The Lark Ascending

There’s a scene in Eric Flint’s “1632” in which a collection of Spanish Army soldiers is holed up in a castle, besieged by a regiment or so of combined 21st-century American and 17th-century German soldiers. As an act of psychological warfare, the American general starts playing music (yes, this is reminiscent of the tactics the US Army used against Panama’s Manuel Noriega in 1989). The playlist begins with selections from the Stones, the Doors and CCR and moves on to Dylan and Elvis. But then it shifts to classical music, beginning with Wozzeck and moving through Night on Bald Mountain and “Bydlo” from Pictures at an Exhibition. Then comes “The Hall of the Mountain King” from Peer Gynt followed by “Arise ye Russian People!” from Alexander Nevsky and on to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” through “Immolation of the Gods” from The Ring of the Nibelung. The bombast ends with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. After a few lovely pieces of orchestral music, it culminates in The Lark Ascending, which the general’s wife thinks is the most beautiful piece of music ever written.

I confess I’d never heard of it when I first ran across it in the book. It’s certainly well known, though.

In a 2011 poll of listeners to choose the nation’s Desert Island Discs, the work was chosen as Britain’s all-time favourite. From 2007 to 2010, the piece was voted number one in the Classic FM annual Hall of Fame poll, over Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and another work of Vaughan Williams, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In 2011–2013 it was usurped by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but was placed first in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

For you science fiction film-watchers, “The piece was used as the last surviving piece of Earth culture in the 2015 Syfy miniseries Childhood’s End, which was based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke.”

Here it is, performed by Janine Jansen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the 2003 Proms.