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The Lark Ascending

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The Lark Ascending is a work by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, inspired by George Meredith's 122-line poem of the same name about the skylark. It premiered in a violin/piano version in 1920, and violin/orchestra version in 1921. He included this portion of Meredith's poem on the flyleaf of the published work:

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 work was written in two versions: violin and piano, written in 1914; and violin and orchestra, written in 1920. The orchestral version is the one that is most frequently performed. It is one of the most popular pieces in the Classical repertoire among British listeners, as well as New Yorkers and classical music fans in New Zealand.

Vaughan Williams worked on the Lark Ascending prior to the outbreak of the Great War, but there is no reliable evidence to support the claim that he was working on it while watching British troops embarking for France. This was claimed in the documentary about the composer, O Thou Transcendent (2007), and the subsequent BBC programme on this work. The original source for this story is RVW, the biography by Ursula Vaughan Williams. 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.

Vaughan Williams visited Margate for a week's vacation on the day that Britain became involved in the Great War, and 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 also noted and documented by members of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance, which departed Margate around this time on its ill-fated trans- Antarctic expedition.

A small boy observed the composer making notes and, thinking the man was jotting a secret code, informed a police officer. He arrested the composer. The war halted Vaughan Williams' composing, but he revised the work in 1920 with the help of the English violinist Marie Hall, during their stay at Kings Weston House near Bristol.

Vaughan Williams dedicated The Lark Ascending to Marie Hall, who premiered both versions. The piano-accompanied premiere was in December 1920, in conjunction with the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society. This was followed by the first London performance, and first orchestral performance, on 14 June 1921, under conductor Adrian Boult. The critic from The Times said of that performance, "It showed supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along."

The use of pentatonic scale patterns frees the violin from a strong tonal centre, and shows the impressionistic side of Vaughan Williams' style. This liberty also extends to the metre. The cadenzas for solo violin are written without bar lines, lending them a sense of meditational release.

In 2011 the work was chosen as Britain's all-time favourite in a poll of listeners to choose the nation's Desert Island Discs.

From 2007 to 2010, the piece was voted number one in the Classic FM annual Hall of Fame poll, over Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and another work of Vaughan Williams, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In 2011 it was usurped by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2.

In 2011, in a poll to learn what music New Yorkers wanted to hear on the radio for the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, The Lark Ascending ranked second.

The Lark Ascending has been a consistent favourite in Radio New Zealand Concert's annual New Year's Day countdown programme, Settling the Score, winning number one every year from 2007 to 2012, and placing highly in other years. Frustrated by its seemingly intractable hold on the top spot, a small group of listeners joined a Facebook group called 'Unsettling the Score', which encouraged members to "[u]se your vote to bring Vaughan Williams' reign to an end" and suggested pieces by Brian Ferneyhough, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Harrison Birtwistle, Helmut Lachenmann, Anton Webern and Iannis Xenakis in its place.

In popular culture

  • The Lark Ascending inspired some of the violin parts in the latter half of the track "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One" on the album Larks' Tongues in Aspic by King Crimson (1973).
  • The piece was used as the main theme for the 1987 Australian film The Year My Voice Broke.
  • This piece was used by David Crowder Band on "The Lark Ascending or (Perhaps More Accurately, I'm Trying to Make You Sing)", the last song on their album A Collision (or 3 + 4 = 7).
  • Dreadzone's homage to the beauty of the English countryside, "A Canterbury Tale", uses the initial solo violin theme from The Lark Ascending as a recurring melody.
  • The Jez Butterworth play Jerusalem (premiered 2009) used this piece as its preset music.
  • The piece is referred to repeatedly in the book Cricket Kings by William McInnes.
  • Excerpts are used repeatedly in the Blur documentary No Distance Left to Run (these are the only music in the film not recorded by Blur).
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