Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Lark Ascending

by Rick Blechta

This is where we encountered the lark (before the dog arrived).
This past Saturday, CBC radio had a special Remembrance Day show mostly featuring music composed during the First World War. One of the pieces played was “The Lark Ascending” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, arguably the most famous of all of them, and an especial favourite of mine and coincidentally the title of my second novel.

Listening to it brought back a lot of memories, both of our several visits to the UK and also to writing my novel. I’d like to share one memory that joins both.

First, though, a story — but be warned: it may be apocryphal.

“The Lark Ascending” was originally a poem by George Meredith which in turn provided the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ composition for solo violin and orchestra. In fact Vaughan Williams quotes some of the poem on the flyleaf of the published version.

The composer began the composition on the eve of the war, although it wouldn’t make its debut until 1921.

“What is known, however, is that Vaughan Williams was holidaying on the coast in Margate in Kent on the day Britain entered the first world war (4 August 1914). The resort was not an embarkation point, but ships were engaging in fleet exercises. The composer later told the story that the tune came into his head as he walked the cliff, at which point he jotted down the notes. A young scout then made a citizen's arrest, assuming he was scribbling details of the coastline for the enemy.” (From The Guardian)
Another musician suffering for his art. (But fear not! Vaughan Williams was immediately released by the authorities once they realized he was writing music and not secret code — although I suppose it could have been both.)

Being from this side of the pond, I had no familiarity with the bird in question, and since the internet was in its early days, it wasn’t easy to find out information, so everything I knew about (British) larks came from Meredith’s poem. On one of our visits, we were walking on Hathersage Moor in Derbyshire when someone with a dog approached us.

A small bird shot up maybe 100 feet in the air and began singing a mellifluous song filled with trills and utterly lovely. My wife and I knew immediately what it was and stopped, completely enchanted. Vaughan Williams had captured the song amazingly well. (We were also amazed at the bird’s ability to hover in the air.) Not only was the dog distracted, but we were too. I wish I’d had that experience before my novel was published because it would have made a difference. However, I was certainly satisfied by how well I’d chosen my title.

The Vaughan Williams composition was a huge part of my novel on a plot level since the protagonist plays it at the climax of the story, but in my mind, she'd also become the lark, so its tendrils weave deep in the book.

Several people, including a bookseller went out to buy my recommended recording (The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with Iona Brown playing the solo violin) so that they could more fully enjoy the story.

And that is the nicest compliment I have ever gotten for one of my novels.

Sidebar: That’s my wife the flutist on the cover. She’s the only one I could think of who’d be perfect to stand in for Victoria Morgan, the novel’s protagonist. We had a violinist-friend off-camera who would set her up to look like she knew what she was doing and then step back as the photo was taken. While she looked great and very convincing as a concert virtuoso, the sound she made on the violin was pretty horrendous!


Sybil Johnson said...

What an interesting story. I'm not familiar with the music at all. I'll have to check it out.

Rick Blechta said...

Here's a link to the recording mentioned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzONNtE_WqM

Sybil Johnson said...

Thanks, Rick!

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Very interesting. I always learn something new from your posts, Rick. Thanks.

Unknown said...

When we brought our newborn babies home, we always played a special music selection for
their homecoming. For our second son, it was "The Lark Ascending."

Rick Blechta said...


To me “The Lark Ascending” always suggests a still summer day. It’s so interesting musically for me to hear how Vaughan Williams manages to evoke the lark’s song in the solo violin without actually trying to imitate the vocalization with any accuracy. Once you’ve heard a lark sing, the genius of his writing becomes apparent.

That was a good choice of music!

And thanks for the comment!!