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Why progressives don’t like The Lark Ascending The music of Vaughan Williams has become proxy for Brexit

Parochial? Vaughan Williams Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty

Parochial? Vaughan Williams Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty


June 14, 2021   5 mins

When Marie Hall stepped on to the stage at the Queen’s Hall in London to give the first full performance of a new piece from Ralph Vaughan Williams, few could have imagined that exactly a century later, this apparently unremarkable piece would have turned into a political football.

The Lark Ascending; Romance for Violin and orchestra was a revised version of a composition Vaughan Williams wrote just before World War One for solo violin and piano. Referencing a poem of the same name by George Meredith, the piece lasted around 15 minutes and had little in the way of musical pyrotechnics for Hall to get her teeth into.

Yet today the Lark regularly tops ClassicFM’s annual Hall of Fame — ahead of Beethoven, Mozart and all the rest. Explaining why they love the piece, fans often point to how it evokes the beauty of the English countryside, rather like a Constable painting. As Peter Sallis, assured of his place in English rural folklore from his role in Last of the Summer Wine, put it: “You’ve only got to listen to it, and you’re listening to England.”

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The Lark has often assumed a sense of nostalgia, conjuring up images of what has been lost: the unspoilt England or Britain that existed before the arrival of two World Wars and the era of mass road-building, sprawling housing estates and out-of-town shopping centres. It recalls “an Arcadia that perhaps never was,” as one radio presenter recently remarked with a hint of a sneer.

There is certainly something in these descriptions, not least in the orchestral accompaniment with its gentle rise-and-fall which maps on to the undulations of the English countryside — and indeed to English speech. Talking about Vaughan Williams and his fellow English composer Edward Elgar, the late conductor Richard Hickox said: “Our speech has a lot of rise and fall and our countryside [that] they knew so well has lots of rise and fall. I think the landscape of England really did affect them…”

However, Vaughan Williams’s music and his attempts to create a definably English musical language are routinely dismissed as parochial. Chrissy Kinsella, who runs the London Music Fund, recently wrote that the Lark “is one of the dullest pieces of music known to man, and that is a hill I am prepared to die on” — a sentiment, it seems, that is shared by many.

Now it is certainly true that the Lark can be dull. Vaughan Williams’s champion Adrian Boult once lamented a performance in which “we all agreed that the poor lark never left solid earth”. Overplay has made it over-familiar for many. Sometimes it does not always match our moods. Some of us may never be in the mood.

However, it is uncanny how often these comments appear with a political edge. The Lark’s popularity and its associations with Englishness, nostalgia, the past and the countryside is more than enough to trigger the average progressive. Kinsella, whose charity has London Mayor Sadiq Khan as patron, laughed along at a colleague blaming the Lark’s popularity on the English. The music writer Hugh Morris recently suggested: “the residual spectre of British (read: English) exceptionalism that characterises our politics, governance, and musical life runs strong in Vaughan Williams… It’s no surprise that he now represents a highly middlebrow attitude to music in the UK.”

Again and again in such comments we find the assertion of quite a strong “us” and “them”, gathering Vaughan Williams and his unassuming piece around England and Englishness as unfavoured categories, typified by dullness and backwardness. A certain referendum result never appears to be far away. “Just like Brexit the British are fixated on The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams,” says one critic.

These recurring associations suggest how the piece serves, at least in part, as a proxy to display distaste for other things and people. Certainly, attacks on the Lark tend to be addressing a wider world around the piece as much as the piece itself.

“Attacks on the Lark tend to be addressing a wider world around the piece as much as the piece itself.”

One of the common accusations made against it is “backwardness”, which implies a ranking schema based on how it relates to history: a work either looks backwards into the tainted past or forwards into an imagined and apparently better future, either sharing the taint or the betterment.

In this way, the theorist takes over the meaning of works of art: measuring and judging. It rather evokes what John Carey wrote about in The Intellectuals and the Masses: of self-styled intellectuals working — and using their work —to distinguish themselves from the inferior plebs.

Certainly for many, disparaging the Lark, its popularity and its English associations appears as a way to demonstrate superiority, to place oneself ahead of others, as more mature in the progressive fashion. This also brings the group together, reproducing solidarity through group superiority, thereby reproducing political power.

In a lecture given at Cornell University in 1954, Vaughan Williams said:

“My old teacher, [the German composer] Max Bruch, used to say to me, ‘You must not write eye music, you must write ear music.’ But many musical writers who ought to know better think that music is not what we hear with our ears but what we see on the printed or written page; and some of them say with pride that they never want to hear music, it is enough for them to see the score.”1

In privileging what is written over what is heard, the theorist wrests music away from the listening experience towards the measurable and tangible, which are more accessible to judgement. Is it inventive and innovative? Does it represent a “step forward” from the “music of past”? What do people invoke in support of a piece and how does this measure up to our value system?

However, appealing to the tangible often ends up disregarding and delegitimising meaning. Talking about the Lark on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac captured how powerful the music can be:

“It hearkens back to my father again. But also, when I first heard this piece of music I collapsed in tears with emotion. I just thought it was probably the most beautiful piece I ever heard. And also, interestingly, Peter Green was very influenced by this piece of music. It hearkens to some elements of what Peter’s playing and his guitar when he plays Albatross and other such pieces  . . .  It’s like a prayer.”

The comment sections of Lark videos tell similar, often moving, stories. One of the most highly rated comments on YouTube reads: “My sister told me about this beautiful work today, as I was feeling pretty suicidal…. Listening to this music lifted my heart above the clouds and I felt the pain subside… I know there is Love because it is written into this music”. Indeed, the Lark seems to contain a special magic for those who are struggling existentially. “This is what finally coming out of a depressive episode feels like,” reads another comment.

In this latter sense we might think of the Lark representing what it is like to be in-flow, in life: not in conflict with the world or withdrawn from it, but aligned to it and living within it.

Vaughan Williams’s widow Ursula wrote:

“He had taken a literary idea on which to build his musical thought in The Lark Ascending and had made the violin become both the bird’s song and its flight, being, rather than illustrating the poem from which the title was taken.”2

From this standpoint, the violin part is not so much attempting to translate the words of the Meredith poem into music, as to be that flight and that song. The accompanying orchestral parts, which some players find dull and boring, have a quiet yet powerful role, gently supporting the soloist. They form the environment in which the little bird sings its song and soars to great heights.

Perhaps, in its simplicity and ease — and in its sense of the individual being supported — the Lark shows us what it means to be free. We might think, then, that its sneering detractors, in trying to prevent the Lark from speaking for itself, display a certain contempt for freedom.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Making of Music (Cornell University Press, 1955). Chapter 3: ‘How do we make music?’
  2. Ursula Vaughan Williams: RVW: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 1964), p.156

Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.

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Chrissy Kinsella
Chrissy Kinsella
2 years ago

As noted above, a few weeks ago, I shared a personal opinion on my personal Twitter account, that said I thought the Lark Ascending, Vaughan Williams’ eternally-loved string elegy, was ‘dull’, which caused quite a furore at the time, and today prompted this article in which I am quoted.

I know this piece is much loved and gives great comfort. However, I would like Mr Cobley to know that his so-called thesis does not stand up. I have huge love for much English pastoral music, Vaughan Williams and Elgar in particular, and I would like share some of those thoughts here.

One of my first and most beloved musical experiences was singing the Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, for 16 solo voices, while studying at Trinity College of Music. I had never experienced anything so perfectly beautiful. It was so still and serene, with such exquisite harmonies. It was piece that I was lucky enough to revisit as a soloist at the Barbican Centre for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra 70th birthday concert in 2007.

My love for Vaughan Williams does not stop at his vocal music (although I am also a huge fan of the Five Mystical Songs, and ‘Linden Lea’ was one of the first songs I ever learned in a singing lesson at the age of 16, for my ABRSM Grade 5) – the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis never fails to give goosebumps, and my amateur symphony orchestra, where I am a violinist, were learning the English Folk Song Suite just before lockdown in 2020 – I am very much looking forward to picking up where we left off.

Similarly, another much-loved musical hero and surely the epitome of pastoral England – Elgar. My first experience of singing the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ is a very fond and moving memory – I had just moved to London and was singing with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the Barbican, and that deeply passionate and ecstatic chorus of heavenly voices: ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’ moved me to tears, and my mum, too, who was in the audience watching me perform on this wonderful stage for the first time. I also remember the distinct moment I heard Elgar’s Cello Concerto – the Jacqueline du Pre version – for the first time, in the library at music college, and I had never heard anything quite so emotive, passionate, and deeply moving.

The London Music Fund, where I am Chief Executive, is committed to ensuring every child can experience music in this deeply personal, moving way; either as a performer, listener or audience member. I hope they grow up to know they can express their musical likes and dislikes without fear of retribution. We work extraordinarily hard to support children from low income families across London who would otherwise struggle to access such opportunities, and offer a platform for them to develop their own passions, in music and beyond.

I am sure Vaughan Williams would have approved.

Chrissy Kinsella
Chief Executive
London Music Fund

Last edited 2 years ago by Chrissy Kinsella
Sharon Overy
SO
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Excellent article – it persuaded me to become a member!

The Lark Ascending doesn’t make me think of the past, not people (past or present), just what it’s describing – a small bird flying high above the grass on a warm day in early summer. It certainly doesn’t make me think of Brexit, though I voted for it.

Getting a strong vibe of “those that can do, those that can’t teach” about the idea of music theorists examining scores and refusing to actually listen. Ressentiment.

Don Holden
DH
Don Holden
2 years ago

Another reason the woke brigade hate RVW is for his love of country – volunteering to join the army in the First World War when he was in his forties. They would much prefer to worship Benjamin Britten who scarpered off to America with his boyfriend during the Second.

Last edited 2 years ago by Don Holden
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Holden

And then got commissioned to right a war requiem which looks like a calculated insult to those who actually fought

Hector Mildew
Hector Mildew
2 years ago

And then got commissioned to right a war requiem…
Whose war requiem was it and what was wrong with it?  

Hector Mildew
Hector Mildew
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Holden

Another reason the woke brigade hate RVW is for his love of country 
Being a dead white male is enough – they’re coming for Beethoven and Mozart as well.

Richard Slack
RS
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Holden

he was in the US when the war was declared. Then decided to return, at no small risk to himself, after reading some poetry by Crabbe. That is pretty English

Don Holden
Don Holden
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

He was in the USA to escape the increasingly bellicose Europe (he fled in April ). He returned in ‘42 and registered as a ‘conchie’. What a hero !

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

I prefer electronic dance music myself; but as I voted Brexit and watch GB News, I thought I’d play it. I can see why it’s so popular – very relaxing actually.

Judy Englander
JE
Judy Englander
2 years ago

The youtube comments you cite are about the music lifting people out of depression, of a sense of being in the flow, of the wholeness of the world. This is a benign feeling. In contrast you mention those who dissect the music to make an angry political point, and who prefer intellectually analysing a musical score to listening and hearing. That alone keeps cynical and angry people where they are, deepening their malign feelings. The contrast is between allowing music to lift you out of depression versus wilfully staying sour, eternally critical and negative

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

A BBC documentary “The Passions of Vaughan Williams from 2008, can be found on Youtube.

Richard Slack
RS
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

The BBC! go and wash your mouth out, you do know, don’t you that they are an intrinsic part of the liberal woke middle class latte-drinking elite.

Duncan Mann
Duncan Mann
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Sure thing, Dom.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

The Australian national classic FM station had their public vote, last weekend, for the best loved piece of music – the Emperor concerto was No. 1, but the Lark was at No 3! Elgar’s Enigma Variations at No 5.

Joe Hipgrave
Joe Hipgrave
2 years ago

Just a couple of musicological points…
You refer to The Lark Ascending as an “unremarkable piece”. Certainly, one shouldn’t make extravagant claims for it, but, nonetheless, in its day it would have been seen as quite experimental. The use of parallel fifths in the accompaniment would immediately set it apart from the post-Brahms mainstream (and even, to a degree, from the Mahlerian or Brooknerian late romantic developments). The very folky minimalism of the piece was an innovation.
As for “musical pyrotechnics”, which you suggest are lacking in the work. Certainly, it isn’t flashy in a Sarasate or Paganini fashion, but I have heard, over the years, many violists remarking on the extreme difficulties that the piece offers. There is much nimble finger-work required, but the performer must make it sound simple and natural. This requires restraint and refinement on the part of the performer. To put the work across effectively requires considerable musicianship.

Timothy Worrall
TW
Timothy Worrall
2 years ago

Can I be a Brexit voter and massive RVW fan who thinks that Lark is pretty dull? Give me the third movement of the 5th symphony or Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis any day. I always want to love the lark and wait for it to really take off. I guess I’m still waiting.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago

The headline ‘Why the elites hate Vaughan Williams -The Lark Ascending has become proxy for Brexitis pretty crass, going nowhere. I enjoyed the article itself nonetheless.
It seems unlikely, were he alive today, Vaughan Williams would have been in favour of Brexit. (One the best modern interpreters of ‘Lark Ascending’, Nigel Kennedy, definitely wasn’t in favour of Brexit.)
(But in any case I doubt many Brexit-supporting lovers of ‘Lark Ascending’ would love it any less.)
Yes, is it that music ‘snobs’ dislike or rather, don’t rate ‘Lark Ascending’ highly because the backing is drone-like, similar to a English folksong, and on a ‘bad day’ could be soporific?
The negativity then is little to do with it being ‘Brexity’. So the attempt to use it in a ‘proxy war’ goes nowhere, in my opinion.
Isn’t any supposed ‘English’ ‘essence’ in the piece musicological only? English folksong? ( I can let it evoke an ‘England’ I love, have seen and touched only if I wish. (The fantastic thing about instrumental music.))
(Most probably Elgar would win the ‘English Brexit composer’ honorific. That Elgar was stuck with the Austro-German canon doesn’t matter I suppose.)

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Well said. There is a sort of Unherd template usually with a piece titled “why the liberal/metropolitain/woke/elite hate…..well fill in the category really. Giles Fraser was good enough to give over the weekend his vapourisings on “why liberals hate football” without feeling the need to prove that they do. And so with the Lark. Speaking as an incurable lefty liberal aged nearly 70 I have loved the piece since my early teens and yes, it does speak to me about an England greatly removed from the Shysterism of our current Prime Minister, a person from no-where if there ever was one. However, it is a limited piece and Vaughan Williams himself did write music far more challenging than that.
The Lark is in fact a piece of music frequently accompanied with the clinking of cutlery and crockery at a dinner party, easy listening, to be heard rather than engaged with. VW is not alone in that, we have a weakness to regard music either as a background or as an analgesic to the soul. Perhaps next time someone reaches for “The Lark” they should, in fact find a recording of the 4th Symphony and really get their teeth into something, but it is a part of VW just as much as “The Lark”. It is worth remembering that most 20th and 21st century British composers (with the exception of Elgar, Walton and perhaps James MacMillan) were and are politically to the left of centre.
Pastoralism is largely about loss, a world we had (or thought we had) but have lost. It is true that a lot of Brexit was about nostalgia but I doubt if VW would have thought of his Lark in that way.

James Chater
JC
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Yes, I have the 4th & 5th Symphonies on disc. I don’t have enough musical knowledge to analyse them but obviously they are more substantial. Holst, his friend also wrote much more than just The Planets, which again obviously cannot be compared to ‘Lark Ascending’.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Elgar actually loved Germany and the Germans loved and appreciated his music more than the British did. World War 1 was a bad time for Elgar

James Chater
JC
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

I confess I don’t have much acquaintence with Elgar except with the ‘pops’. I really liked some chamber music (cannot remember which piece) and I did hear The Dream of Gerontius in St Paul’s Cathedral…the seats seemed to become increasingly hard.
Isn’t he regarded as a bit of a ‘note-weaver’?

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Al M
Al M
2 years ago

and some of them say with pride that they never want to hear music, it is enough for them to see the score”
From my experience of certain directions taken by ‘contemporary’ classical composers, I never want to hear it either.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

The Horror. A classical piece that is accessible to the hoi polloi, darling.
I wonder what Dickon Sowerby would think about all the fuss. It was while he was watching a lark that he heard and saved a new-born lamb. Mistress Mary, of course, would say the tantrum of the wokerati is nothing but hysterics, hysterics, hysterics.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I’m going to start my own ‘progressive’ campaign. It will probably be called #notelites.
The key goal is to perpetually cancel the word ‘elite’, as in ‘Why the Elites hate Vaughan Williams.’ The elites are, almost without exception, elite only in their own minds.
I don’t want to impoverish the language, though. There will have to be an acceptable alternative to ‘elite’. Perhaps ‘self-regarding’ although that’s a bit clunky. Perhaps ‘twit’ will suffice. Suggestions welcome.

Charles Lawton
Charles Lawton
2 years ago

Can’t stop laughing, I voted remain mainly for trade reasons and the unity of the UK, but accepted the outcome and have always thoroughly enjoyed RVW’s music. Although I like The Lark Ascending, never voted for it, just a bit boring that it is always the top slot, but what the hell if people like it that much it’s fine by me. I wonder when someone is going to start saying the same about Elgar’s music? (Maybe not there are some pieces with “foreign sounding names”)
Whilst on the subject I always smile when Beethoven’s 9th is played, This piece was actually commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London in 1817, so the irony is never lost on me when it gets a bad press from the leave camp. Honestly, let’s debate what our country needs to do, to be a successful modern democracy, but not label our composers like this.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Lawton

They commissioned it but then Beethoven sold it to someone else as well who performed it before London did. However the Philharmonic Society were forgiving people and voted a grant of money for his comfort and care on hearing that his life was nearing an end.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago

dltd.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

OMG. I just checked through my smartphone. As well as the Lark Ascending, I have his Fantasia on Greensleeves, Linden Lea, The Vagabond (probably recalling the Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1497, the Vagrancy Act of 1547, and the Vagabonds Act of 1597), Over Hill, Over Dale. Really, old chap.
And then his cantata Hodie. Good Lord old chap. I thought that cantatas went out with the younger Bach.

Chelcie Morris
Chelcie Morris
1 year ago

The Lark Ascending reminds me a lot of the score from The Lord of the Rings. It’s beautiful, envokes emotions while also being very relaxing and feeling like you’re “home”.