The Lark Ascending

Edited: December 16, 2020, 4:44 PM · Yesterday, December 15, was the centenary of the first performance of Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending". It was celebrated by Jennifer Pike's recreation last night of the first performance in the original venue, a village hall in Shirehampton near Bristol.

I don't know whether that performance was recorded - I hope it was, and I'll look out for it in the usual places - but here is a good substitute performed recently on the steps of St George's Hall in Bristol by members of the Bristol Ensemble:

Replies (20)

December 16, 2020, 5:18 PM · That's a beautifully produced video. I wonder if the audio and video were recorded separately, though. The cleanliness of the recorded sound -- almost a "CD" sound, with a microphone directly on top of the soloist, and the ensemble mixed to be more distant -- seems improbable for an outdoor recording. And there seem to very tiny sync issues between the audio and video.
December 16, 2020, 8:17 PM · Lydia -- Think of it more as a music video. Some performance scenes shot inside, some outside, pretty flying birds, etc.
December 16, 2020, 8:18 PM · The Lark Ascending has never been a piece that I've enjoyed. Although I appreciate why others do
December 17, 2020, 3:34 AM · I think they sensibly went inside for the audio!
A 2012 recreation of the first performance was repeated on the BBC last week
Edited: December 18, 2020, 11:37 AM · Steve, many thanks for finding the Julia Hwang performance on the BBC website. It occurred to me when viewing it that it can also be seen as a memorial to Dame Diana Rigg who sadly passed away recently.

St George's Hall, in which I've had the pleasure of playing orchestrally on many occasions, has one of the best medium-size hall acoustics in Europe, so I can understand why the audio would have been recorded inside and the visual outside (in that order), using the St George's music stands - so it would appear. The conductor, Roger Huckle, whom I couldn't see in the video, would presumably have conducted the audio inside. He, himself a very fine violinist and conductor whom I have played under in Bristol Chamber Orchestra, is the father of the soloist Emil Huckle-Kleve.

December 17, 2020, 8:06 AM · I bought the sheet music to "The Lark Ascending" a couple of years ago. Nope. No chance. I'll have to enjoy this one vicariously.
December 17, 2020, 8:32 AM · Yes, it’s not as easy as it might sound (assuming that it does sound easy). Hilary Hahn made an exquisite recording of it.
December 17, 2020, 10:48 AM · I found it a lot of fun to learn. It is, I think, marginally less difficult than the first-tier Romantic concertos like the Bruch, assuming that you have a well-ordered left hand with good agility.
December 17, 2020, 3:47 PM · James Ehnes made a very interesting comment about this piece recently, which I thought also related to some recent conversations here about expressing emotion in music.

“I love the piece. It was a dream come true to record it. There’s a sense of nostalgia to the music, and nostalgia is an incredibly powerful and poignant emotion. It’s a piece that captures an atmosphere that is very specific but very difficult to define. That’s ultimately why music exists: to capture emotions that other artforms can’t express. If we could write it, we wouldn’t need the music.”

December 18, 2020, 12:33 AM · I'll be the contrary crank on this one. The only time I heard Lark Ascending I thought it was mindless pentatonic noodling. --Sorry.
Edited: December 18, 2020, 1:35 AM · The piece is inspired by the experience you could still have easily in the days this piece was composed: strolling in the european countryside in spring, summer, and listening to the omnipresent larks (eurasian skylark to be precise) that sing strongly high in the sky. Tragically, those eurasian skylarks have now all but disappeared due to intensive farming which has destroyed the natural environment. I really love nature and the piece succeeds in evoking that natural countryside feeling in me.
December 18, 2020, 7:27 AM · Round here (Oxfordshire) Skylarks are still fairly numerous although "red-listed" in the country as a whole. I don't share the national affection for the piece, although it makes a change from Delius's cuckoo. Actually I haven't heard an actual cuckoo for years.
December 18, 2020, 9:24 AM · Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring
Where my heart can go journeying?
Over the shadows and the rain
To a blossom covered lane

But don't take my word for it ...

December 18, 2020, 11:43 AM · Hi Joel, mindless pentatonic noodling is one of the things I do when I finish reading/playing some pieces and let my mind and fingers wander. It is only natural that doing so "pentatonically" would occur because it sort of piles 5ths upon each other in random but still harmonious order - not just for me, but for so much of "World Music."

The OP's selection from the Bristol Ensemble really appeals to me because the small ensemble blends so well with the soloist. No matter how well the soloists perform in the 9 other recordings I have of this music, the large orchestral accompaniment sometimes seems to me to intrude like distant traffic noise.

It's probably 20 years since I first heard this piece and quickly bought the sheet music, played at it once and put it on the shelf. This thread inspired me to dig down among shelved piles, bring out that still pristine music and try to play it again. I think I'll keep on trying for a while. I see that IMSLP has the same edition I bought years ago - (I might have saved some time by just downloading and printing that).

So, Thank You Trevor for starting this thread!

December 18, 2020, 3:20 PM · Personally I find Lark Ascending one of the most emotional pieces in the repertoire. I never thought that much about it until I started to learn it Previously, I'd always had it in the 'nice but not exactly deep' category. Now I think it's really pretty deep as well...


Not just because of the theme - the English countryside in summer (which, I do love) - but because of the particular view that the piece has of it. The poem was written in 1881, the piece was started in 1914 but only finalised in 1920. That is to say, it's about the English countryside pre-WW1; between the time of its composition and its performance its meaning profoundly changed. If you interpret it not just as a pleasant memory of a summer's day, but that that memory is from the other side of a gaping chasm in history and is the memory of a joy irretrievably lost... then it's much deeper.

Of course none of this helps with the fingered octaves ;)

December 18, 2020, 3:48 PM · I'm somewhere in between the rapture that the English seem to have for the piece and Joel, whose comment made me laugh.

I, like Andrew, find myself stuck in mindless pentatonicism when I try and jam with people, and I quickly tire myself out trying to think of ways out of that padded room, only to collapse in a pile once the drugs kick in. I guess I need to learn some different licks and practice at home against some backing tracks - I really don't have a coherent framework for improvisation, so I shouldn't be surprised.

So I will allow the Vaughn Williams to be my go-to pentatonic piece, since it's kind of an outlier in the repertoire and it is masterfully done for what it is. I actually wouldn't mind giving this piece a go at some point.

December 19, 2020, 12:03 PM · Such pentatonic-sounding pieces are very sensitive to pure intonation.
No slurping!
Edited: December 19, 2020, 6:20 PM · And those very exposed passages in 5ths. No room for the slightest error in intonation. No place to hide. And you've got to make it seem easy and effortless. That's why it is one of the most difficult solo pieces around.
December 19, 2020, 6:37 PM · I didn't care for this piece when I first heard it, but decided to give it time. I've come to love this piece, and find it deeply emotional. I've become a fan of some of his other work as well. Perhaps someday I will attempt at least parts of it, but I've already one long-term goal piece I may not live long enough to reach (Biber's Passacaglia) :)
Edited: December 19, 2020, 10:16 PM · This piece holds a very special place in my heart, and that of my wife. It brought the two of us together, actually. A long story which is impossible to do justice here.

In my late teens, my father recommended that I play it with the local community orchestra (I’d done the Bruch & Mendelssohn with orchestra by that point), and I have to agree with some other posters that my initial reaction was that it was frustrating to listen to - circular, pointless, noodling... harmonically uninteresting and bare...

But once I started learning it, I quickly grew to love it, and when playing it with an orchestra, enveloped in that warm sound, I’ll never forget that feeling.

I think it’s one of those pieces you have to let “wash over you”. Don’t demand of it anything, be in no rush. Listening to it on a relaxing Sunday morning is great, as the sun starts to warm up the world!

As an interesting bit of trivia, I actually learned this piece from someone who learned it from Hugh Bean, who did the original recording of it. I’m nothing compared to those two violinists, however!!

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