The name Vaughan Williams has become synonymous with British classical music. The much-loved The Lark Ascending, which frequently tops the Classic FM Hall of Fame, can be heard on concert stages the world over.
But how much do you know about the story behind this piece and the simply phenomenal man who wrote it? Read on to discover more…
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)
Firstly, it’s pronounced ‘rafe’ not ‘ralf’ – he insisted.
He was the Great-Nephew of Charles Darwin and the Great-Great-Grandson of Josiah Wedgewood. He refused a knighthood multiple times and he loved cats – Zebedee and Foxy (right) are our favourites.
He held an impressive war record, serving as a stretcher bearer during WW1 even though he was 42 years old and could have been excused. He served as Director of Music for the British Army after the armistice in 1918 and was actively involved in civilian war work during the Second World War, serving on the committee for refugees from Nazi oppression. The prolonged exposure to gunfire during WW1 caused hearing loss and eventual deafness.
You might have known all that, but you probably didn’t know that his handwriting was terrible –he was left-handed but forced to use his right. Or that in 1942 he gave evidence for Michael Tippett in a conscientious objector tribunal, stating: ‘I think Tippett’s pacifist views are entirely wrong, but I respect him very much for holding them so firmly.’
Plus, there’s a housing development in Essex with roads named after him and his music – because he collected songs from the area – and you’d be forgiven for not knowing he preferred to live in the city, given how much of his music is influenced by the countryside.
What about his musical life?
He started piano lessons aged 5 but didn’t much like them, so moved to violin which suited him better. He took a music course from Edinburgh University aged 8 (!) and then went on to study at the Royal College of Music. At the college he was taught by composers Parry and Stanford and was a student with Holst. Then he travelled to Berlin and studied with Bruch, and in Paris with Ravel.
As a composer he was influenced by folk and Tudor music. He wrote nine symphonies as well as works for the stage, songs, choral music, and chamber music. Vaughan Williams believed music was ‘the only means of artistic expressions which is natural to everybody. Music is above all things the art of the common man… the art of the humble.’ As a conductor he had an extreme insistence on perfection, even pausing performances to tell musicians they could do better!
The Lark Ascending
Undoubtedly one of Vaughan Williams most well-known pieces, The Lark Ascending was written in 1914 – originally for violin and piano – but its premiere was delayed because of the war. He arranged it for orchestra in 1920 and the premiere was given in 1921.
It is inspired by – but doesn’t illustrate – the 1881 poem of the same name by George Meredith. The poem talks of a lark soaring and singing an unbreaking melody that reaches the heavens, and Vaughan Williams uses the violin soloist to represent both the song and flight of the lark.
It had to be a lark. Know why? Because no other British bird can maintain such a loud (and complex) call while hovering high above ground. Skylarks sing while ascending and descending (though The Lark Descending would probably have been a less appealing title) and the male birds use this as a territorial tactic.
There’s some speculation that Vaughan Williams wrote the Lark whilst staying in Margate at the start of the war, walking the coast and scribbling in his notebook – so much that a local scout thought he was drawing maps for the enemy and performed a citizen’s arrest – but his wife Ursula said it is more likely he was preparing a lecture, disappointingly.
So, why is it so popular? The cadenzas (extended solo passages) of The Lark Ascending sound improvised but they are in fact meticulously written out. Even so, no two performances of the piece ever sound the same – there is room for every performer to make it their own. Both audience and performers recognise the sense of stillness in the hall when the Lark is performed, and even when listening from home you can feel that meditative atmosphere.