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Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - The Lark Ascending

The only way to listen to The Lark Ascending is as you would watch one, lying flat on your back in a green and pleasant meadow, under the perfect sky of one of those now legendary English summer days! 

Vaughan Williams wrote this supreme idyll in 1914 for violinist Marie Hall, revising it in 1920 (I would be fascinated to know what sort of changes were wrought by the intervening years). VW was inspired, in no small degree, by the eponymous George Meredith poem: 

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 'til 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 
'Til lost on his aerial rings 
In light, and then the fancy sings. 

On reading Meredith's words, then hearing VW's music, many will note their “perfect correspondence”. Doesn't that warm, hazy, rising orchestral opening, lifting a solo violin into rhapsodic fluttering, soaring on harmonic thermals, so marvellously match Meredith's “silver chain of sound”? Isn't Meredith's “love of earth that he instils” exquisitely reflected in the diversion of robust folk dance and yearning at the heart of VW's magical score? Doesn't VW's coda, a daring and innovative unaccompanied cadenza for the violin/lark, sublimely interpret “lost on his aerial rings in light”? 

It's puzzling, though, because music (I am told by those who know about these things) “begins where words leave off” - the supposed source of music's mystique. Yet here VW, like so many other composers, is clearly taking pretty well all his musical cues from words. Is the meaning of such music, therefore, the same as that of the words - and presumably as a result a complete waste of time and effort? 

The logic would seem to be impeccable, and thus the theory sound. Fortunately, experience tells us that it's all twaddle. The odds are that there will be listening to this music some who know nothing of Meredith or his poem, those who may or may not see in their minds' eyes a lark ascending. But whatever each sees, I'll bet that it is, without exception, something wonderful.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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