Vaughan Williams and His English Pastoral Music

Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the quintessential composers of the "English Pastoral Tradition"(Photo:
Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the quintessential composers of the "English Pastoral Tradition"(Photo:

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1955) is one of the quintessential composers of what has been called the “English Pastoral Tradition” in music, often referring to works that express the beauty and harmony of man and nature in the countryside.

To some people it means “boring,” but to others it is music of supreme peace and solace.

Paradoxically, it can be music that unites the upward impulse of spiritual longing and fulfillment with a firm grounding and appreciation of this solid and beautiful earth. This is nowhere more apparent than in Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” from 1914 (revised in 1920 and first performed in 1921).

“The Lark Ascending” is a 15 minute tone poem for violin and orchestra based on a poem of the same name by George Meredith.  It is a work of serene lyrical beauty in which the solo violin represents the ascending skylark rising above a gorgeous impressionistic English landscape.

It climbs ever and ever higher until it is barely visible from the ground on which the viewer’s feet remain firmly planted but whose spirit, like the skylark, has soared heavenward.

Vaughan Williams wrote music expressing other themes as well: A London Symphony (No. 2)  is his tribute to a great city, and some of the other of his 9 symphonies are anything but pastoral (No. 4 from 1935 is a violent and often dissonant piece), but it is the more serene music that resulted from his immersion in poetry, literature, folk-music, and early church music that most defines his style for many.

More Pastoral Works

“Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus” and the “Fantasia on a Theme” by Thomas Tallis are known to many for their great beauty and timeless quality.

Among other symphonies, No. 5 from 1943 (heard recently on Symphony at 7) is a supremely consoling work inspired by John Bunyan‘s spiritual allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”

The 3rd, “A Pastoral Symphony” from 1922, is a Cortot landscape in music inspired by Vaughan Williams’s time in France during the First World War as an ambulance driver. It also has a part for worldless soprano voice, bringing the human element into the picture.

If you want to hear Vaughan Williams in a more extroverted mood, his early overture for “The Wasps” (written for a production of the satiric play by Aristophanes) will wake you up.

But if something that restores a sense of peace is needed, “The Lark Ascending” will do the trick. This is music that can lower blood pressure, calm the nerves, and soothe the spirit, all without a prescription and no side effects other than increased equanimity.

This selection I found on YouTube is long enough to give you a good feeling of the piece if you don’t already know it.  It begins very quietly and slowly rises in volume.