The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams

This Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra by Ralph (pronounced Rafe, like Ralph Fiennes) Vaughan Williams is an astounding achievement. Especially in Britain, this piece has become one of the most popular of this generation, often topping classical music charts (yes, there are classical music charts). Interestingly, The Lark Ascending is not a new piece. It’s been around since the 1920’s. These last ten years or so, it seems Vaughan Williams’ music is experiencing its own little Renaissance, and thank goodness for that because The Lark Ascending may very well be my favorite instrumental piece.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is a quintessential Contemporary composer. His music borrows from myriad avenues such as previous classical works, folk tunes, world music, literature, anything he can get his hands on. This smorgasbord approach to music composition is indicative of the Contemporary period of music. The Contemporary period is certainly marked by, and possibly caused by, the development of recording technology. With music of all shapes and sizes at their fingertips, composers were given a playground of sounds to explore. This particular piece covers pretty much every aspect that makes Contemporary music great.

So what makes this piece special? Is it beautiful? What makes it beautiful? What emotions are being portrayed? Does this piece paint a picture for you? What of?

Upon first listening to this music, you may think to yourself, this sounds kind of… Asian? To that I say, good catch. You’ve got a musical ear! That’s because a large portion of this piece is composed using a pentatonic scale. (There she goes using big music words again.) Pentatonic scales are made up of five notes. Have you ever noticed that if you plink out a tune on a piano using nothing but the black keys, it sounds like Asian music? (Just to be clear, when I say “Asian music”, I am only referring to those Asian countries that use pentatonic scales, like China and Japan. Countries like the Philippines and India have their own scales.) That is because there are five black keys for every seven white keys. The white keys make up our diatonic scale. The black keys make up the pentatonic scale. (For musician readers, I am, of course, referring to the C major scale.) Like the Debussy piece we covered, this different scale is very effectively used to make us forget about the tonic (home base).

As the violin, representing the lark, plays notes from the pentatonic scale, the orchestra accompanies, often using our own diatonic scale. This gives us the sense that the violin is flying above them. By never letting the violin touch home base, the lark never has to touch the ground. The orchestra, I think, begins as the wind, the breeze which the lark caches with ease. It effortlessly rides the calm current, relishing in the freedom of living above gravity, all the while singing joyfully.

The title The Lark Ascending: a Romance for Violin and Orchestra refers to the love the skylark holds for his home. In this case, the home is England. After the otherworldly, freeing melody of the skylark’s song, the orchestra changes the song at around 6:00, offering up a simple English folk tune. Now we have a setting. The lark is no longer just soaring on the wind but exploring the gorgeous English countryside. You see the sprawling valleys, and the lark soars effortlessly above them. The orchestra and violin begin to mimic each other, at one with another. The exhilaration of opening motif is now abandoned for a calmer, sweeter love song, which the countryside and the bird sing back and forth. This ends with the lark itself singing the English folk tune and the orchestra accompanying, and they join together in a solemn and meditative harmony. The flight begins again, this time calm and composed. At 13:00, the lark’s song begins again, sweet and supple, without the orchestra accompaniment. The lark’s song fills the void of empty quiet and slowly fades to silence.

Ralph Vaughan Williams included a portion of a poem by George Meredith with this piece.

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.

So, did Vaughan Williams capture these words? Can we hear the sound of the lark’s delicate song, the chirrups and whistles? Do we see the valley, quietly enfolding the lark like a golden cup? I think so.

P.S.- While this version of the music is gorgeous in its own right, it’s not actually my favorite recording. David Nolan certainly plays a lovely melody, but I feel the tempo is a rushed and the dynamics too simple. I was, unfortunately, unable to find a Nigel Kennedy version of The Lark Ascending that was not poor quality or split into separate sections. For this, I apologize. If this piece moved you, I urge you to find Nigel Kennedy’s recording of The Lark Ascending. The subtlety and beauty is beyond compare.

Mass for Pope Marcellus by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

 

Have you ever wondered what heaven might sound like? I think it’s filled with the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance. No matter what your religious background, it’s hard to argue with the pure beauty of this music. The line between classical music and sacred music is historically very thin, and during the Early Music period, it was pretty much nonexistent. This is because churches were willing to pay BIG BUCKS for gorgeous music, and frankly, most people back then didn’t realize that it was even possible to have art without religion. Many of the great composers of history, from every time period, wrote works to be performed during the Catholic mass, including Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvorak, just to name a few.

The Catholic Mass is made up of five movements (or sections): Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. (Sometimes the Sanctus et Benedictus is split into two separate movements.) Some masses have added movements depending on the occasion, but these five make up the “meat” of the mass, if you will. The movement I have included for this entry is the first half of the Agnus Dei from the Mass for Pope Marcellus. When trying to get a first impression of a mass, it is often best to start with the final movement, the Agnus Dei, as it will usually cite sections from the previous movements. It also has very simple text, so how a composer sets it will tell you a lot about their particular style.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

This music has a whole lot of meat in it, and I could spout a quite a few musical terms at you to explain it. I’m going to do my best to keep the music jargon to a minimum. The fancy words don’t make it any easier to understand how lovely this music is, but a few of them might help you to explain it to someone else (and possibly even seem like you know what you are talking about when speaking to music professors). So here we go:

Melisma- This is what we call it when you sing a whole lot of notes for just one syllable. Most music today has a very clear-cut rule that one note= one syllable. In fact, Julie Andrews TOLD us that!

At about 3:05, Julie tells us in no uncertain terms that each word (or syllable) gets just ONE note. Wait, so Freulein Maria LIED to us?! Now don’t be too quick to judge her- that’s usually a golden rule, and probably over 80% of music is written this way. But even today, we can find melismas in popular music. Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, Stevie Wonder, they are all masters of melisma.

Polyphony- As if the melisma didn’t make this piece incomprehensible enough, there is the added element of polyphony. That’s where more than one melody is happening at the same time. In this case, it is FOUR different melodies all happening at the same time, weaving in and out of harmony with one another. The phrases start and stop at different points, meaning the words almost never match up among the different voices. This gives the piece an ethereal, ephemeral feel, perfect for the high, echoing domes of grand cathedrals.

There was just one problem. The bishops weren’t quite sure they wanted his music there. During the 1560’s, the Council of Trent convened, and they made a lot of decisions pertaining to faith, the church, and the arts. One of the items up for discussion was the increasing amount of melisma and polyphony in sacred music. The problem? The music became more important than the words. To the church, that was a big no no. During this period, music was not a tool for self expression; its sole purpose was to praise God. Muddled words meant that listeners might forget the important messages and prayers in the text of the mass.

Supposedly, it was the music of Palestrina and this mass in particular, which changed the mind of the Council of Trent. They found his music to be so beautiful that it must certainly be a gift to God. There is, technically, no evidence to back up this widely-held belief. In fact, there may be no tie between Palestrina and the Council of Trent. It is possible that this story, much like that of George Washington and the cherry tree, was made up to prove a point. Palestrina’s music WAS beautiful, and it DID elevate the art form of sacred music. With Palestrina paving the way, and with sacred music allowed to blossom and flourish despite the incomprehensible text, Early Music would soon evolve into the high art of the Baroque period.