By Encorum team member, Polly Dunlop (August 2017)

Musician of the Month – August 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)

I find the dawn chorus simply beautiful. No matter where I am, the wonderful melodic chatter heard bursting into light is a musically enriching sound to start my day. From the swelling crescendos sung by the Robin, (recently voted our national bird) to the delicate diminuendos trilled by the Thrush, I never hear the same performance twice.

None of the many sounds heard in nature, has proved to be as endearing as birdsong. Cows ‘moo’, pigs ‘oink’ and sheep ‘baa’. However, it is the ‘tweet’ of birds that has inspired so many famous poets and composers!

Ralph Vaughan Williams, born in the Cotswold village of Down Ampney, was (and still is) not only a highly regarded English composer, but also one of the most important English composers of his generation.

In the early days of World War 1, Vaughan Williams started to compose The Lark Ascending (click here here to listen) when the idyllic sound of a singing bird seemed far removed from reality. The Lark Ascending was premiered seven years later in 1921. Click here to read the poem whilst listening.

He was inspired by traditional English folk song and The Lark Ascending poem, by George Meredith. The instrumentation used in Williams’s piece does not include percussion or loud brass – like that of a folk song.

As you read this moving poem you learn about the story of a Skylark singing a soft, beautiful, heavenly, song. It was the poem’s imagery that captured the attention of Vaughan Williams.

“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,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide”

The chords heard between the strings and wind instruments at the start of the piece set a relaxing “silver chain of sound” tone – a calm, tranquil day in the British countryside. The soft entrance of the violin creates a floating sensation with a crescendo of sound whilst gradually emerging from the orchestral tone.

“As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,”

The violin creates notes similar sounding to high-pitched tweets and flutters like that of the bird. The violin plays lightly and delicately too, adding to the imagery of the Skylark. Can you hear how the violin imitates the beautiful bird climbing the “spiral stair” with clustered notes close together, gradually rising up in pitch? Then the Skylark can be heard swooping around in the sky.

A folk-like tune can be heard from the orchestra in the middle of the piece. The lark slowly reappears as the violin leads a reiteration of the original theme by the full strings.

“With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.”

From the trills played by the flutes, to the calling out from the french horn, Williams uses call and response between the solo lark and the depth of the orchestra (chattering birds). The passage heard by the horn is repeated in a simple yet effective manor from the violin.

This special connection between the poem and music keeps the audience’s attention throughout.
Do you hear how at the end of the piece the violin repeats the ascending motif as a final flight? “Till lost on his aerial rings”.

Experience this beautiful piece in a live performance?
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are performing The Lark Ascending at the Concert Hall in Reading at 7.30pm on Wednesday 3 November, 2017. Find out more.

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