Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending‘ reminds us that no summer walk on the downs in southern England would be complete without the sound of skylarks singing overhead.
Above the wind blown grasses on the slopes of the downs these birds rise up into the skies until they are a speck above, hovering over their nesting territory and pouring out a song of rich music. Happily, these ‘ethereal minstrels of the sky‘ are still with us in Sussex.
‘The Lark Ascending‘
This music lifts us up towards heaven as the violin leaves the orchestra to soar upwards gradually fading out of sight. This is the sound of an English summer. No wonder this work is so popular. This is the timeless England that we love.
Both The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis regularly top Classic FM polls of the nation’s favourite classical works.
English Folk Tunes
This is the view from Box Hill over Dorking, Vaughan Williams’ home for the last 25 years of his life.
As traditional ways of life were disappearing he was one of the first to show concern for the loss of the traditional music of local people. Travelling around the countryside he collected local folk songs and wove them into his music. These musical landscapes echo over the downs, through our villages, over the expanses of East Anglia, even through the bustle of London. This is rural England singing to us.
‘In the Fen country‘
This takes us into the Fen Country with its wide, wind-swept vistas.
Hauntingly beautiful music full of mood and atmosphere with the breeze rustling the reed beds beside the dykes and ditches. In autumn, trees stand half hidden in mist. In summer, there are huge expansive skies above flat land stretching into the distance with a sense of loneliness and space. Always with Ely Cathedral ‘the Ship of the Fens‘ standing proud on the horizon.
Here we are with crumbling shorelines, coastal river creeks, mud flats with overwintering waders, silent water-ways, windmills and Norfolk wherries (above photo).
In the ‘Broads’ of Norfolk, there are reed beds, (Norfolk reed was used as thatch all over the country) with marsh harriers, often called ‘the Norfolk hawk‘. This was the home of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’. It’s all there in the music.
The London Symphony
Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony (which he himself described as ‘a Symphony by a Londoner’) pictures the City waking.
As the river silently flows past Westminster we hear the chimes of Big Ben, then the awakening hustle and bustle of the great City, including the rattle of horse-drawn carriages and the cries of street sellers. The quiet second movement V.W. described as ‘Bloomsbury Square on a foggy November day’. The last movement concludes peacefully as the great river silently flows downstream and out to sea. Is there a hint of London’s past memories fading into the distance here? This is an endearing tribute to a noble city. Always popular, the Symphony was performed at the BBC Proms this summer.
Though an agnostic, Vaughan Williams has left us some beautiful music set to Christian texts, especially his hymn tunes and the delightful Five Mystical Songs based on some of the exquisite poems by George Herbert. His Love Bade me Welcome is one of my favourites.
During the 1920’s his music became more dramatic, some of it reflecting his traumatic experiences in the First World War. This is tense and dissonant, not to my taste I’m afraid. But if you want to get into the heart of the English countryside try listening to these works above, from his early music. Also, there is his lovely Serenade to Music which so impressed Rachmaninov when he first heard it, the Wasps Overture, the 5th Symphony (especially the slow movement} and so much more.