Analysed by Robert Walton
The sounds of nature, and particularly those of birds have always appealed to serious composers. It was Messiaen who religiously notated the songs of all French birds classifying them by region. In his “Pastoral Symphony” Beethoven gives us the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo. The latter has it all to itself in “On Hearing The First Cuckoo In Spring” by Delius. However perhaps the best known and much loved work in the classical field is Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.
But I believe the most subtle and effective bird compositions are to be found in British Light Music especially around the middle of the 20th century. If you’re familiar with the genre, you’ll know the finest of these were produced by the Chappell Recorded Music Library.
At first hearing, the casual listener might easily dismiss Up With The Lark as an innocuous piece of background music. Certainly in the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra’s repertoire it’s one of the lesser-known titles simply because it hasn’t got a memorable melody. That may be, but what’s lacking tune-wise is more than made up for in the atmospheric department. It was definitely not an “in-your-face” piece of mood music, so could easily pass you by.
This early 1947 classic offered plenty of clues as to its creator and origins. Above all, Up With The Lark demonstrated Robert Busby’s meticulous attention to detail and total command of orchestration, as well as contributing in no small part to that unique sound for which the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra is famous. Together with household names like Robert Farnon and Sidney Torch, backroom boy Busby brought his own brand of freshness to the genre. Up With The Lark describes a typical early morning scene when most of us are still sleeping. It’s an understated portrait of “rise and shine”
Something stirred as gentle strings start the proceedings of this very British sounding sunrise, followed by the trumpets that quietly herald a new day with a soft “fanfare” decorated by some industrious woodwind. The strings then come into their own with, what for me, is the defining moment of the whole piece - an all too brief magical moment, free from the confines of conventional form. It’s perhaps depicting the skylark’s downward dive to her nest on the ground, but at the same time trying not to give away its flight path. Now a bouncy little melody featuring the strings ends in two excitable flurries leading back to the opening played by the woodwind. You need to concentrate though because everything happens so quickly. The strings stay with the action with some delightful decoration. The brass returns for a further “fanfare”, while the lark provides another spectacular display of descending precision aeronautics.
Suddenly Up With The Lark undergoes a complete change of mood and direction as brass and strings crescendo up to a higher key. Gradually it dawns on me that the composition, with echoes of Eric Coates is in fact a march....and has a melody! The mood may seem a million miles from this rural/urban scene but on second thoughts it’s probably the ideal rhythm to get up and go. As we near the end of this section, notice how Busby squeezes every ounce of emotion out of the beautifully climaxed tune. But you can’t keep the “fanfare” away for long, because back it comes with flutes, harp, strings and oboe. And proving there’s never a dull moment, the oboe’s solo is cut short making way for a flute trill, followed by an even more dramatic one with string support (similar to the signature tune of Edgar Lustgarten’s “Scotland Yard” series). But it’s straight back to the top for a rerun of that delightful opening dawn chorus.
In the coda instead of a final “fanfare”, we get a sustained brass chord, over which the lark floats back down to earth. This is met by a busy bassoon and the rest of the woodwind. After a string chord provides the first part of a perfect ending, we hear the instrument Clive Richardson was fond of, the haunting vibraphone pipped at the post by the harp.
Up With The Lark played a vital role of an exciting new chapter in the history of descriptive music. Robert Busby’s seemingly effortless brushstrokes show him to be a true pioneer of musical canvasses. It’s so compelling you almost forget the music and become lost in this gorgeous idyll.
Inevitably it’s bound to draw comparisons with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, a fifteen minute Romance for violin and orchestra. Conversely Up With The Lark is a two and a half minute hands-on reality check of nature. Perhaps Busby’s piece should be renamed The LarkDescending !
The original recording of Up With The Lark, played by the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch, is available on the Guild CD “String Fever” (GLCD 5150)