driver and later as an artillery officer, he was pained by the death and destruction he saw, including the loss of his dear friend, composer George Butterworth.

After the end of the war in 1919, he returned to The Lark Ascending and finished the score in a country house in Somerset. Dedicated to the British violinist Marie Hall, it was first performed by her in Shirehampton Public Hall in Bristol on 15th December 1920, with pianist Geoffrey Mendham, and subsequently at The Queens Hall in London on 14th June 1921, where she was accompanied by the British Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult.

Needless to say, the solo violin depicts a lark as it sings and soars, higher and higher till its song becomes faint. A true masterpiece, this work was composed by Vaughan Williams with assistance from Hall. To this day, it remains the composer’s most famous piece of music, though he composed nine symphonies, other orchestral music, concertos for violin, piano, oboe and tuba, chamber music, ballet and film music, five operas, songs and choral music.

Pastoral inspiration

Technically and musically a challenging work, it gives an impression of being improvisatory with many sections scored only for solo violin. The opening passages for violin with accompanying strings followed by a cadenza set the scene—the lark sits on a branch, singing, then taking off and soaring into the sky. It then hovers around and flies higher. The middle section depicts English pastoral life with brooks, woods and meadows. When the lark returns, it sits on a branch, sings again, then it flies off, soaring higher and higher, till its song gets fainter and fainter, all depicted by the solo violin cadenza once more.

The piece requires much skill from the violinist, perfect intonation for one, as the lines are so exposed and pure. Yet, the skill goes far beyond just playing the right notes. The violinist has to make his instrument chirrup, whistle, slur and shake, and then fly away in the distance.

There are innumerable recordings of the piece, and some noteworthy ones. In the early days, the piece was generally considered for a lark (not so serious), and recorded by the leader of the orchestra, like Frederick Grinke of The Boyd Neel String Orchestra or Jean Pougnet who led the London Philharmonic Orchestra. There have been other renditions of note such as those by Rafael Druian with The Cleveland Sinfonietta and Hugh Bean with The Philharmonia Orchestra. But, in later years, the piece earned its due respect as a work befitting a great violin virtuoso, and this is when remarkable recordings like that of Pinchas Zukerman with The English Chamber Orchestra, Sarah Chang, Nigel Kennedy, James Ehnes, Janine Jansen, Hilary Hahn, Julian Fischer, Nicola Benedetti and others stormed the catalogue.

A century from its first orchestral performance, The Lark Ascending has found a consistent, celebrated place in repertoires. This writer predicts that the popularity of this piece will soar even more in the coming years, just like a lark ascending in the English countryside.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the June 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.