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Music Inspired by Poetry - "The Lark Ascending"

A small brown bird perches on a tan rock. It's sunny and the bird casts a small shadow.
© Charles J. Sharp
Wikimedia Commons

The drab little skylark inspired a poem, which in turn, inspired one of the most beautiful pieces of music. It's National Poetry Month and we're looking at the connections between the written word and classical 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....”

The Eurasian skylark, a rather plain looking bird, is known for the “angel voice” song of the male. The song takes place in flight and lasts 2 to 3 minutes, sometimes longer in mating season. On the surface, George Meredith’s long 1907 poem describes the skylark’s song and how the bird takes joyful notice of the wonders of nature below as he is in flight. It has a pastoral, even devotional, song of Thanksgiving feel about it. In 122 lines of rhyme Meredith also makes an allegory of the human voice which he says cannot express inner joy, hope and truth as well as the simple skylark’s song, so humans look to the skylark to be their voice.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month and we’re looking at poems that inspired some of the most beautiful pieces of music.  My favorite 20th century composer is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was deeply touched by the Meredith poem and composed a piece of the same title in 1909.  In fact, he included a few lines on the published version of the “orchestral romance:" the opening rhyme above, a sentence from the middle, and the last line of the poem:

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 aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Some have interpreted Vaughan Williams’ use of the middle line as being Eucharistic in nature. Whatever his actual intention, the piece has a pastoral, and even spiritual transcendence about it that interprets beautifully Meredith's original objective.
Here is my favorite version of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” with Barry Wordsworth conducting the New Queens Hall Orchestra. The violinist Hagai Shaham is the “lark.”  I tell you...I don’t get anything done for 14 minutes when this piece plays. Stops me in my tracks. Every. Single. Time.  And that is the whole point.

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.