When Marie Hall stepped on to the stage at the Queen’s Hall in London to give the first full performance of a new piece from Ralph Vaughan Williams, few could have imagined that exactly a century later, this apparently unremarkable piece would have turned into a political football.
The Lark Ascending; Romance for Violin and orchestra was a revised version of a composition Vaughan Williams wrote just before World War One for solo violin and piano. Referencing a poem of the same name by George Meredith, the piece lasted around 15 minutes and had little in the way of musical pyrotechnics for Hall to get her teeth into.
Yet today the Lark regularly tops ClassicFM’s annual Hall of Fame — ahead of Beethoven, Mozart and all the rest. Explaining why they love the piece, fans often point to how it evokes the beauty of the English countryside, rather like a Constable painting. As Peter Sallis, assured of his place in English rural folklore from his role in Last of the Summer Wine, put it: “You’ve only got to listen to it, and you’re listening to England.”
The Lark has often assumed a sense of nostalgia, conjuring up images of what has been lost: the unspoilt England or Britain that existed before the arrival of two World Wars and the era of mass road-building, sprawling housing estates and out-of-town shopping centres. It recalls “an Arcadia that perhaps never was,” as one radio presenter recently remarked with a hint of a sneer.
There is certainly something in these descriptions, not least in the orchestral accompaniment with its gentle rise-and-fall which maps on to the undulations of the English countryside — and indeed to English speech. Talking about Vaughan Williams and his fellow English composer Edward Elgar, the late conductor Richard Hickox said: “Our speech has a lot of rise and fall and our countryside [that] they knew so well has lots of rise and fall. I think the landscape of England really did affect them…”
However, Vaughan Williams’s music and his attempts to create a definably English musical language are routinely dismissed as parochial. Chrissy Kinsella, who runs the London Music Fund, recently wrote that the Lark “is one of the dullest pieces of music known to man, and that is a hill I am prepared to die on” — a sentiment, it seems, that is shared by many.
Now it is certainly true that the Lark can be dull. Vaughan Williams’s champion Adrian Boult once lamented a performance in which “we all agreed that the poor lark never left solid earth”. Overplay has made it over-familiar for many. Sometimes it does not always match our moods. Some of us may never be in the mood.
However, it is uncanny how often these comments appear with a political edge. The Lark’s popularity and its associations with Englishness, nostalgia, the past and the countryside is more than enough to trigger the average progressive. Kinsella, whose charity has London Mayor Sadiq Khan as patron, laughed along at a colleague blaming the Lark’s popularity on the English. The music writer Hugh Morris recently suggested: “the residual spectre of British (read: English) exceptionalism that characterises our politics, governance, and musical life runs strong in Vaughan Williams… It’s no surprise that he now represents a highly middlebrow attitude to music in the UK.”
Again and again in such comments we find the assertion of quite a strong “us” and “them”, gathering Vaughan Williams and his unassuming piece around England and Englishness as unfavoured categories, typified by dullness and backwardness. A certain referendum result never appears to be far away. “Just like Brexit the British are fixated on The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams,” says one critic.
These recurring associations suggest how the piece serves, at least in part, as a proxy to display distaste for other things and people. Certainly, attacks on the Lark tend to be addressing a wider world around the piece as much as the piece itself.
One of the common accusations made against it is “backwardness”, which implies a ranking schema based on how it relates to history: a work either looks backwards into the tainted past or forwards into an imagined and apparently better future, either sharing the taint or the betterment.
In this way, the theorist takes over the meaning of works of art: measuring and judging. It rather evokes what John Carey wrote about in The Intellectuals and the Masses: of self-styled intellectuals working — and using their work —to distinguish themselves from the inferior plebs.
Certainly for many, disparaging the Lark, its popularity and its English associations appears as a way to demonstrate superiority, to place oneself ahead of others, as more mature in the progressive fashion. This also brings the group together, reproducing solidarity through group superiority, thereby reproducing political power.
In a lecture given at Cornell University in 1954, Vaughan Williams said:
“My old teacher, [the German composer] Max Bruch, used to say to me, ‘You must not write eye music, you must write ear music.’ But many musical writers who ought to know better think that music is not what we hear with our ears but what we see on the printed or written page; and some of them say with pride that they never want to hear music, it is enough for them to see the score.”1
In privileging what is written over what is heard, the theorist wrests music away from the listening experience towards the measurable and tangible, which are more accessible to judgement. Is it inventive and innovative? Does it represent a “step forward” from the “music of past”? What do people invoke in support of a piece and how does this measure up to our value system?
However, appealing to the tangible often ends up disregarding and delegitimising meaning. Talking about the Lark on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac captured how powerful the music can be:
“It hearkens back to my father again. But also, when I first heard this piece of music I collapsed in tears with emotion. I just thought it was probably the most beautiful piece I ever heard. And also, interestingly, Peter Green was very influenced by this piece of music. It hearkens to some elements of what Peter’s playing and his guitar when he plays Albatross and other such pieces . . . It’s like a prayer.”
The comment sections of Lark videos tell similar, often moving, stories. One of the most highly rated comments on YouTube reads: “My sister told me about this beautiful work today, as I was feeling pretty suicidal…. Listening to this music lifted my heart above the clouds and I felt the pain subside… I know there is Love because it is written into this music”. Indeed, the Lark seems to contain a special magic for those who are struggling existentially. “This is what finally coming out of a depressive episode feels like,” reads another comment.
In this latter sense we might think of the Lark representing what it is like to be in-flow, in life: not in conflict with the world or withdrawn from it, but aligned to it and living within it.
Vaughan Williams’s widow Ursula wrote:
“He had taken a literary idea on which to build his musical thought in The Lark Ascending and had made the violin become both the bird’s song and its flight, being, rather than illustrating the poem from which the title was taken.”2
From this standpoint, the violin part is not so much attempting to translate the words of the Meredith poem into music, as to be that flight and that song. The accompanying orchestral parts, which some players find dull and boring, have a quiet yet powerful role, gently supporting the soloist. They form the environment in which the little bird sings its song and soars to great heights.
Perhaps, in its simplicity and ease — and in its sense of the individual being supported — the Lark shows us what it means to be free. We might think, then, that its sneering detractors, in trying to prevent the Lark from speaking for itself, display a certain contempt for freedom.