National Poetry Month AND Tone Poem Tuesday: Messrs Meredith and Vaughan Williams

Back in my high school years, I was able to attend a performance of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. There were three works on the program. I don’t recall the first, sadly, and I was keenly looking forward to the program’s final work, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, which has always been one of my absolute favorite symphonies. There was a third work on the program with which I was completely unfamiliar, but that particular piece hit me between the eyes. It was a work for solo violin and chamber orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (a composer I was just then discovering), called The Lark Ascending.

This piece absolutely captivated me, to the point where it became an all-time favorite work of mine on the basis of my very first hearing. A hauntingly lyrical suite that evokes the song of a bird as it takes flight into the morning mist, perhaps? At that point I had never heard anything quite like it. The sheer level of musical control needed by the performers to make this work the spell-casting masterwork that it is continues to stagger my imagination to this day.

But–what I did not know, or maybe I did at the time but never really internalized it, is that The Lark Ascending is based on a poem, by English poet George Meredith. I would think this fact had to have been mentioned in the program notes for that evening, but since I knew nothing of the piece, I likely didn’t file that information away at the time. And it disappeared from my mind entirely until a couple of weeks ago when I did a Google search for “music based on poetry”. And there it was: The Lark Ascending.

Meredith’s poem is surprisingly long, given its simple subject; but then, so is Vaughan Williams’s work, isn’t it? Fifteen minutes of impressionistic perfectionism based on the song and flight of a single bird.

Here is The Lark Ascending, in both its poetic and its musical forms. Play the piece while you read the poem: it really works.

 

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,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.

For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is 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:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.

Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

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1 Response to National Poetry Month AND Tone Poem Tuesday: Messrs Meredith and Vaughan Williams

  1. Roger says:

    About every other funeral I sing at, we operform For All The Saints, the Vaughn Williams tune. His Prelude on the hymn tune ‘Rhosymedre’ was performed at Diana’s funeral. I know my choir has sung O Taste and See, and likely others.
    When I first heard of him, I was confused both by the form of his surname, and the pronunciation of his first name.

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