The Lark Ascending’s Bristol roots

It is little known that one of the nation’s favourite pieces of music, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, was first performed in a version for violin and piano at Shirehampton Public Hall on 15 December 1920.

Ahead of our live broadcast of The Lark Ascending centenary concert in partnership with Bristol Ensemble and soloist Jennifer Pike, we’ve delved into the history of its first performance.

The composer – Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is among the greatest and most popular of British composers.

Vaughan Williams was a friend of Philip Napier Miles, a composer and grandee of Shirehampton who lived at Kings Weston House, and championed Vaghan-Wiliams’ music. It is unclear when the men first met, although they would have moved in the same musical circles, and would both have known Hubert Parry while attending the Royal College of Music in the late 1800s.

Vaughan Williams first visited the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society in November 1914. That same year, he had started work on The Lark Ascending, but was interrupted by the war. He served with the Royal Ambulance Medical Corps and the London Field Ambulance, and was involved in the Battle of the Somme. In France in 1918 he was appointed Director of Music for the First Army of the British Expeditionary Force. Upon returning home, Vaughan Williams was able to return to his composition.

The Lark’s composition and first performance

Vaughan Williams revised and finished the piece in 1920. It was always intended as a “Romance for Violin and Orchestra”, but the premiere in Shirehampton was, as the programme notes, “the pianoforte version … made by the Composer himself, who has very kindly given permission for the work to be performed without Orchestra on this occasion.” The work was played directly from Vaughan Williams’ manuscript score in a version for piano and violin.

Click here to see The Lark Ascending original programme.

The completed work was dedicated to Marie Hall, the violinist who performed the premiere and who had helped Vaughan Williams with the revisions while he was staying with Napier Miles at Kings Weston House. Shirehampton Public Hall had been opened by Mrs Sybil Napier Miles in 1904 with the support of Philip Napier Miles, who had given over the land for its construction.

At the top of the score are the opening lines of the poem of the same name by George Meredith, which inspired the composition.

“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.”
George Meredith.

The soloist – Marie Hall

Newcastle-born Marie Hall (pictured above) (1884-1956) was one of the leading violinists of the first half of the 20th century. She was a protegée of Philip Napier Miles, so was the obvious choice for the first performance. She later also gave the premiere of the orchestral version at London’s Queen’s Hall on 14 June 1921.

In 1920, Marie Hall was aged 34, married to her business manager Edward Baring with a daughter, Pauline, and was living in Cheltenham.

Marie Hall played a Stradivarius violin made in 1709 and previously owned by the great Italian violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti. It is now known as the “Marie Hall, Viotti” and is owned by the Chi-Mei Culture Foundation in Taiwan.

The conductor – Philip Napier Miles

Philip Napier Miles (1865-1935) was the last Squire of Kings Weston, a great philanthropist and a prominent amateur musician in Bristol.  He studied under Hubert Parry and was a friend of Vaughan Williams, and works by both were featured in the original concert. He built the Shirehampton Public Hall and founded the Avonmouth & Shirehampton Choral Society, of which he was Honorary Conductor.

Napier Miles was a talented amateur composer and many of his works (including several operas) are held in the Philip Napier Miles Archive at Bristol University Library. One of his short songs – “Names” – was also on the programme on 15 December 1920.

Shirehampton Public Hall was built on land given by Philip Napier Miles and opened by Mrs Sybil Napier Miles on 29 September 1904

For more information about the Lark Ascending’s premiere, please visit the Bristol Ensemble website.

With grateful thanks to Andrew Gustar and Bristol Ensemble for supplying the text and images.

Watch The Lark Ascending Centenary concert

On Tuesday 15 December – exactly 100 years on from the first performance – The Lark returns home as Bristol Beacon and Bristol Ensemble invite you to a very special centenary concert, broadcast from the site at which it was first played Shirehampton Public Hall, featuring renowned soloist Jennifer Pike.


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