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This review is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Cover of The Lark Ascending
M.C. CaseleyPatterns in the Fields
Richard King, The Lark Ascending (Faber) £14.99

Halfway up steep Church Street, in Great Malvern, there is a small blue plaque on a brick post office wall. It commemorates Marie Hall, violinist, who once busked there for pennies from passing shoppers, in the blue shadow of the Malvern Hills. Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending was dedicated to her, and she played at its premiere in December 1920: it is with this piece, and its fitting conjunction of landscape and lyricism, that this ambitious book, subtitled ‘The Music of the British Landscape’, begins.

Ideas of pastoral seem so self-evident to English painting, writing and music that it sometimes seems a useful strategy to step back and reconsider exactly what it is and also how it came to be there. King’s argument, essentially, is that the rural landscape of England became available and accessible to artists (especially musicians) following the aggression of 1914–18, in new, more democratic, imaginative ways. He plots the growing liberalisation of physical access against the resulting imaginative recreations of it in many different ways, through rock stars getting it together in the country, up through the advent of New Age travellers and rave culture in the 1990s and beyond. His foundational myth for this is the romantic, lyrical, classical compositions of Vaughan Williams.

Williams served on the Western front during the First World War and The Lark Ascending, like Housman’s poetry, transmits an overwhelming sense of the timelessly rural, trading on nostalgia for some pre-lapsarian, pre-war England. The potency (and continuing popularity) of ...

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