Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Ralph Vaughan-Williams: The Lark Ascending & Elegy

“The business of finding a nation's soul is a long and slow one at the best and a great many prophets must be slain in the course of it. Perhaps when we have slain enough prophets future generations will begin to build their tombs.”

Quote from Ralph Vaughan- Williams, National Music (1934) p. 129.

Vaughan Williams in his garden at 'White Gates', Dorking, Surrey

Well, since Vaughan- Williams was a prophet who unquestioningly did capture the nation’s soul in his music, here’s my attempt at building his tomb.



In 2011, a poll of 25,000 Radio 4 listeners revealed their most loved ‘desert island disc’ was Ralph Vaughan- Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Inspired by George Meredith's 122-line poem of the same name about the skylark, The Lark Ascending premiered as a violin/piano piece in 1920, and then for violin/orchestra in 1921 as a "pastoral romance for orchestra". Although it was substantially written in 1914 before the Great War, he only revisited final composition of the piece in 1920 with the help of the English violinist Marie Hall, during their stay at Kings Weston House near Bristol.

The composer included this portion of George Meredith's poem on the flyleaf of the published work, in tribute:
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.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

The Poet George Meredith, freewheelin'  at 80

In a 2007 documentary about the Vaughan- Williams, O Thou Transcendent (and the subsequent related BBC programme), it was claimed that Vaughan- Williams was working on The Lark Ascending while watching British troops embarking for France at the outbreak of World War I, but this has turned out to be fanciful flag waving by dewy eyed little Englanders hoping to appropriate Vaughan- Williams’ music as a work of wartime patriotism. Sadly for them, there is no reliable evidence to support this. I quote from Wikipedia (so it must be true):

The original source for this [erroneous] story is the biography by his wife Ursula, entitled RVW. She did not meet Vaughan Williams until 1938, 24 years after he'd composed the work. George Butterworth [killed in WW1], who knew Vaughan Williams at the time of these events, recorded the fact that the composer was preparing for a lecture on Purcell when he wrote the piece. On the day that Britain entered the Great War, Vaughan Williams visited Margate for a week's vacation. It was not an embarkation point, so he would not have seen departing soldiers. The ships that he did see were engaged in preparatory fleet exercises. These were noted and documented by members of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance, which departed Margate around this time on its trans-Antarctic expedition.

Presumably swept up by the fervent political climate of the time, a young boy observed the composer making notes and, thinking the man was jotting a secret code, informed a police officer, who promptly arrested the composer. In any event, the war caused a hiatus in Vaughan Williams' composing. He was 41 when World War I began. Though he could have avoided war service entirely, or tried for a commission, he chose to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Prolonged exposure to gunfire began a process of hearing loss which took it’s toll; eventually causing severe deafness in his old age.

The impact of the war was decisive in Vaughan- William's life as a composer. Like so many people, it’s spectre affected him down in the fibre of his being, and there is a haunting schizophrenia in his work before and after the war. The world of 1914 and the beauty of The Lark Ascending, must have unfathomably seemed a million miles away as he returned to the piece (but not the peace) in the post war years, having witnessed such senseless mechanised death at close quarters.


If you ask me, The Lark Ascending is an empyrean work of sublime bucolic elegance, which is nothing to do with wartime sentimentality or flag waving. I can imagine RVW promising himself to get round to finishing “that romance for violin & orchestra when the blasted war is over”, and thinking of home and the rolling hills from the bitter trenches. Put your ornery Union Jacks away Daily Mail readers, The Lark Ascending is a work of enduring peace and tranquil optimism; of oneness with, and love of the landscape, a youthful Arcadian dream that was robbed from so many. 


By South Utsire

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