The Lark Ascending was written in 1914 however the score was thoroughly revised between the years 1919-1920 with the first performance being on December 15th 1920. The performance lasts for approximately 13 minutes and the orchestra consists of two flutes, an oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, a triangle, and strings. The piece was inspired by traditional English folk song and also the works of George Meredith. This is shown in the pastoral style of the piece and depicts a traditional English landscape painting with rolling hills and larks calling to one another.
To introduce the piece two cadenzas inspired by the same melody are performed over a continuous subtle harmony. The piece begins with sustained chords between the string instruments and wind instruments. This gives a relaxed effortless tone to the piece and resembles the calmness and tranquillity of a spring day in England. The violin then enters imitating the lark. The violin plays an ascending pattern with elongated arpeggios. The chords underneath drop out so the violin plays a solo introducing the first theme.
The orchestra is quietly introduced and develops the almost folk like motif. A folk dance theme is then introduced led by the clarinet and flute and woodwinds as the solo cadenza is repeated. The full orchestra then comes in however it is still fairly restrained to imitate the English countryside. There is antiphonal exchange between the solo violin playing a trill and then the woodwinds imitating the bird like call. This is followed by the solo violin playing a series of cadenzas over the orchestra which could represent the lark flying over the countryside and rolling hills.
The shorter cadenza for the soloist is fairly contrasting in comparison to the rest of the piece. There are two separate melodies competing with one another yet also mimicking each other. There is a pentatonic scale pattern which allowed the solo violin to break free from a strong tonal centre. This proves Vaughn Williams impressionistic style. Furthermore the cadenzas in the solo violin have no bar lines allowing a free style liberty for the soloist. Once again the orchestra fade out leaving the lark alone until the original theme is finally reintroduced by the strings.
Eventually the riginal ascending theme played by the violin returns as all the instruments ascend higher and higher until the music fades into silence. In comparison Delius’s “On Hearing the First Cuckoo In Spring” is far shorter in length (approximately 6 minutes) yet still conjures up the same glorious pastoral English scene. The piece was composed in 1912. Similar time frame to The Lark Ascending however Delius composed prior to World War 1 yet Vaughn Williams originally composed Lark Ascending at the beginning of World War 1 and then adapted it after the war into an orchestral piece rather than the original which was intended for piano and violin.
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring was written and a symphonic/tone poem. This meant that it was an orchestral work presented in one movement that depicted a specific poem, painting, novel or landscape. Their purpose is to inspire the listen and evoke memories rather than following the traditional musical sonata form. They are similar in style to programme music. It is suggested that this piece was inspired by Grieg’s arrangement of the Norwegian folksong “Ola Dalom” which concludes with an imitation of a cuckoo.
The piece is once again scored for a reduced orchestra (similar to Lark Ascending) including a flute, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings. It is opened by a sustained major seventh chord on the tonic (C major) to establish a misty morning scene. The oboe continues to introduce a bird-like pattern followed by a triple meter slow string melody with drones richly harmonising in the cellos and basses. This rhythm; crotchet, minim, crotchet minim, is widely used in Delius’s works.
There are passing tones which creates discordance at times when played against the harmonic roots. The strings flutter on the final held note and then the clarinet plays the traditional cuckoo call. Throughout the middle section which is based around the Norwegian folk song, “In Ola Valley” this cuckoo call is reintroduced several times. The strings play a small looping pattern before the end of the managing to create simple yet rich new harmonies. A major chord dies away to silence. This ending is also similar to Lark Ascending as both pieces fade away into silence.