Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Classics: Who can resist the "elaborate" and "extravagant" song of the high-flying lark?


"[Larks] have more elaborate calls than most birds, and often extravagant songs given in display flight. These melodious sounds (to human ears), combined with a willingness to expand into anthropogenic habitats -- as long as these are not too intensively managed -- have ensured larks a prominent place in literature and music, especially the Skylark in northern Europe and the Crested Lark and Calandra Lark in southern Europe." -- Wikipedia. Pictured above: a skylark.

"Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,
And Phoebus 'gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes:
With every thing that pretty is,
My lady sweet, arise:
Arise, arise."

-- Cloten's song from Cymbeline, Act II, Scene 3

In the first 2:32 of the clip, tenor Fritz Wunderlich sings the first stanza of "Horch', die Lerche singt im Hain," the German rendering of Shakespeare's "Hark, hark! the lark" which Otto Nicolai gave to the love-besotted young Fenton in his Merry Wives of Windsor. The clip continues with the duet between Fenton and the object of his affections, Anna Reich (the young Edith Mathis), from EMI's lovely 1962 recording of the complete opera conducted by Robert Heger. You'll notice that in the course of the duet Fenton sings his lark song again!

by Ken

Not much to look at is our little friend the lark.

Some years ago, I guess it was, I was hooked up to a project with someone who wanted some classical music for a particular use. I went at it with gusto, and soon had put together a list of short pieces I thought would be highly recognizable and appealing. Of course I didn't stop there. Soon I was putting pieces together in miniature suites, built around all kinds of themes: waltzes, marches, polkas, fanfares, Americana. Since I was making up my own rules as I went, it wasn't long before the concept had grown to sets of three or even four pieces totaling 15-20 minutes. I had a grand time swapping pieces in and out, and especially swapping performances in and out. Since the whole thing was being done digitally, I was limited to things I had on CD and could rip into MP3 form -- the first time I had ever used iTunes.

Of course all the excitement was happening in my head. As proud as I was of my little lists, which I was sure would be so much better than what narrow expectation the client had in mind, it turned out that the client didn't give a damn about any of it. Nevertheless, I was able to provide assistance with the client's own choice, and most important, I got paid. And I have to say, I had worlds of fun playing with all these wonderful little pieces -- and even occasional not-so-little ones. Once I had expanded the overall time frame to 15-20 minutes, as I recall, I was able to do a Brahms group that included the slow movement of the Brahms Double Concerto (which all these years later found its way into the first of the series of Sunday Classics Brahms pieces), and I remember trying to find a performance of the Scherzo of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony that sounded OK in MP3 form.

More recently I had occasion to be thinking again about some sort of very basic classical-music programming, and I thought of those old lists. Eventually I found a printout of one version of them, but the music files must have been on a different computer, and I had to re-create them. It was a great opportunity to redo the whole project, actually, and I was startled by how dramatically my CD holdings had grown in the intervening years. Drawing just on my own collection, I almost always had much better choices available. Well, that too exceeded the interest level of the prospective host -- by about 100 percent.

I think that version too is on the wrong computer, but it doesn't matter much, since the music files would be useless as long as I can't figure out how to incorporate audio files into our format. But I suddenly found myself thinking about one of my favorite groupings, which I called something like "Three Larks."

Now, it's not as if there's a vast literature of lark-inspired music. Setting aside Schubert, who had a veritable exaltation ( the applicable collective term, according to Wikipedia) of larks flit through his songs, including a setting of "Horch', horch', die Lerche" itself (not a major Schubert song, but there's a socko performance by the irresistible Richard Tauber from the film Blossom Time, in which he played Schubert), there are three musical specimens of larkdom that have little in common except that they're all spectacularly and effusively beautiful -- "extravagant songs in display flight" indeed.


The Skylark is 16 to 18 cm long. It is a bird of open farmland and heath, known throughout its range for the song of the male, which is delivered in hovering flight from heights of 50 to 100 m, when the singing bird may appear as just a dot in the sky from the ground. The song generally lasts 2 to 3 minutes, but it tends to last longer later in the season. The male has broader wings than the female. This adaptation for more efficient hovering flight may have evolved because of female Skylarks' preference for males that sing and hover for longer periods and so demonstrate that they are likely to have good overall fitness.

Note that Fenton's ravishing aria from Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, at 2 1/2 minutes, is of perfect skylark length. (Note too that this isn't our first encounter with this opera. The magical Overture was one of our prime specimens of "comfort music.") Where Nicolai makes excellent use of the flute to suggest the lark's "hovering flight," our other larkmasters, Franz Josef Haydn and Ralph Vaughan Williams, turned to the violin.

The Lindsay Quartet plays the first movement of Haydn's Lark Quartet.

This opening movement of Haydn's Lark Quartet -- or, more properly, the Quartet in D major, Op. 64, No. 5 -- is another of those pieces that I'm prone to obsess over, and listen to 10 or 20 or 30 times in a row. It begins with a trompe l'oreille piece of musical misdirection of which Haydn was a master. For nearly a full eight bars, the second violin, viola, and cello announce what sounds like an almost childishly simple, bouncy main theme.

(The simplicity, by the way, is deceptive. Sample some of the many amateur performances posted on YouTube, and you'll discover quickly that what looks so simple on the page can be excruciatingly difficult to execute with seemingly effortless ease. I think it's wonderful that all these young people are trying to play the piece, and I'll bet they're all having fun making their fingers and bow arms produce something that recognizably resembles its. I just don't understand why they would wish to make their not-very-successful efforts public.)

But then, off the downbeat of that eighth bar, the heretofore-silent first violin slips in and takes larklike flight in a seemingly free-form melody that seems unrelated to the tune that the rest of the quartet has sounded -- except that it isn't. That bouncy opening theme continues as both a countertheme and a perfect accompaniment to the lark's song.

Dutch violinist Janine Jansen (25 at the time) is the soloist in The Lark Ascending at the July 2003 "Nation's Favourite" Prom, with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth. (The second half of the piece is here.)

"Romance for violin and orchestra" is Ralph Vaughan Williams' formal designation for this haunting pastoral meditation inspired by George Meredith's poem "The Lark Ascending," with the solo violin of course representing the flight of the lark. The piece is roughly 15 minutes of some of the most sheerly beautiful music I know. There's no question that the image of the lark's song fired VW's imagination, and I really don't know anything quite like his Lark, by him or anyone else. It's a glorious piece to listen to in a darkened room when you're in need of a mind relaxer, but it can also be a wonderful tool for focusing your attention.

The Lark was written in 1914 and revised in 1920. The composer could be fairly cranky over attempts to link his works to historical events. In response to a critic's suggestion that his conflict-ridden Sixth Symphony, begun in 1944 (which is to say the year before World War II ended) and completed in 1947, was his "War Symphony," he objected, "It never occurs to these people that a man might just want to write a piece of music." And so he would perhaps have downplayed the coincidence that the two versions of The Lark bracket World War I.

It took The Lark a surprisingly long time to catch on with the public, but by now it has become almost inescapable. One curiosity of its history with the public is that it has tended to s-t-r-e-t-c-h over time. The very pleasing performance begun in our clip runs up toward the 16-minute vicinity. When Sir Adrian Boult, probably the conductor most closely associated with Vaughan Williams, recorded the piece in 1952, it took him 13:20; when he recorded it again in 1967, it expanded to 14:42. On the whole this seems reasonable. As audiences became more familiar with it, it's likely that they accepted and even welcomed more leisurely traversals. It only becomes a problem if The Lark Ascending begins to turn into The Lark Wallowing.

One last thought about our three musical larks: The unfortunately not-terribly-long-lived Nicolai (1810-1849) would certainly have known Haydn's Lark Quartet, and Vaughan Williams would have been familiar with both Haydn's lark and Nicolai's. Can this be heard in the music?


According to Wikipedia, North America is lark-challenged. The only lark we have is the shore lark (pictured above), which for reasons unknown to me we choose to call the horned lark.

Our horned lark is apparently not highly thought of amongst the lark family. "Vocalizations are high-pitched, lisping or tinkling, and weak. The song, given in flight as is common among larks, consists of a few chips followed by a warbling, ascending trill." Oh well, I suppose it's better than nothing.


Haydn: Lark Quartet

The Lark has always been one of the most popular of Haydn's quartets, though perhaps more as a novelty item than as one of the great Haydn quartets, which it undoubtedly is. Played by competent professionals, it's a hard piece to spoil, which makes choosing a recording a lot easier.

Partly it depends what kind of lark you're imagining. The Lindsays, in our clip, give a performance of the first movement that by today's standards is brisk, though not as brisk as was once common -- as in a wonderful live performance by the Hungarian Quartet recorded at U.S.C. in 1951, included in Music and Arts' rewarding eight-CD compendium of "Historical Recordings and Public Performances" by the Hungarian. There is a Lindsay performanceavailable, in a two-CD collection of "Six Popular String Quartets" by Haydn, but I'm not a big Lindsay fan. For a performance along these lines, if you're prepared to invest in a lot of Haydn, I would suggest DG's lovely seven-CD set of the Amadeus Quartetrecordings of Haydn's Opp. 51, 54, 55, 64, 71, 74.

As with Vaughan Williams' lark, Haydn's seems to have become a slower flier over the years, conrtrary to the general trend toward faster tempos in Haydn fast movements. (In addition to slower tempos, modern performances of the first movement of the Lark have been lengthened by standard inclusion of the repeat, once rarely observed.)

At a slower tempo you need really unanimous ensemble and a first violinist who can really make our lark sing. I don't think it's coincidence that I'm offering two (more!) performances by Hungarian quartets and one by a Czech quartet.

The complete Haydn quartets have now been traversed a number of times on records. For me the most flavorful series is the one by the veteran Tatrai Quartet on Hungaroton, and I have no hesitation in recommending the two-CD set of all six Op. 64 quartets. At budget price, the Kodaly Quartet's disc of Op. 64, Nos. 4-6, is an excellent buy.

Unfortunately, I can't find a current listing for the recording I was going to suggest as my favorite from this round of relistening: a Praga CD by the Prazak Quartet containing richly songful performances of the Lark Haydn's Op. 20, No. 6, and Op. 76, No. 3 (the great Emperor).

Nicolai: The Merry Wives of Windsor

A midprice reissue of the highly recommendable Heger/EMI Merry Wives with Wunderlich and Mathis (with Gottlob Frick as Falstaff) seems to be available from some sources. The less flavorful mid-'70s East-West German coproduction (originally issued here on DG), decently enough conducted by Bernhard Klee, with Kurt Moll as Falstaff, is available at midprice (with a libretto in German only) on Berlin Classics.

I wonder if anyone can count how many CD anthologies of EMI's Wunderlich material his "Horch', die Lerche" has been included in. I've got the generously packed (154 minutes) two-CD Very Best of Fritz Wunderlich, which includes both Fenton's aria (both stanzas!) and the Anna-Fenton duet.

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

EMI has assembled a wonderful CDof shorter Vaughan Williams works from the "Indian summer" of the career of Sir Adrian Boult (1889-1983), his late 70s and 80s, when he became a one-man recording industry. This Lark Ascending, with New Philharmonia concertmaster Hugh Bean as soloist, was recorded as the LP filler for Sir Adrian's stereo recording of VW's Sixth Symphony, and this is still the way The Lark plays in my head. However, you can't go wrong with the rival Decca VW anthologyconducted by Neville Marriner, with his longtime collaborator Iona Brown as soloist in The Lark.

As it happens, I don't have the stereo Boult version on CD. I listen happily, though, to André Previn's recording (filling out his Telarc VW London Symphony) and Andrew Davis's (available in a reissue of its original coupling, with the VW Sixth Symphony and Thomas Tallis Fantasia). Warning note: If you think you might have any interest in acquiring Sir Andrew's really outstanding cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies and other major orchestral works -- and if you care about VW, you should be interested -- watch for the Teldec boxed set. I don't find any current listing for it, except via download, but it was available for some time at fairly modest price.

If you're foolish enough to begin acquiring the individual Davis CDs, trust me, when it comes to the final one, comprising Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7 (the Pastoral and the Sinfonia Antartica), which apparently had virtually no circulation before the first boxed set came out, you won't find it. This is how record companies reward customer loyalty, in this case the loyalty of customers who patiently supported the series, disc by disc, as they were being made. As I write, there's a copy of the Pastoral-Antartica coupling on offer at for a mere $80.71. Um, no thanks.


The updated list is here.

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At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

I remember encountering the Wunderlich when I was about 15, and thought it was fantastic. Then I heard an abridged version of the opera with another tenor, and it was a tremendous letdown. Wunderlich really was one of the great ones. Too bad his membership in the Knights of the Bent Elbow led him a stumble down a long flight of stairs. I'll always treasure such recordings of his as The Bartered Bride (despite being in German) and The Magic Flute.

As for Vaughan Williams: the pseudo-sophisticates keep making fun of the guy's music, as though he didn't understand what he was doing. I keep waiting for one of them to produce something half as attractive as The Lark Ascending, The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis--hell, even the The Wasps Suite. Guess what? Nothing yet. Gnats will always be gnats, I suppose, and want to bite. But Vaughan Williams remains a great, in my opinion.

Thanks for reminding me of this stuff, Ken.

At 11:57 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, B!


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At 3:55 PM, Anonymous amaranth said...

Thank you for this! Fritz Wunderlich, the Lindsay Quartet and and The Lark Ascending all on one page - fabulous! I found your page when searching for FW singing "Horch, die Lerche ..." as I'd just read his sister's account of him singing it at dawn one day as a lark sang in a wooded valley near his home town of Kusel, and it was her fondest memory of him, surpassing all the great public performances he gave. Yes, Fritz truly was one of the very greatest ones, Balakirev. But, according to his biographers, the likely cause of his fatal accident was his untied bootlaces, not drink (that's a persistent myth). Not that it really matters - it seems it was predestined anyway (much has been written about that too). FW and Mozart, same age. Those the Gods love ....

At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Ikiru said...

For some reason, I never really got round to exploring RVW's music until just two years ago. The Lark Ascending moves me to tears every time. I've got Hickox's recording on Chandos which I love. He lingers around about the 14:45 minute mark.

His third and fifth symphonies are fantastic (especially the Romanza of the fifth, which also gets me teared up quite a bit).

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