Today is Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day – the day the guns fell silent in World War 1. And I thought it fitting to look at this incredible piece of music by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending.
First composed in 1914 for violin and piano, due to the outbreak of the war it wasn’t performed until 1920. During this time, at the age of 42, Vaughan Williams volunteered for military service. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a private, where he drove ambulance wagons in France and Greece. In 1917, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, and saw action in France from March 1918. The war left an emotional toll on Vaughan Williams, losing many friends and comrades, including young composer George Butterworth, who was shot by a sniper at the Battle of the Somme, buried on the battle field, and his remains never recovered.
Vaughan Williams stopped writing music during the war years, and after the war took some time before he felt he was ready to write new works. It was in this time that he reworked some of his previously composed works, and the reworking of this piece for violin and orchestra is the result of this time. First performed in 1921, it is this version that is the more famous version.
The first performance was given by Marie Hall, to whom the piece was written for and dedicated to. She gave the premiere of the violin and piano version in December 1920, and again with the orchestral version on 14 June 1921 at Queen’s Hall, London with the British Symphony Orchestra. It was, however, not the main work on the program which was dominated by an early performance of Holst’s The Planets, another piece that was started in 1914 and seemingly affected by the war, with Marilyn Cooley writing of the first movement, Mars, “there’s a truly visceral sense of horror; what must have seemed like the end of the world to those who experienced The Great War.” At the time a music critic for The Times newspaper wrote that this performance
“stood apart from the rest as the only work in the programme which showed serene disregard of the fashions of to-day or of yesterday. IT dreams its way along in “many links without a break, and though it never rises to the energy of the lines “He is the dance of children, thanks Of sowers, shout for primrose banks,” the music is that of the clean countryside, not of the sophisticated concert-room.”Music Critic in The Times, 15 June 1921 (likely H.C. Colles).
Compared with the spectacle and visceral horror of The Planets (which does end with Neptune’s quiet introspection), The Lark Ascending is one that tranquil, and in a way promotes the hope of peace that was longed for after the war.