Nicola Benedetti plays Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending which has regained the #1 spot in the Classic FM annual Hall of Fame.
I confess to punching the air and yelling “YES!” when I realised yesterday evening that RVW’s classic ‘The Lark Ascending’ had gone back to the #1 spot in the Hall of Fame. And the reason for my delight wasn’t just that I voted for the piece this year, or that I’m a ridiculous nerd when it comes to classical music (though both of those things are true).
No, my reasons are tied closely to World War One, the 100th anniversary of which we are commemorating this year. You see, larks (and birds generally) appear quite often in World War One poetry - and in letters/memoirs from soldiers who served on the Western Front. For example, Isaac Rosenberg wrote:
Returning, We Hear the Larks
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—-
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy—-joy—-strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering on our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—-
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
And then there’s this poem by John McCrae, probably one of the most famous WW1 poems, which is often read or recited at Remembrance Sunday services in the UK:
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Larks were a reminder for many soldiers of home, particularly since Britain still wasn’t that heavily urbanised in 1914, so many men would have lived and worked on the land, or in villages or small towns where wild birds were not uncommon. And birds, of course, had a far greater freedom than poor old Tommy, stuck in the trenches, hoping for a Blighty one, hoping not to die before he could go home again.
Vaughan Williams served during World War One - he was 41 in 1914 - quite old enough to have avoided active service on the Western Front. Instead he volunteered as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and after serving as a stretcher bearer (a brutal and very dangerous task that involved trying to get wounded men back to the casualty clearing stations, often while still under fire from the Germans and their allies), he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery.
It was while serving as a stretcher bearer in 1914 that Vaughan Williams began composing The Lark Ascending as a piece for violin and piano. The piece was inspired by an earlier poet, George Meredith, who wrote a 122-line poem called
The Lark Ascending
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
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
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,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.
For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is 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:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.
Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
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.
To me, therefore, World War One and Vaughan Williams’ piece are inextricably linked, and I am always moved whenever I hear the piece played, and I find it incredibly fitting that in this 100th anniversary year of the ‘Great War’, Vaughan William’s WW1 piece should be heading the Classic FM Hall of Fame again.