An unmissable celebration of English music

7th October 2019

William Vann
On Thursday 10 October, as part of the Chelsea History Festival, the Royal Hospital’s Wren Chapel will be the setting for The Lark Ascending – a concert of English vocal and orchestral music. William Vann explains what makes The Lark Ascending concert at the Wren Chapel special.

Focusing on the years before, during and after the First World War, pieces by English composers will be interspersed with readings from the Chelsea Pensioners and the evening will open with a complimentary drink in the spectacular Great Hall. Internationally-acclaimed baritone Roderick Williams, celebrated violinist Sian Phillips and the London Mozart Players will join the Royal Hospital’s Director of Music for a moving and uplifting celebration of English music.

Here William Vann – multiple prize-winning accompanist and accomplished choral and operatic conductor – shares his excitement at this unique event and explains its broad appeal. 

What theme unifies the concert?
The concert looks back at the events of 100 years ago – pre, during and post the first World War, interspersed with readings from the Chelsea Pensioners. It’s an emotional journey and a narrative that will take you through the evening.

Can you tell us a bit about the music you’ll be performing?
Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was written before the war but not performed until afterwards.

George Butterworth was a really promising young composer who was killed in 1916 – he set A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems to music. They’re normally arranged for piano and voice, but my arrangement is for chamber orchestra and voice and I have added in woodwind. This will be the world premiere of that arrangement. I’ve used the same orchestral forces as in The Lark Ascending – which turns it into a companion piece. Vaughan Williams knew Butterworth well, so that’s a nice, personal touch.

Barber’s Adagio for Strings evokes incredible depth of emotion. It’s been described as ‘the saddest piece of music’, but this is missing what happens at the end – there’s actually a real sense of resolution. The catharsis of the music leads you to a point at the end where you feel there’s some sort of rest.

We open with Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, a lovely chamber piece that evokes the innocence of pre-war England.

The Lark Ascending has been voted Britain’s most popular piece of music. Why do you think this is?
I think Vaughan Williams captures something of the essence of this country, its music and the rural idyll - with this beautiful bird portrayed by the violin. It’s a piece that has particular resonance with England and our musical history. And then of course Vaughan Williams documented our folk song traditions. You can hear a lot of that folk music in The Lark Ascending. Vaughan Williams also invigorated the English classical music traditions – so it’s nice to have something of our own to celebrate in that sense. We’re performing The Lark Ascending in its chamber version, which matches the Butterworth I’ve set.

Roderick Williams - The Lark Ascending Concert
What are your thoughts about the performers who will be joining you?
Roderick Williams and I performed the Butterworth Shropshire Lad songs last year, with me at the piano. We also recorded two CDs together. He’s lovely to work with – a very generous musician and colleague. It’s a huge privilege to work with him.

I haven’t worked with Sian Phillips before, but she’s a fantastic violinist so it’s very exciting to have her on board. We’re lucky that Mark Zetland put her forward and is sponsoring her. I’m really looking forward to making music with her.

The London Mozart Players are a brilliant group. They’re the first major orchestra in the country to be self-managed. They were also the UK’s first-ever chamber orchestra. I have worked with them a few times, as have our choir. They’re very committed and love working on interesting and engaging projects.

Do you feel the Royal Hospital’s 17th century Christopher Wren Chapel is a fitting venue?
It couldn’t be more appropriate for a concert focusing on war and the impact of war – because that’s why the Royal Hospital was built in the first place. Our lovely, intimate chapel is perfect for this size of orchestra and singers. They’ll be underneath the half dome at the end, which will be brilliant acoustically, as it really throws the sound into the chapel. Normally the choir sing from the middle of the chapel, so when we get to use the far end it’s very exciting.

Who do you think the concert will appeal to?
I think it’s hugely accessible. It features a wide variety of styles and of performers – so there’s something for everyone in that sense. None of it is difficult music to listen to – it resonates naturally with people. Even if you don’t know classical music, you’ll probably have heard Barber’s Adagio and you’ll hear things in all the other pieces that will sound familiar. And there’s a reason The Lark Ascending has been voted the UK’s favourite piece of music. It is immediate and accessible, but also a wonderfully constructed musical masterpiece. I think anybody would enjoy this concert actually.

Could you describe the overall mood of the concert?
There is drama, a little bit of nostalgia as well, but overall there’s a reflectiveness. The reflection and contemplation, given the theme, is really important. I think people will go away feeling they’ve explored something of the underlying emotional journey of a conflict and have contemplated some deeper human truths as a result.

Don’t miss your opportunity to share in a wonderful of music and memories – buy your ticket today by visiting

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