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Arranging The Lark Ascending for small string ensembles

I discovered the violin and piano version of The Lark Ascending in my youth, and I still remember how much I loved playing the violin part, unaccompanied. I was impressed by the programmatic transformation of the underlying poem as well as the liberating setting of the pentatonic scale and transcendent cadenza. Even then, I was already thinking of adapting this wonderful work for a different instrumentation.

Nowadays, The Lark Ascending is one of the most important and best-known compositions of Ralph Vaughan Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958). Originally composed for violin and piano in 1914, the work was inspired by a poem of George Meredith, a hymn to the song of the skylark written in 1881. In 1920, Vaughan Williams adapted his piece for violin and orchestra. This version was premiered in 1921, and today is one of the most popular classical pieces worldwide.

My personal goal when arranging other composers’ works is to achieve a strict authenticity. It´s an arranger’s main challenge. Every composer possesses a unique idiosyncrasy of style, instrumentation, and structure. In my opinion these individualities must be completely understood before starting an arrangement. Therefore, the first step here was to structurally compare the original version for violin and piano with the later version for violin and orchestra. Interestingly, Vaughan Williams created a piano part that translates very naturally into string writing. He used full-sounding wider intervals for the bassline and put the higher music lines into the corresponding overtone range, making the sound generally richer. He used the same principles when creating his orchestral version, adding wind instruments to expand the acoustic colour without changing the overall effect.

So how does one adapt an arrangement of a full orchestral score for just four or six strings? The answer is: to analyse the shape and structure of the main musical idea and try to re-compose the work in the composer’s own style — as if he himself had originally composed it for string quartet or string sextet. That means bringing the characteristic sounds of those instruments into focus by carefully adapting the original score.

Figure 20 from The Lark Ascending score for string quartet – triangle effect. Copyright OUP.

When arranging an orchestral work, the most difficult task is to convince the audience that all the original music lines have been included, even though some material has been intentionally omitted. Sometimes this is necessary to ensure that the new instrumentation creates the right effect without losing the authenticity of the original. To achieve that, however, subtle additions can be needed. These must always be structurally derived from the analysis of Vaughan Williams’s own orchestration principles.

To give a descriptive example: there is a section of trills of the solo violin in the middle part of the composition accompanied by a triangle (Allegro tranquillo, figure 20). Often percussion instruments are just omitted in arrangements, especially when they are unpitched like the triangle. But in this special case the triangle has a significant meaning within that music sequence. It’s an important rhythmical marker that represents a concluding off-beat contrasting with the trills of the solo violin. Every listener who knows the orchestral version of The Lark Ascending remembers the triangle, at least subconsciously. The importance of the triangle becomes evident as soon as it’s omitted. It sounds as if something is missing. So how to translate the sound of a bright, unpitched percussion instrument into one played by a strictly tonal stringed instrument? I decided to imitate the course of the sound when a triangle is struck. Put simply, the sound is initially strong but short-lived, followed by a quiet high-pitched final sound. To represent the initial strike, I therefore combined a pizzicato harmonic on the cello with a high-pitched harmonic on one of the upper strings.

I think the unique aspect of both arrangements is the new balance between solo violin and accompanying strings. The reduced accompaniment allows a fresh focus on the subtle tone colours and phrasing of the solo violin and results in a new kind of performance never heard before.

I have always been an admirer of Vaughan Williams‘s music. Arranging The Lark Ascending has been a privilege which has allowed me to pay a small, humble tribute to Vaughan Williams’s extraordinary and beautiful composition.

Featured image credit: Cello and three violinsby Leonidovich via Shutterstock.

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