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 his life,“but I think that can only be expressed in terms of music”.Vaughan Williams made life difficult for biographers; his composing was messy and disorganised, his notebooks indecipherable and undated, and when it came to his own creations, he refused to elaborate on meaning.“I know that some people try to narrow the effect of music to something visual or verbal,”he added,“but to my mind, when they do so they make a horrible mess of it.”

This is not to suggest that Vaughan Williams did not contribute to the scholarly musical lexicon of the early part of the 20th century, for he wrote aesthetical treatise and programme notes for friends including Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst.Yet his second wife and biographer, Ursula, explained:“He would have liked to print Mendelssohn’s saying that‘the meaning of music is too precise for words’on every concert programme at which his works were played”.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, born in 1872, was raised in an English musical age dominated by Arthur Sullivan; he later studied under Charles Villiers Stanford and, briefly, with both Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel (the latter remained a friend for many years, visiting RVW at his home in Chelsea). Mild success came with the performances of early compositions (A Sea Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis), while his seminal publication (with Percy Dearmer) of The English Hymnal in 1906 was lauded as a “collection of the best hymns in the English Language”.

Following the premiere of his Second Symphony (The London Symphony) in the spring of 1914, Vaughan Williams set about writing a single-movement Romance for Violin and Orchestra. Typically, the composer left no trace or blueprint as to why he wrote what is now universally known as“The Lark Ascending”. In hindsight, such a gentle and unassuming gestation befits this sweet, agreeable piece of music.

He had almost completed the work when tensions arising from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand forced England to align with the Allies in The Great War. At 41, Vaughan Williams was at an age when he could have easily slipped through the system and avoided the conflict altogether. Instead, the composer declared he wanted“to do his bit”for the war effort. Furthermore, rather than contribute in a safe, administrative role as his mentor Sir Hubert Parry had encouraged,Vaughan Williams sought physical involvement in the escalating crisis.

Such commitment meant a near complete halt to his musical pursuits. Along with compositions such as the Four Hymns and the opera Hugh the Drover, The Lark was set aside until the war’s completion, which was assumed would be in a few months. Initially,Vaughan Williams enlisted in the Special Constabulary of the Metropolitan Police Service; frustrated with the staleness of activity, he subsequently switched to become a Wagon Orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps, only to find this just as banal.“I expect you to be doing more for your King and Country than I am”, he wrote to friend and musicologist Edward Dent in 1916.“Indeed, you can’t be doing less.”

Shortly after this exchange,Vaughan Williams was sent to Europe, a venture he had longed for since the war began. In France, he served as an ambulance driver, receiving commendations on numerous occasions. Requests to complete some of his unfinished compositions reached him from England; Vaughan Williams refused, declaring his intention to wait until the war was won. Hugh the Drover, for example, was virtually complete, yet Vaughan Williams declined to publish it until he had time to“polish its face”. This holding back did not mean a complete cessation of all musical activity. The composer formed musical troupes right through the war years, and was even named musical director of the Headquarters of the First Army at Valenciennes in the twilight of his active service.

All the while, The Lark remained motionless. The only music that Vaughan Williams appears to have advanced during the conflict were some sketches for what would become his third symphony – The Pastoral.

Following Armistice,Vaughan Williams returned home in February 1919 via a brief military stint in Germany. He had confided in Gustav Holst years earlier than he feared his return to England, because of those who would not be there, notably their fellow composer George Butterworth who had been shot dead at Pozieres during the Battle of the Somme:“I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps – especially, of course, George,”he wrote in 1916.“Out of those seven of us who joined up together in 1914 only three are left”. The effect of the war on Vaughan Williams and his music should not be underestimated, particularly in relation to The Lark. As historian Hugh Cobbe explains, Vaughan Williams“had gone off to war as a young 42-year-old considered an up-and-coming bright light amongst English composers with two symphonies behind him. He returned from the war aged 46, having crossed the threshold into middle age and become transformed by time and survival into something of a senior statesman in a much altered musical world.”

Eager to re-establish his musical reputation,Vaughan Williams set about finalising a number of incomplete projects, including The Lark. Officially a Romance for Violin and Orchestra, the famous nickname“The Lark Ascending”was attributed because the composer prefaced the score with an extract from George Meredith’s 122-line eponymous poem written in 1881. Vaughan Williams chose only these 12 lines: 

He rises and begins to round,

He drops the silver chain of sound,

Of many links without a break,

In cherrup, 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.

Vaughan Williams completed The Lark whilst he was also working on his Pastoral Symphony. Often coupled, The Lark and Pastoral have no immediate relationship other than the musical allusions to the English countryside. The Pastoral Symphony is deficient of any rapid tempi or demonstrative dynamics (the coda to the third movement being the exception), presenting the impression of a bucolic reverie.

The Lark, similarly, is a Romance of mellow, beautiful pulsations, inspired by Meredith’s description of a skylark taking flight.Vaughan Williams scored the work for solo violin, 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, triangle and strings – no timpani or brass apart from horns. The mastery of The Lark lies in the exquisite amalgamation of solo violin and orchestra – the bird flying with and against nature. The solo passages for violin are simple, lush and mellifluous; the cadenzas present the work’s greatest technical challenge for the soloist; Vaughan Williams wrote them without bar lines, however, allowing the violin to soar in a billowy, carefree manner.

Final revisions took place, and for the premiere Vaughan Williams transcribed the work for violin and piano. It was first performed in the Shirehampton Public Hall at a concert of the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society on 15 December 1920. Marie Hall, who was the eventual dedicatee of the work, performed the violin part and was accompanied by Geoffrey Mendham at the piano. Six months later, the original, orchestrated version was premiered in Queen’s Hall in London, in a concert featuring the British Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Boult. Hall, again, was soloist.

Little is known of its reception.Typically,Vaughan Williams wrote nothing of its first flight and next to nothing about it for the remainder of his life. A critic from The Times was at the orchestral premiere and remarked how “It showed supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along.”Amazingly, the original manuscript of the orchestral version is lost. This, along withVaughan Williams’seeming apathy towards the work, only adds to the intrigue regarding the its eventual ascent into the hearts of listeners the world over.

“My business is to write music… not to talk about it”, declared Vaughan Williams in 1920, about the time The Lark first ascended.“And if my music doesn’t make itself understood as music without any tributary explanation – well, it’s a failure as music, and there’s nothing more to be said.”For the war veteran composer, his Romance for Violin and Orchestra passed like a flash in the sky, a shooting star across the galaxy. Following the critical success of his Pastoral Symphony in 1922, and later through other substantial projects such as the ballet music to Job and his Fourth Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ reputation grew, and he became the nation’s pre-eminent composer following Elgar’s death in 1934.

The Lark re-emerged in the second half of the 20th century, thanks largely to its featuring in a number of films and television programs. Its lush and euphonious character won a new audience and underlined the musical importance Ralph Vaughan Williams held in post-War England. In a convoluted way, The Lark has been an entry point for many to discover the greater, mature portion of the Vaughan William’s canon. Like the bird setting off on flight, The Lark has not flown the path its composer intended nor could have ever imagined.

Not included by Vaughan Williams in the preface to The Lark, but reflected in the composition’s universal enchantment, are the 93-98 lines from Meredith’s poem. Like the poet’s bird,Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending flies alone, singing from atop the musical tree. Forever independent, forever serenading, forever beautiful:

The song seraphically free

Of taint of personality,

So pure that it salutes the suns

The voice of one for millions,

In whom the millions rejoice

For giving their one spirit voice.