The Lark Descending
On 29 May, BBC Radio 3’s Sunday evening celebration of all things sonic Between the Ears presents a programme titled The Lark Descending. Presented by Lucy Hodson, it takes the much-loved song of the skylark, and Vaughan Williams’s much-loved orchestral paean to the bird, and places them in their 21st century context. The programme airs a newly commissioned piece by Hinako Omori and includes a contribution from me.
2022 is the sesquicentenary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Often regarded as one of Britain’s favourite composers, he is certainly responsible for the nation’s favourite piece of classical music – The Lark Ascending. It was written as a piece for violin and piano in 1914 and that version was first performed in 1920. If you only know the famous orchestral version, here is the original on YouTube.
The first time I heard the original I found it revealed quite a lot about how the piece works. To my ears the more contrasting sonorities of the two instruments made their roles clearer – a bird on the one hand and the landscape it inhabits on the other. The freedom of the violin part contrasts with the grounded harmonies of the landscape and with the folkloric melodies, reminding us that people inhabit this landscape, too. Rescoring the piano part for string orchestra blurs these distinctions, but makes for a more authentic experience: anyone who has heard a skylark and looked for it in the sky knows how attention switches easily between the bird alone and the bird in its habitat of clouds, air and grass.
This combination of free, senza misura cadenza, gentle harmony and (real or pastiche?) folk melody are purely symbolic representations of the bird and its surroundings, reflecting the eponymous 1881 poem by George Meredith that is the real inspiration behind the piece. More than sixty years later, in 1985 Olivier Messiaen wrote a short piano solo intended as a serious representation of the real skylark song, the last of six Petites Esquisses d’Oiseaux – little bird sketches. Here it is on YouTube complete with score to follow. The skylark piece starts 12 minutes 38 seconds in.
You can compare this with a real skylark here:
Vaughan Williams could have had no inkling of what would become of the skylark, whose song is now absent from the air in so many places, or thinned out to the odd eldritch voice on the wind. Even Messiaen, writing as the Europe-wide farmland bird catastrophe was beginning to bite, would not have thought of the skylark as threatened. Now it is in the Red category of the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern.
So Radio 3 has commissioned Conversation with a Lark, a re-imagining of The Lark Ascending for our own times, by Hinako Omori. In an interview recorded for the programme, I consider the role of music and other arts in helping us process the loss of once-familiar wildlife, without losing hope.