The Lark Ascending
My father grew to love classical music later in life, after spending his boyhood in real poverty during the Great Depression in rural Utah outside Salt Lake City, after lying about his age in order to join the army during World War ll, after spending four years fighting fascism inside a tank somewhere in Italy, after marrying my mother, a first generation Italian immigrant and high school contemporary, after earning a college degree in forestry on the GI Bill and after conceiving two daughters.
Although those facets of his life’s events are commonly known, it is his love of classical music that for me embodies his true essence. He favored rich, full bodied, heart pumping mad dashes to the finish line like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture complete with cannon fire, The New World Symphony by Dvorak and just about everything by Sibelius. Occasionally he could listen to the more deliberate and calculated music of Mozart or Wagner but he didn’t delight in them nor did he appreciate the current music of the day which was rarely played in our home. My sister and I may have been the only two kids in 1964 America that, without even knowing it, missed the Beatles iconic performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
It was inevitable then that when he died after an exhausting and painful battle with prostate cancer, music would be part of his memorial service. Years earlier he had shared with my mother a vivid account of a piece called The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams. The passion behind that conversation came back to her in the days after his death. She tells of his intensity as he described what he had heard and the wonderment he felt at the lyrical beauty of the music. Surprisingly though, even after this early glowing appraisal no one in our immediate family had ever heard the it.
This particular piece of music as well as its composer has always been quite popular with the Brits, Vaughn Williams being a favorite son but neither are as well known here and it felt like a miracle when a family friend with connections to the classical music community arranged for a violinist and pianist to play at my father’s memorial. And so in a simple mortuary chapel on a cold January day with the solace of family and friends, the duet began. The composition is quiet and guileless. It evokes the warmth of a gentle sun and the caress of a light breeze, a bird’s song, the flutter of wings, green rolling hills, a clear blue sky and clouds of cotton. It stirs feelings of reverence and gratitude for the simplest of joys that life offers. The melody flutters upward, tumbles lightheartedly and at last rises again toward the unseen heavens, softly disappearing and leaving one longing for that ephemeral state of grace.
The music captured the imagination of so many people in the chapel on that day. For us it felt like time stopped. For fourteen minutes there was no anguish, no regrets about the past, no fear of the future. The notes simply distilled into beauty, compassion and love.
In January it will be 22 years since I first heard that touching theme but over the years I have found many occasions to listen again. I am sometimes sad, recalling a deep loss, sometimes encouraged at the hopefulness the music inspires and sometimes sweetly content. I have come to see that this piece is not only an intimate connection with my father but it also embodies something else too; a reminder that life is a miracle and that by living fully and deeply, we may recognize and experience the state of grace next time it appears.
(NOTE) The Lark Ascending is based on a poem of the same name by George Meredith which has over 120 verses. But as I read the three that the composer selected as those that influenced him the most, I was astounded to see how the notes composed by one master and words compiled by another became a mirror and its reflection.
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.