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Ever Winging Up and Up

Reflections by Artistic Director Tom Morgan

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending has been a part of the soundtrack of my life since I was about 10, exploring the orchestral repertoire with my mother as she was working on a degree to become a public school music teacher. Then in college in the 1980s, the piece was the basis for some music theory study, as it is written in the Mixolydian mode, and makes prominent use of a pentatonic melody.

In 1990, I went to the English countryside for the first time, staying with my wife’s relatives in a small village in East Sussex, about 40 miles from where Vaughan Williams lived in Surrey. Vaughan Williams wrote the first version of the piece – originally for violin and piano –  in 1914, just before he enlisted in the army to serve in World War I at the age of 41. As an ambulance driver, and later an officer, he surely witnessed and experienced the profound horrors of war, and as one biographer noted, “the most extreme contrast to the idyllic world evoked by The Lark Ascending that it is possible to imagine.”

photo credit: Tom Morgan
Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958). This year is the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Photograph from 1921, the year of the orchestral premiere of The Lark Ascending.

He returned to the score in 1919, orchestrating it to create the standard-repertoire work that is widely known and loved. It has been hailed as “one of the supreme achievements of English landscape painting.” In 1921, a critic wrote of the first orchestral performance, “It showed supreme disregard for the ways of today or yesterday. It dreamed itself along.”

In 2018, the English composer and arranger Paul Drayton took up the dream, and with great reverence and sensitivity to Vaughan Williams’ original concept, crafted a magnificent new arrangement, replacing the orchestra with 8-part chorus and vocal soloists, and incorporating verses by the Victorian poet George Meredith (1828-1909). Vaughan Williams had printed these verses in the preface to his musical score, and Drayton has brilliantly grafted them on to Vaughan’s William’s pastoral, folk-song-infused music.

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.
For singing till his heaven fills,
’Tis 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.
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Now one of my favorite orchestral pieces has become one of my favorite choral works, and we’re very pleased to present the Colorado premiere of this version this week, in a perfect countryside location, with the spectacular violinist Sandra Wong. Join us! More info and tickets here.

– Tom Morgan, Artistic Director