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.
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis 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.
Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
The work was written in two versions: violin and piano, written in 1914; and violin and orchestra, written in 1920. The orchestral version is the one that is almost always heard now. It is one of the most popular pieces in the Classical repertoire among British listeners.
Vaughan Williams sketched the work while watching troop ships cross the English Channel at the outbreak of the First World War. A small boy observed him making the sketches and, thinking he was jotting down a secret code, informed a police officer, who subsequently arrested the composer. The war halted his compositional activities, but the work was revised in 1920 with the help of the English violinist Marie Hall, during their stay at Kings Weston House near Bristol.
The Lark Ascending was dedicated to Marie Hall, who premiered both versions. The piano-accompanied premiere was in December 1920, in conjunction with the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society. This was followed by the first London performance, and first orchestral performance, on 14 June 1921, under conductor Adrian Boult. The critic from The Times said of that performance, "It showed supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along".
The use of pentatonic scale patterns frees the violin from a strong tonal centre, and shows the impressionistic side of Vaughan Williams' style. This liberty also extends to the metre. The cadenzas for solo violin are written without bar lines, lending them a sense of meditational release.
In 2011 it was chosen as Britain's all-time favourite 'Desert Island Disc' in a poll of listeners to chose the nation's Desert Island Discs.
From 2007 to 2010, the piece was voted number one in the Classic FM annual Hall of Fame poll, over Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and another work of Vaughan Williams', the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In 2011 it was usurped by Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. In 2011, in a poll to find what music New Yorkers would like to hear on the radio for the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, The Lark Ascending came second.
More pieces by Vaughan Williams
- Dona nobis pacem
- Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
- O little town of Bethlehem
- The Lark Ascending