The Lark Ascending (Vaughan Williams)

…The Lark Ascending is less an escapist idyll than a lament for a world now passed…

Program note
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872–1958)
The Lark Ascending
Romance for violin and orchestra

At this distance it is easy to hear in The Lark Ascending mere, if pretty, nostalgia for a long-gone England of hedgerows, village greens and rolling hills. Even at the time of its premiere, the music critic for The Times wrote that the work ‘showed serene disregard of the fashions of today or yesterday. It dreams its way along.’

To an extent this is true. The piece begins with a motionless, glowing chord over which the violin gradually unravels its pentatonic or ‘black note’ figurations climbing ever higher above the landscape; the central section of the piece is clearly based on the idiom of folk-song before returning to a fuller statement of the opening material. But these devices were in themselves radical in a culture dominated by the musical language of German composers.

Vaughan Williams began the work in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, but put it aside until 1920.

The score is preceded by lines from George Meredith’s 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.

This period in Vaughan Williams’ life produced a number of works of ‘pastoral’ character, most notably the Pastoral Symphony, so it is worth bearing in mind that he saw active service in France. The final movement of the symphony with its wordless soprano is less about a ‘cow looking over a gate’ than about contemplation of the appalling destruction Europe had witnessed.

Similarly, The Lark Ascending is less an escapist idyll than a lament for a world now passed.

© Symphony Australia

Reproduced by permission of Symphony Services Australia

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