The Lark Ascending programme notes
We kick off our 57th Season with a milestone performance by the Orchestra of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, and works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, featuring our hugely talented associate concertmaster, violinist Airdrie Robinson.
Please click here to download and print these programme notes (pdf version).
Series 1 – The Lark Ascending
Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the leading English composers of the first half of the twentieth century. His family was distinguished on both his mother’s and father’s side; his father sprang from a long line of eminent lawyers while his mother was the great granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood, who founded the firm that to this day produces some of the finest English pottery and tableware. Vaughan Williams was first taught piano by an aunt, who also introduced him to the basics of harmony and theory. He was drawn to composition above all and pursued his interest first at the Royal College of Music in London, then at Trinity College, Cambridge. His composition teachers included such leading musical figures as Charles Stanford, Hubert Parry and Henry Wood. Yet Vaughan Williams felt insecure in the craft he learned, and following his graduation from Trinity College in 1895 he continued his studies with Max Bruch in Berlin, and then in 1908, took private lessons from Maurice Ravel in Paris.
There were two musical sources that deeply inspired Vaughan Williams: English folk song, which he began studying and transcribing in 1903, and the music of England’s golden age – the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Tonight it is the folk song influence that we will be hearing in two of the composer’s finest and most popular works.
Vaughan Williams wrote the English Folk Songs Suite for military band in 1923. (Tonight’s orchestral version is an arrangement by the English composer Gordon Jacob, a student of Vaughan Williams’.) This work consists of three movements. The first, a bright march, begins with the jaunty tune, “Seventeen come Sunday” which tells the story of young girl who is happily seduced by a wandering soldier. It is answered by “Pretty Caroline,” a gentle tune telling of the return of a sailor to claim his pretty Caroline. This in turn is followed by the tune “Dives and Lazarus” which is used as the bass-line for a jig-like countermelody. Pretty Caroline then returns, answered by Seventeen come Sunday to round off the movement. The second movement is somewhat darker, consisting of two tunes of betrayed love, the lament “My Bonny Boy,” which frames the movement, and the livelier “Green Bushes.” The last movement is a miniature suite in itself, consisting of four lively folk tunes from Somerset: “Blow Away the Dew, “High Germany,” The Trees so High” and “John Barleycorn.”
The Lark Ascending was written in 1914 for the English violinist Marie Hall. Vaughan Williams referred to it as a romance for violin and orchestra, a term he used for his most lyrical music. It was not performed, however, until 1921, after the composer had revised it in consultation with Hall. The work was inspired by a poem of the same name by the Victorian novelist and poet, George Meredith. The poem begins with a virtuosic description of the lark’s song as it soars above the English countryside. It then turns to the effect of the song on the earth below as it unites the hearts of those who hear it in the spontaneous joy of life. Vaughan Williams inscribed selected lines from the opening and closing of the poem on the flyleaf of the completed work:
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 aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.
Vaughan Williams captures the innocent, rapturous quality of the lark’s song in a rhapsodic solo for the violin that steals in over the first hushed chord of the orchestra and climbs steadily from the instrument’s rich lower register into the heights, swooping and trilling against snatches of a pastoral tune that seem to depict the fields and valleys beneath its wings. A folk-like tune heard first on the flute then answered by the clarinet begins the second half of the piece, suggesting the human life of the countryside, over which the lark continues to fly and sing, culminating in a return to its opening solo, which gently disappears into the ether.
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5
Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the greatest symphonists of the twentieth century. His fifteen symphonies are often seen as his public face, as well as a chronicle of his suffering under the Stalinist regime. The Fifth Symphony, in particular, is associated with one of the most serious crises in Shostakovich’s life. It was composed from April to June of 1937 at the height of Stalin’s vicious purges of the intelligentsia and government. The incident that sparked these purges was the assassination of Stalin’s right-hand man, Sergey Kirov, in Leningrad on December 1, 1934. In all probability Stalin was the instigator of the plot, He then used the incident as a springboard to wipe out all suspected opposition. Immediately forty thousand inhabitants of Leningrad were arrested on alleged complicity in the assassination and sent to labour camps. Over the next two years the campaign of terror spread into the government and intellectual and artistic circles and finally culminated in the horrendous show trials of 1937-1938. Millions were sent to forced labour, others simply disappeared.
At the beginning of this period Shostakovich was one of Russia’s most successful composers. He was confident enough in his position in 1935 to even publicly criticise the new Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, which demanded that all artistic works be optimistic paeans to the state. Then on January 28, 1936 his world fell apart. An editorial on the front page of Pravda attacked his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk as an insult to the Soviet People and threatened the composer if he didn’t change his ways. It was universally understood that the editorialist was Stalin himself. In grave personal danger, Shostakovich was forced to recant. He then withdrew his ambitious Fourth Symphony from rehearsals and fell silent, but only momentarily. The following year he produced his Fifth Symphony which many considered to be his answer to the attack on his art. Its premiere in Leningrad on November 21, 1937 was a resounding success, with the audience giving it a rapturous ovation for almost forty minutes. It was officially deemed to be, to quote the imposed subtitle, “A Soviet artist’s creative answer to just criticism.”
For some time this understanding of the composer’s intent was generally accepted, but beginning in the 1970s and in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, a deeper understanding of the composer and his work emerged from the witness of close friends who emigrated to the west, including his son Maxim. Of particular importance was the book Testimony by the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov, published in 1979, which purported to relay the composer’s own words about his music and ideas. The Fifth Symphony is now seen as a courageous attack on the Soviet system, and the music itself strongly supports this.
Rather than an optimistic socialist realist work celebrating the state, the Fifth Symphony is unrelentingly bleak and tragic. Its first movement begins in agony with its jagged opening theme. The movement’s centre is overwhelmed by a trite march tune, which the Shostakovich scholar Ian MacDonald sees as a portrait of Stalin. The Scherzo is filled with the grotesque and sarcasm in the style of Mahler, who was a favourite composer of Shostakovich. The slow movement suggests a desolate landscape out of which grows a great cry of anguish. It was this movement that brought the audience to tears at the premiere.
The finale begins with an aggressive, brutal theme accompanied by the pounding of the timpani. It is the sudden transformation of this theme into a bright major conclusion of the work that betrays the sarcastic and subversive nature of the Symphony. There is no motivation for the change. The brightness is exaggerated and the powerful timpani strokes convey more a beating than a celebration. In the words of Volkov’s Testimony: “It’s clear what happens here, someone beats you with a stick saying ‘Your business is rejoicing…, and you rise shakily and go off muttering ‘Our business is rejoicing…’
Dr Brian Black