Lark Ascends from Dr. Welles to Barber, Meyer, and Hahn

Link to The Guardian article by Kerry Andrew on British people’s love of Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”

Whether lark song, train whistle, or violin flourish, many things ascend and sometimes converge (to riff on a Flannery O’Connor title) in trails of influence in the arts world, much to our art-loving joy and enrichment.

Author and fellow blogger HL Gibson‘s post Welcome Home, Dr. Welles discusses the connections between writing her recent novel, featuring main character Dr. John Welles, and listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ composition “The Lark Ascending.”

Gibson also shares a full audio recording and the text of George Meredith’s poem of the same title that inspired Williams’ piece. Here, I embark from her post on a path through the musical delights of another work that listening to “Lark” has, in turn, conjured for me.

Yes, HL, this piece is quite lovely–very modern, meandering, romantic. See the Ralph Vaughn Williams Society website press release of a documentary on the story behind just this composition: “The Lark Ascending.” An article excerpt reads: “Today, the work represents music for all occasions and is used in rites of passage; births, deaths and marriages and by filmmakers looking to create a quintessential English pastoral feel.” It is unclear whether it was January 13th, 2015, or some year past when the half-hour film aired on BBC4.

I especially like this type of classical music. I have a beloved CD of Hilary Hahn playing violin to Barber & Meyer selections. Although I’m not a classical music expert, my trained musical brain hears an overall similar sound in Barber/Meyer to Williams’ “Lark.” And yet, my favorite piece on the album is a contemporary concerto with a more dynamic tempo and different moods than “Lark” presents.

Performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Wolff, and written by contemporary American composer Edgar Meyer, this work naturally showcases the violinist Hilary Hahn’s virtuosic skill. Followed by the faster (presto in moto) third movement of Samuel Barber’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14,” which is also delightful, Meyer’s “Violin Concerto,” with two movements over CD tracks 4 and 5, to me lies at the heart of the collection’s beauty and power.

The Meyer concerto was commissioned personally by Hahn, specifically for Hahn, and released in 2000. I heard the piece on NPR classical radio years ago, immediately became enraptured, and decided I had to have it. Join me, won’t you, as I venture into examining more closely this composition, of which HL Gibson’s embedded one reminded me?

Click the image for more info on the CD.

Broadly considered, the syncopated rhythm throughout Meyer’s “Violin Concerto” presses my listening pleasure buttons; syncopation is one of the rhythmic elements I enjoy most in music. I absolutely love the pulsing, up-tempo sections of the whole concerto, with their off-beat dynamic accents.

Movement I’s faster portions feature a melody in G# key and a “gravitational pull of E,” as Meyer explains in the liner notes, with ascending wisps of violin repeatedly but irregularly accenting the ride. I love the surging orchestral segments that precede the wisps just as much as I do those solo flourishes.

Hearing this music, I picture sunlight flashing through the windows of a passenger car on a steam train through the countryside as those higher violin notes alight, and the gaps in between are the clouding tree leaves or shadow-casting hills. What’s remarkable is that when I follow this image, the music continues to suit the scenario of a train excursion rather well.

Not knowing the specific letter keys of tunes by sound alone, I would have described Movement I simply as being in a minor key. The overall effect is a forlorn meditation befitting a journey home or away, overlain with an energizing lyrical dance achieved by featured musician Hahn. Like English poet Meredith’s lark, she fiddles her morning “song of light.”

Time to catch the mighty 16:04, Movement II. This longer movement in the key of C builds slowly and drives forcefully, insisting on being heard as it ventures deeper into the wilder parts of the country. Arrival in the fourth minute of the prevailing melody teases the listener as it dissolves into slower tonally focused parts with long-held notes–travelling on a vast plain. Are we there yet?

2007-08-17.050.Skotland.Glenfinnan-viadukten.Damptog.PSAbout halfway. The low, slow, steady hum of the orchestra behind the soft solo work of the violin gives way at the seven-minute mark to a somewhat folksy sounding restart of the train engine with a cello- and bassoon-laden transition, almost as if the train has begun its steep climb up the mountain, into a new, more daring mode. Rapidly picking up speed back down the slope at around 8:15, the journey returns to the solo refrain hinted at in minute 4.

Then, it’s full steam ahead as all converging trains seem to race to the finish. The established momentum plunges into the second half of the movement, where the overall dynamic pattern repeats and then resolves in an even faster, more frantic push.

The final, commanding violin flourish on the runaway train halts in station on a screaming high note, and imprints the listener with the work’s exhilarating vigor and the awesome powers of performance bringing it to such bracing life.

In reply to the Meyer concerto’s, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s, and Hilary Hahn’s just demands to be heard, I currently have the roughly half-hour long composition coursing through the digital landscape of my media player. It serves as my own track of sound for blogging, and it is a trip worth repeating.

2 thoughts on “Lark Ascends from Dr. Welles to Barber, Meyer, and Hahn

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