This morning on my way to the track, I listened to The Lark Ascending, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It wasn’t that I chose to listen to this piece. I wasn’t being intentional. It is what was playing on the radio when I turned on my car. I immediately recognized it, and in one of those rare moments while listening to a classical piece, I began to cry.
The Lark Ascending has been working on me for several months now. It’s one of those classical pieces I’ve probably always heard, but never truly known. In the same way I don’t remember hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for the first time, or Holst’s The Planets, or Rossini’s William Tell Overture—at least parts of these, thanks to Saturday morning television—it seems I’ve always contained The Lark Ascending in my memory bank of classical music snippets.
How this song has gained in significance to me, I do not know. There was no lightning strike of profound and sudden brilliance. Instead, it has been a slow, magnificent illumination. What I do know is, when I hear it, the squabbling in my head hushes. The spaces around me expand. And then everything fills with the song of the violin giving wind and lift to a single lark in flight. Everything fills. Myself included.
The Lark Ascending is a tone poem, a term I’d never heard before listening to classical music. A tone poem (or symphonic poem), is exactly what it sounds like: a piece of orchestral music inspired by, and meant to give illustration to some other work of art or beauty in nature: a poem, short story, novel, painting, or landscape. The form was made popular in the 1840s into the early 1920s, before falling out of fashion with composers.
Vaughan Williams wrote The Lark Ascending in 1914, but the piece wasn’t played until 1921 after World War I. He was inspired by a poem of the same name, written by English novelist and poet, George Meredith. At the head of his score, Vaughan Williams wrote twelve lines from the poem:
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
The entire poem is 122 lines long. I have read it only once; sections of it several times. I won’t try and tell what the poem is about. That seems a desecration of the poem. Besides, my understanding of the poem is more in image shining through the words. Somehow, by way of one medium—that particular forming of words—the poet evokes a vision imbued with life. It is a greater meaning than words alone could offer.
Which is exactly what happened this morning as I listened to Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending. I was no longer in my car. Rather, I was in the midst of a company of heaven, a cloud of witnesses, revealing the beauty and the promise of new hope rising, though battle-worn and suffering-scarred we are. The lark takes flight for us, sings with a splendor we cannot right now manage, but know someday we will. Its soaring and its song become for us an icon, tearing through the veil between here and heaven. The veil flutters open in the lark’s wingbeats. And we catch glimpses of eternity.
I am savoring my lark ascending moment, and praying I have the courage to give attention to its witness. The veil, after all, is torn.