I’ve recently been drawn repeatedly to The Lark Ascending, that ubiquitous and instantly recognisable piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
I was struck by the fact that I heard it being used recently at a friend’s wedding. It seemed to fit the mood perfectly. Yet it also fitted perfectly when it was used at my aunt’s funeral years ago. Is there something similar in the mood of a wedding and a funeral? It soothes people in a way that only a handful of exceptional orchestral pieces do, like perhaps Venus from THe Planets Suite, or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
I can’t explain on an analytical level why it works as well as it does, which I suppose is mostly due to my own lack of formal musical training. I know the main violin part is pentatonic (i.e. the black keys on a piano, basically, which is why it can sound like ersatz Chinese in parts) but that’s about it.
One observation I’d make is that the contrast between the solo violin sections interspersed with orchestral interjections, somehow makes it symbolic or resonant of a feeling of loneliness. The violin is self-evidently a lone voice (you could easily recognise the piece from a solo violin reading alone, and you might not even notice the difference) but is surrounded by the intangible suggestion of a musical landscape. This musical landscape, however, is kept at arm’s length so as not to spoil the intimacy. There’s no crescendo, no roar at any point.
It’s also a cliche, but true, that Britons as a rule gravitate towards music that embodies the rural, the natural. The violin just IS a bird flying and swooping. As trite and prosaic as that sounds, you can’t deny the calm feeling, the sense of a riverside walk on a clear summer day.
I stumbled upon a fantastic article about The Lark Ascending by someone called David Gutman on gramaphone.co.uk (link attached here). He recognises it as a populist piece that borders on kitsch, and fully acknowledges that an academic reading will show that as a piece of music it effectively “goes nowhere”, but he still writes very convincingly of its magic:
“… the music’s quality of repose has seemed at once more precious and more unattainable in a commodified, switched-on world”… “… in creating that potent sense of loss Vaughan Williams must be doing something more than contrasting whimsical bird music with a folksier ground-level middle section”… Wonderful stuff.
I’m off to listen to it again.