Summer must be nearly here; though as I write, it’s still mid-April, on my regular walk this weekend, I heard the sheer glory of a skylark’s song and saw one hovering high above me. If you have a device close by, why not call up YouTube and listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s amazing piece “The Lark Ascending” as you read this? The Nicola Benedetti Decca recording is my favourite.
Vaughan Williams took the title from George Meredith’s poem, written in 1881, and while the entire piece is over 120 lines long, Vaughan Williams inscribed the beginning and end of the poem on the flyleaf of his composition as follows:
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.
Isn’t that amazing – “He the wine which overflows, to lift us with him as he goes” – and that’s exactly how listening to the bird high above makes me feel: lifted up. I wonder what lifts you up?
I was going to write this column about exactly what the skylark is doing as he sings – is it mate attraction, signal-ling to the female that he is a good choice? Singing takes so much energy that a minute’s worth of song shows a really fit individual. Maybe it is showing a predator hawk that he is fit enough to escape easily. Or perhaps it is a territorial display to show neighbouring larks that this is his area. From a scientific perspective, the skylark song seems too long to be explained by any of these hypotheses. None of the papers proposed that the bird may just enjoy making such a glorious sound. None, of course, suggested that he might be singing his heart out to his creator.
If Nicola has finished her rendition of “The Lark Ascending”, perhaps you would turn on to Robert Glasper playing “So Beautiful” live at Capitol Studios – typing “beautiful Glasper” into any search engine will get you there. Listen through to Glasper’s comments at the end of the piece. He asks people to see themselves as his title has it, “so beautiful”. Do you see yourself that way? It’s just not something we’d ever call ourselves, is it? Yet look back to the skylark. He’s hardly beautiful – what ornithologists might call an LBJ – a little brown job. Yet what he produces is heavenly.
Maybe we need to reflect on what we have done today – the young couple so relieved after you have extracted the sock from their spaniel’s stomach. Or the children happy that you’ve cured their guinea pig’s mange. Or the elderly widow who leaves sad but comforted as you helped her say a last goodbye to her equally elderly Labrador.
Those things are beautiful, quite as much as the birdsong that Vaughan Williams so magically portrays in his music. But somehow in the business of the day and the weight of the things that maybe don’t go so well, we fail to see that what we do is so beautiful. Even if you still can’t quite see it in yourself, find a colleague and remind them just how much good they are doing!