About this Recording
8.573530 - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R.: Lark Ascending (The) / The Solent / 6 Short Pieces / Fantasia (Pike, Kloke, Chamber Orchestra of New York, Di Vittorio)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
The Lark Ascending • The Solent • Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra • Suite of Six Short Pieces


Vaughan Williams’ earliest compositions, which date from 1895, when he left the Royal College of Music, to 1908, the year he went to Paris to study with Ravel, reveal a young creative artist attempting to establish his own personal musical language. He withdrew or destroyed many works from that period, with the notable exception of songs such as Linden Lea (1901), Silent Noon (1903) and the Robert Louis Stevenson settings, Songs of Travel (1904) and two orchestral works—the ‘symphonic impression’ In the Fen Country (1904, revised 1905, 1907 and 1935), and the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 of 1906.

During these crucial formative years he produced several substantial works, later suppressed or set aside, and none of which was published in his lifetime. These include The Garden of Proserpine, for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1901) and chamber works such as a String Quartet in C minor (1898), a Piano Quintet in C minor (1903, rev. 1904 and 1905) and the Quintet in D for clarinet, horn, violin, cello and piano (1898).

However, the lion’s share of Vaughan Williams’ creative output in this exploratory period was given over to orchestral pieces described by the composer in a letter written in June 1903 to the music critic Edwin Evans (1871–1945) as ‘my most important works’. They include the Serenade for Small Orchestra (1898), Bucolic Suite (1900), Heroic Elegy and Triumphal Epilogue (1901), Fantasia for piano and orchestra (1896–1902, rev. 1904), Willow Wood, for baritone and orchestra (1902–03) and The Solent (1902–03), all of which have recently been revived for publication, performance and recording.

Premièred on 18th June 1903, The Solent was originally intended as the second of four ‘Impressions for Orchestra’ to be titled In the New Forest. The score is prefaced by two lines from the poet Philip Bourke Marston (1850–87):

Passion and sorrow in the deep sea’s voice,
A mighty mystery saddening all the wind

The opening phrase of The Solent held a deep significance for the composer, who returned to it several times throughout his long creative life. Near the start of A Sea Symphony (begun in the same year The Solent was written), it appears imposingly to the line ‘And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships’. In 1955 it can be heard accompanying images of Tintern Abbey for the film documentary The England of Elizabeth. Its final, most affecting manifestation is in the slow movement of Symphony No. 9 (1956–58) where the calm of The Solent theme is disturbed by the baleful interjections of ‘the ghostly drummer of Salisbury Plain’.

In its original incarnation this haunting principal idea is introduced by unaccompanied clarinet, after which it is repeated by hushed, richly divided strings, foreshadowing in their luminous polyphonic textures the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1919). A second phrase is also stated first by solo clarinet and subsequently harmonised by muted strings. The brass introduce a more agitated, fanfarelike motif. In the lively central section the main material derives from an intense, recitative-like figure given initially to solo oboe. In the aftermath of a powerful climax, the ‘Solent’ theme is stated by the solo horn accompanied by muted violins, divided into three parts. The coda is centred on the ‘Solent’ theme and its complementary phrase, not heard since the opening. This most compelling of Vaughan Williams’ early works ends with the clarinet solo joined by lower strings fading into the distance.

In October 1896 Vaughan Williams began work on the Fantasia, his earliest known piece for a solo instrument with orchestra. It was not completed until 9th February 1902 and underwent further revision two years later. There is no dedication on the score and it appears not to have been written for a particular pianist. Apart from its appearance in the list of works the composer sent to Edwin Evans in June 1903 (thus before its final revision), there are no further references to it in his correspondence.

The Fantasia is cast in one movement subdivided into several segments. It contains some of the composer’s most bravura writing. In the dramatic, cadenza-like opening bars a flinty, tenebrous theme for the soloist is succeeded by an orchestral statement of a chorale-like melody. The rest of the work offers variants upon these initial ideas, which are rigorously developed. Various contrasting sections, including a scherzo-like passage, are heralded by rhetorical statements from the soloist before the coda recalls the chorale-like theme in a virtuosic manner.

Vaughan Williams’ mastery of the piano is evident in this Fantasia and in the concerto he wrote for the instrument which was completed in 1931, yet he wrote few keyboard works. Nevertheless, those isolated examples scattered among his considerable output ably demonstrate that his naturally expansive musical style was sufficiently flexible to encompass small forms.

A collection of miniatures entitled Suite of Six Short Pieces for Piano was composed in 1920 and published the following year. Under the direction of the composer, musicologist James Brown arranged the work for string orchestra, after which it was given the title of Charterhouse Suite and published in 1923.

Though eminently suitable for teaching purposes, this sequence of little studies has enough intrinsic interest to transcend a purely pedagogical function. There is poetry as well as technique behind the genial and graceful demeanour of a score that anticipates the neo-classicism of the Concerto Accademico for violin and string orchestra (1924–25). The gentle opening Prelude establishes a relaxed mood. There follows a Slow dance in a lilting, siciliano rhythm and a bustling Quick dance. Entitled Slow air, the attractive theme of the fourth movement has a classical restraint. A gentle Rondo is quietly dominated by its expressive main theme. The droll Pezzo ostinato is the most substantial and texturally varied movement and its delicate, elusive ending rounds off the set with charm and elegance.

Vaughan Williams composed the first draft of The Lark Ascending for solo violin and small orchestra in 1914, calling it a ‘romance’, a term he also applied to some of his most profoundly lyrical utterances such as the slow movements of the Piano Concerto and the Fifth Symphony. The title comes from the poem of the same name by George Meredith (1828–1909). The composer prefaced his published score with these twelve lines from Meredith’s poem:

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.

The Lark Ascending is thought to have existed only in a version for violin and piano before Vaughan Williams set it aside when he enlisted in the Army in 1914 after the outbreak of the First World War. When he returned to composition in 1919, it was among the first pieces he revised. The first performance was given in the Public Hall at Shirehampton, Gloucestershire, on 15th December 1920. The performers were the violinist Marie Hall, to whom the score is dedicated, and the pianist Geoffrey Mendham. Marie Hall was again the soloist in the first performance of the orchestral version in the Queen’s Hall, London, on 14th June 1921, in which Adrian Boult conducted the British Symphony Orchestra.

The Lark Ascending depicts a pastoral scene with the violin imitating the titular songbird and the orchestra (consisting of just two flutes, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, triangle and strings) representing the landscape beneath. It is in one continuously evolving movement with each theme introduced and linked by the violinist’s eloquent soliloquies. In the closing bars, as the soloist returns to the ascending reiterated phrases with which the work began, the lark’s song dies away, ‘lost on aerial rings’.

Paul Conway

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