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.”