Entertainment Music

Sunday 20 October 2019

'The Lark Ascending': the man behind an English classic

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Today marks a significant anniversary in English musical history for it was on this date in 1872 that the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was born.

Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore hints at how you say his first name: "In time each little waif / Forsook his foster-mother / The well born babe was Ralph / Your captain was the other!"

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In order to rhyme with "waif", Ralph has to be pronounced "Rafe". It's how the name is spoken in Wales, where this Ralph had roots.

Vaughan Williams was the son of a country vicar, who died when he was only two.

His mother, a great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood whose name lives on in the fine china the firm he founded produces, brought him up in London.

He numbered Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel among his teachers, and it was Ravel who showed him there were other compositional paths to follow than those laid down by the German masters.

So it was that with an interest in early English music and folk song Vaughan Williams was able to develop a style uniquely his.

He set about collecting and notating folk songs from the countryside.

On the other side of the coin, his first large-scale work - Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis - was born of his fascination with the 16th-century composer of church music.

This was a field in which Vaughan Williams himself was involved. He was the music editor of the Church of England hymn book, to which he contributed several.

World War I intervened and had a profound effect on Vaughan Williams. He lost his friend, the composer George Butterworth (A Shropshire Lad, The Banks of Green Willow) at the Battle of the Somme. It was Butterworth who suggested to Vaughan Williams that he make a full-blown symphony out of some sketches he was working on.

That suggestion led to the birth of his London Symphony. "I can never feel too grateful for all he did for me over this work," Vaughan Williams would later write.

Another dedicatee was the conductor Henry Wood, a founding father of the Promenade Concerts - known as the Proms - which would become a staple of the British summer. Vaughan Williams presented his Serenade to Music in 1938 as a tribute to Wood, who was celebrating 50 years as an orchestral conductor.

It's a choral work, for 16 singers, a wonderful counterpoint of the solo voice and the choir.

Typically English in a lyrical, pastoral way, it's also a tribute to William Shakespeare, setting words of his from the Merchant of Venice - a reflection on the power of music and how anyone who is not moved by it is not to be trusted - to the most gentle of melodies.

Interestingly, another playwright to fire the imagination of Vaughan Williams was John Millington Synge. A one-act opera based on Riders to the Sea was the result.

The most famous Vaughan Williams of them all, though, is The Lark Ascending. which was inspired by a poem by the English novelist George Meredith.

Wonderfully reflective, it works like a landscape painting by a Constable or a Turner, turning back the clock to a quieter time, where the music is not so much about power, as about suggestion.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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