The Lark Ascending is a romance for violin and orchestra that Vaughn Williams composed in 1914 at the age of 42. Vaughn Williams is considered a late bloomer as a composer, having studied composition with Max Bruch in Berlin and Ravel (who was three years younger than he) in Paris before finally finding his voice.
Like Bartok in Hungary and Romania, Vaughn Williams and his friend, the fellow composer, Holst went out into the the countryside and collected folk songs, whose melodies he wove into his own compositions. He gave them new life with the mix of modern and traditional orchestration, and his works are as lush as the Cotswolds where he grew up.
The Lark Ascending is based on the poem by George Meredith, which you can read here. I find the music amazingly evocative of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” A few tentative trills on the violin and the piece soars off the score and bears us aloft. The piece remains to this day one of my favorites and every time I put it on my wife, Laura, says, “What’s the name of this piece.” Considering she not as avid a classical music fan as I, that’s quite a recommendation.
Speaking of birds, check out the following description of my stay in Nice, France, in 1977.
The Gull Ascending
In February of 1977, after a few days spent in Cannes, France, I took the train to Nice. My plan was to find a small hotel in a quite neighborhood and spend my time trying to get to know the locals and improve my spoken French. By the time I checked into the Hotel Olympia, however, all I wanted to do was sleep. I was running a fever, had a horrible sore throat, and had a deep, bronchial cough that sometimes woke me at night. The weather on the coast was balmy and sometimes sunny and the people in the hotel suggested I stay until Carnival. Carnival in Nice supposedly drew almost as many people back then as Carnival in Venice, I was told.
The Hotel Olympia had little in the way of charm,being sandwiched in a tall apartment building. The furniture dated from the late 50s and early 60s-a large armoire, a low bed, a writing desk, and a small sink. The double doors were huge and thick with a complicated series of levers connected to a central lock. The key, which was about as big as a tablespoon, moved the levers, which shot deadbolts into the floor and the lintel. The room was cavernous, however, and at the far end a tall set of windows opened out over some smaller houses, with red tile roofs. The sun poured in and I found it a good place to write.
Before leaving Paris, I had purchased a portable backpacking propane stove and used it to heat water for tea in the morning and Knorr soup for lunch and dinner. Sometimes, I’d splurge for myself and buy some blood sausage, which I’d fry in a small frying pan that came with the stove’s mess kit. It sounds pretty squalid, but I loved the idea of having a kind of garret where I could pretend to be a starving artist.
Though lacking in amenities, the Hotel Olympia more than gave me my money’s worth in hospitality. My cough worried the proprietor and his wife. One night at about two in the morning, I woke in a fit of coughing. Someone knocked on the door. It was the proprietor. “Vous etes souffrant?” (Are you suffering?) he asked. I was touched by his concern. They did not own a TV and it was rare when I hear a radio from their room. They spent most evenings playing Scrabble.
One day, I think I really flummoxed them. Remember that heavy old door with the complicated levers? Well, one day, a screw connecting one part of it fell off. That made it impossible to remove the deadbolts, thereby imprisoning me in the room. I banged on the wall to get the proprietor’s attention. He ran to the door. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” (What’s the matter?) he asked. I didn’t know the word for lever, so I used a false cognate. “Le Louvre est cassé!” I shouted back. There was a dead silence on the other side of the door. Then “Comment?” (What?) I had just announced that the Louvre art museum in Paris was broken!
Nice suited me just fine, and I quickly developed a routine. I would rise with the sun and have a quick breakfast. Then I’d start to write. Sometimes I’d go to a small café nearby and scribble away in my notebook on a short story I had begun. After a few hours, I would go out to explore the city-its old quarter, the grand “Promenade des Anglais” (or boardwalk), and the lemon-tree lined streets. Nice was founded in 350 BCE by Greek settlers from nearby Marseilles and it was part of the Kingdom of The Two Sicilies, the Italian city state of Savoie, and even attacked in 1543 by the Turks under the direction of feared pirate Barberousse (Red Beard.)
I found myself drawn to the sea. The coast of the Mediterranean formed a semi-protected bay called the Baie Des Anges (Bay of the Angels.) I tried to go to the beach and look at the sea at least once a day. Coming from the Midwest, it was the first time I had ever seen an ocean, and it never ceased to amaze me. Every day, the water looked different. Some days it was choppy with white caps. On others, huge roaring waves stirred up the bottom and gave the cobalt-blue water a brownish cast. The beach also surprised me–it was covered with smooth round shaped rocks about 2 inches in diameter that had been worn smooth over the eons.
For February, the weather was quite sunny and despite the stiff breeze, there were usually a few sunbathers on the beach. One day, I walked up toward and around the peninsula, which juts out and divides the touristic part of the city from the port. In the shelter of the huge volcanic rocks at the end of the beach, a woman lay with no top on sunning herself. Her face seemed old, but the body was young. Another woman close by shifted her position and then let her hand glide several times over her stomach before letting it come to rest by her side. The sun shone down on their bronze, oily bodies. The beach stretched out from under them and drowned itself in the white foam and blue-green marble of the sea. Waves crashed into the rocks, exploding and sending a shower of water skyward. I had a kind of mystical experience in which I felt connected to the earth and the sea and all the generations of seafarers and conquerors–going back to Ulysses and the Phoenicians–who had passed by these shores.
I climbed up the east side of the peninsula on which stands a huge cactus and cypress covered hill. The steps wound up and along the way I must have come across 10 or more cats. Some I surprised clutching a morsel of food; they slid off into the underbrush. Others surprised me as I flew up the steps. I reached the top on which stands a huge park, a cascade, and the ruins of a tenth century cathedral. I rummaged around the latter for some time. I walked seaward over to the southern point of the promontory across a grassy field where a sign proclaimed “Jeu de Ballons” was “interdit.” I looked over the cactus and out to the sea. It was midday, and the silver pathway which lead out over the sea and up to the sun was long, due south, and wide. I came across two mimosa trees in full bloom, their sulfur colored flowers flowed out of the their tops and cascaded down over the olive-green foliage. Below, where it fell, grew daisies and lilac, which huge bees were busy working.
The lavender and its smell swayed in the breeze. I felt a feeling of vertigo for an instant as I looked down; the water seemed an infinite distance away. Then a white gull flew out from the rocks below me and was framed by the blue gray of the sea. I felt very sensually aroused. I thought of living bodies lying close together. I saw beautiful bronzed skin, freshly oiled, shining in the sun close together. I passed my hand over my stomach and felt the light hair growing there. I sighed and felt very comfortable, in spite of the slightly erotic images being called to my mind–or perhaps because of them. Why not? All of my senses were keyed up and aware of the things around me–why not wish I were lying next to a loved one or in the arms of a woman caressing and touching and being intimate? There was no reason not to be, but I did not feel worse off for the fact that I was here alone.
Rereading the description of the seagull above convinces me of the appropriateness of The Lark Ascendingfor today’s piece.