come from New York, but Upstate. Only after living in Saint Paul, Minn. did I realize that my hometown of Rochester, N.Y.—which was first nicknamed “The Flour City,” then “The Flower City” when the mills moved west—was essentially a Midwestern town. I didn’t actually visit New York City until I was a teenager. But in 1973, my junior high International Club took a field trip to the City. I was in ninth grade. It was the first—and last—time I’ve ever played Spin the Bottle. But that wasn’t what made it memorable.
Adrian Boult, Michael Tippett, Vaughan Williams and Ursula V.W. at a rehearsal of Tippett’s 2nd Symphony. [Getty images]
Some of us attended a concert at Carnegie Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn. Brahms’s Violin Concerto was on the program, played by Young Uck Kim. I can’t remember the opener, but the second half is still vivid in my mind. It was the Pastoral Symphony
. No, not that
pastoral symphony. The one by Ralph Vaughan Williams
, his Symphony No. 3. If you know this piece, you know that it’s not exactly dance music. Three of its four movements are slow. It rarely rises above mezzo-forte
. The last movement ends morendo
, with offstage solo voice. Yet this was a moment of recognition for me. I had never heard music quite like it: undulating woodwinds; modal, but often dissonant harmonies; solo lines moving at different speeds; orchestral music that is essentially vocal in nature.The melismatic second-movement solo for natural trumpet took the lid off the hall and excited the budding trumpeter in me so much, I left the family binoculars behind. (Listen
to a performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Manze—yes, the violinist!)
I began to hear Vaughan Williams on the radio. One piece in particular, The Lark Ascending, struck me as completely original in its structure and gentle persuasion. At fourteen, I became a convert, an evangelist for this composer, and I’m grateful that my patient friends—Rick, David, Gail, Liz—didn’t un-friend me because of it. (Indeed, how many Vaughan Williams Birthday Parties can one attend?) Eventually I moved on to the tarter treats of Britten and Tippett, but it all started with RVW.
The Lark Ascending has been voted No. 1 in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame for the last two years. How can this be, when I—Dave from Penfield—I was selected to receive the revelation? I have a friend who passes me cartoons from The New Yorker. A recent one shows a shepherd (leading an ass) saying to another wearing a keffiyeh: “Right now I’m his apostle, but my dream is to someday be my own Messiah.” I recognize the kernel of solipsism in that enthusiasm. As a baby-boomer, I participated in the largest media blitz in history. All that attention convinced me that I was a hothouse orchid, when in fact I was a daisy addressing the sun, standing in a field of similarly pert daisies.
I heard this morning that today is the 49th anniversary of Minnesota Public Radio’s Collegeville station. Where would I be without The Lark Ascending? Possibly not a fan of Renaissance polyphony. Probably not as interested in Brahms. Where would I be without public broadcasting? I certainly wouldn’t be aspiring to write music that would be played on MPR.
Hm. Didn’t I just receive something from MPR…? Now, where is my checkbook…?
David Evan Thomas is a composer living in Minneapolis.
I’m . . hmmm. I’m a toadstool under a log. But I have a Lark Ascending story to share. My friend and yoga teacher, Bonnie West, was the daughter of Bob and Mary West. Bob was a radio guy, and Mary was a beloved violin teacher. They adored each other. Mary died six or eight years ago, when she was 97 years old, teaching full time at MacPhail right up to the end. (If I’m off on the details, Bonnie will set me straight and I’ll amend this.) When GranMary had only a few days left, a bird came into Bonnie’s yard and took up residence on the laundry pole just outside the kitchen window. And then within hours of Mary’s passing, a second bird came and joined the first one, and the two birds stayed there on their perch just outside Bonnie’s window for three days. And then they were gone. DaddyBob and GranMary.
Several months later MacPhail inaugurated their new facility downtown, and the opening concert gala of their glorious recital hall was a tribute to Mary West. One of her many talented students (I’m sorry, I don’t know her name) played “Lark Ascending,” which I had never heard before, due to my toadstool status. It was an afternoon concert, and the light was beautiful out in the courtyard behind the performer and the wall of glass. As she started to play, two birds appeared just outside the windows. They dipped and darted and danced around with each other for pretty much the entire piece, and then, as it ended, they flew away. Everyone in the hall saw it. We say “breathtaking” too easily, but that’s what it was. No one who was there will ever forget it. DaddyBob and GranMary and Lark Ascending.
I swear every word of this is true.
Oh, The Lark Ascending has long been a favorite of mine, too! It’s so unspeakably beautiful. My mother wanted it played at her funeral last year, and it was sublime.
Thanks for finding the archives image of Ralph Vaughan Williams et al, too! Fun to see.