How did The Lark Ascending, which Vaughan Williams largely ignored, become a classical smash hit?

Music history travels like a bird. Once taken flight, it often lands far, far from where it ever intended. The winds of popularity can steer it far from its course, leaving it in novel, unknown surrounds. In the case of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, history has guided this work into realms the composer could not have imagined. The Lark descended into popular consciousness in the second half of the 20th century, becoming one of the most perennially beloved concert pieces, and has no plans to take flight from this spot.

As with Boccherini’s Minuet and Rachmaninov’s C-sharp Minor Prelude, The Lark has been singled out from Vaughan Williams’expansive musical canon like a favourite child, and paraded as a magnum opus that it was never intended to be. The Lark was written with no implication of posterity, and premiered with minimal fanfare. Composed across the years of the Great War and seemingly forgotten by its author, this speck in theVaughan Williams’oeuvre shines today as his most celebrated piece of music.

“Of course music has a meaning”, wrote the composer in 1957, nearing the end of...

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