“I remember hearing it on the radio as a teenager and thinking ‘not The Lark Ascending again!’” recounts violinist Jennifer Pike, describing an experience common to many violinists. Growing up, it was one of those pieces that seemed to always just be there in the background, a pretty pastorale for long car journeys. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ perennial favourite has received more controversy than it perhaps deserves, sparking never-ending Twitter debates. I’d managed to avoid Lark for years, a remarkable feat for a violinist living in London, but this year a performance opportunity came up that was too good to miss. How to go about learning a piece that I’d long dismissed?

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1915
© Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

Luckily, I had access to three great Lark interpreters: Jennifer Pike, Elena Urioste and Fenella Humphreys, who brought not only a wealth of performance experience but also shared similar processes in coming to terms with the piece. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know it,” says Humphreys, “but what I do remember is having quite a low opinion of it, for no good reason!” Pike shares a similar story: “It was just always there, and in a way, that’s what clouded my perception of it. I got asked to play it when I was 15 and I was so put off by the sheer popularity of it that I didn’t want to do it at all.” Though Urioste’s initial impressions of the piece were more positive, it came with its own set of challenges. “I’d always loved the piece as a teenager,” she says, “and I was really drawn to the challenge of inhabiting the purity of the piece. I’d always imagined it would be a real intonation challenge for me, having grappled with that a lot as a teenager. There’s just nowhere to hide!”

So what changed their minds? “You can’t go at it with a closed mind,” says Humphreys. “Whatever my preconceptions of a piece, I throw them out the window and come at it with open eyes. When I started looking at Lark, I realised just how cleverly written it is! One of the troubles with the piece is that we as violinists always try and make things sound pretty, but if you really play what Vaughan Williams wrote in the score, with all these extremely quiet dynamics, it becomes a completely different piece.” 

Jennifer Pike
© Arno

“It’s really cleverly written, especially rhythmically,” Urioste agrees. “The instinct is to see the senza misura marking and take the cadenza-like nature of it literally, but I think Vaughan Williams wrote all of these very specific note values for a reason. Every time I come back to it, I like to be very precise, almost metronomic, and let the patterns that emerge create its own imagery.” Vaughan Williams structures the piece around three large cadenzas with no bar lines, a surprisingly radical choice for the period. “It’s such an original concept,” explains Pike, “to have these three big cadenzas that frame the piece. You have so much freedom with the rhythm, and it feels improvised even if you stick to what’s written on the page. I was shocked by this the first time I played it, because at the time it was such a forward-looking idea. There are influences from jazz, from folk, not just in terms of the rhythm but the harmonies. Vaughan Williams takes these very modern ideas and turns them into his own musical language.”

Though Lark was originally composed for violin and piano, it is most commonly performed in Vaughan Williams’ own arrangement for violin and orchestra. “Each version brings its own sound world,” explains Pike. “With piano, it’s the most intimate. Instead of the long, held lines you get with orchestra, you have these vertical, bell-like sounds that fit really nicely with the rural tone of the piece.” Humphreys prefers the experience of playing with an orchestra, whether chamber or symphony. “With a chamber orchestra it’s more intimate, but with a big orchestra you get this amazing sonic support behind you. Either way, I love the conversations between the solo violin and the woodwinds as the melody is passed around the stage!” 

Elena Urioste
© Chris Gloag

There’s also an arrangement for violin and choir, which Pike and Urioste have both recently recorded. “This recording was the first time I’d encountered the choral arrangement,” Urioste says, “and I went into it wondering whether I’d have to change the way I played. But it worked so beautifully and translated so seamlessly to voice – I didn’t have to do anything differently with my part!”. Pike had a similar experience with the choral arrangement. “I thought it was an absolutely mad idea! But I was absolutely knocked out by the experience, and how the tone colour of the choir added layers to the piece. I’ve always thought that Lark needs to feel like it’s sung, and I don’t think I fully appreciated that until this experience with choir.”

Despite all of the supposed controversy, Lark has always been a surefire audience hit. “I think that’s part of the problem with the piece,” suggests Humphreys. “It’s so popular, and everyone comes into the concert hall with certain expectations as to how the piece should sound and what it represents. Of course, you don’t usually have people coming to hear it if they hate the piece, but it’s just as much a challenge to bring out new elements of a piece that an audience knows and loves so well.” Both Pike and Urioste focus on the meditative aspects of the piece. “You lose track of time with it,” explains Pike, “and it takes you to this meditative place, full of tranquillity”. “It affords the listener a great deal of space to sit quietly,” agrees Urioste. “It’s the kind of music that you can project whatever you’re feeling or needing, and that’s why I love it as a violinist and as an audience member. How often do we just get to sit for 15 minutes and breathe and meditate?”

Fenella Humphreys
© Matthew Johnson

So why all the controversy? “I couldn’t believe it when I saw things kicking off on Twitter recently,” exclaims Humphreys. “People got so angry on both sides, and it’s not something that deserves that amount of anger. It’s probably a mix of a lot of things, but I think people in both camps are angry that this one piece is always singled out, either amongst all of Vaughan Williams’ music or amongst all of the music that was written in Britain at that time. There’s so much amazing music that was written around that time that’s been forgotten, and if we could just swap out a few performances of Lark for some of these scores, maybe that would make for a more interesting musical scene!” Pike agrees that Lark has been unfairly caught up in a much larger debate. “It’s one of those pieces that induces so much anxiety for some reason, with this perception that it’s music for people who don’t know anything about classical music. It’s such a terrible way of thinking, because music really should be accessible to everyone no matter your knowledge of classical music!”

One aspect that all three violinists touched on was the perceived Britishness of the piece, placing it in the middle of a much wider political debate. “As someone who is not British, it definitely seems quintessentially British,” says Urioste, “but whenever I perform it abroad, it’s always received very well. It’s a piece that’s very out in the open, and that makes it universal in spite of this perceived Britishness.” Meanwhile, Pike argues that Lark may not be all that British after all. “I always bristle at the description of it being quintessentially British,” she explains. “Vaughan Williams studied in France with Ravel and in Germany with Bruch, and all of these influences were so important to his style. And in Lark we see him pulling influences from further afield with jazz – it’s not so much jazz-influenced as it is allied with harmonic and rhythmic influences from all around the world, so trying to isolate him into this flag-waving British composer is completely wrong to me.” Debates on nationalism in music are nothing new, but in contemporary England it can take a much more tangible form. “I had a very interesting time performing this piece right after the Brexit referendum,” recounts Pike. “I was so upset that day, and I was worried how the audience might react and that it would be perceived as something celebratory. But the audience reaction was so amazing – it was so emotional and cathartic, like a healing experience for all of us onstage and off.”

Marie Hall, dedicatee and premiere performer of The Lark Ascending
© Public domain | Rapid Photo Company

So where does that leave me, a Lark sceptic? “Keep an open mind and don’t do what I did, which was to judge it too quickly,” advises Pike. “Go look at the score,” suggests Humphreys. “Look at what he actually wrote, rather than what you think he wrote. That’s what changed my opinion of the piece.” Urioste takes a more abstract approach: “Sit back, do some deep breathing, and come to it with an open mind. It’s one of those pieces that can be subtly transformative if you allow yourself to be open to the experience.”