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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rushby

The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

#listeneveryday 15 Feb 2021

Vaughan Williams at the time of the First World War

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.

These and other lines from George Meredith's 1881 poem The Lark Ascending preface the score of Ralph Vaughan Williams's famous piece for violin, originally composed in 1914 with piano accompaniment and then reimagined with orchestra in 1921 to form the version so many people know and love.

Vaughan Williams loved poetry (his second wife, Ursula, was a poet) and had a particular fondness for late 19th century and early 20th century writers such as Tennyson, Housman and Meredith. He was taken with the notion of the lark, which nests at ground level, representing its flight and its song with the solo violin, set against an often slow moving orchestral landscape.

The short, one-movement work was dedicated to violinist Marie Hill, who was probably consulted by Vaughan Williams as he developed the piece. She gave the first performance of both the solo and orchestral versions, the latter with conductor Adrian Boult at Queen's Hall in 1921, where it appeared on the programme with another British piece written in 1914, Holst's Planets.

The work was received well and has remained a popular favourite ever since. Vaughan Williams, who saw active service in the First World War, loved to evoke scenes of his homeland in his music and was an avid collector and user of folk songs. The Lark Ascending is now 100 years old and this performance, by American violinist Hilary Hahn, encapsulates the unmistakeable 'Englishness' in Vaughan Williams's sound.

More to listen to

Another evocative piece by Vaughan Williams - his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

At its first orchestral performance The Lark Ascending shared the programme with a performance of Holst's Planets Suite - this is Venus

A new #listeneveryday post is published every weekday! Comment below or tweet @SimonRushby with your suggestions for future music.

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