Ralph Vaughan Williams

This year, we’re taking you “Behind the All-Stars”, spotlighting select pieces on KDFC’s Top 100 Classical All-Stars Countdown with fun and informative blogs about the music you love.

Poetry. It’s simple, concise, and beautiful. And it has managed to inspire composers throughout history. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending is a perennial favorite, deriving emotion and inspiration from an old verse. It’s based on a lovely British poem from the 1880s that describes an English skylark in flight.

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.

Poet George Meredith’s 122 lines of verse deeply moved composer Ralph Vaughan Williams shortly before World War I, nudging him to write a duet for violin and piano, with the violin taking on the flight of a skylark. Like the bird, the piece soars and dips. It was dedicated to violinist and good friend Marie Hall, who was enormously important with her suggestions of both the musical and technical aspects of a violin mimicking a wild bird in flight. In 1920, Vaughan Williams had the duet arranged for orchestra.

It’s now more famous than the old poem that inspired it, and to say that The Lark Ascending is popular is an understatement. At this very moment, ArkivMusic.com, the online CD and music service, currently has 76 recordings of Vaughan Williams’ gem in print.

Why has this work shown up on the KDFC Classical All-Stars Top 100 Countdown year after year (this time at #45), and what’s so special about it? The answer lies in sitting there and letting the violin envelop you. This is music that takes your breath away, giving the listener goosebumps and somehow managing to stop time.

Like an old friend, this beauty has followed me through all the ups and downs of life, always ready to take me and my spirits off somewhere special, familiar, and maybe new all at the same time. Although it’s tough to pick a favorite version, I love Hilary Hahn’s 2004 recording with the London Symphony on DG. The SACD (aka Super Audio CD) is magnificent. You can find that recording and 75 others at ArkivMusic.com.