Some years ago I was asked by Oxford University Press to contribute a new piece to a collection of Shakespeare settings for upper voices and piano – and the poem they asked me to set was ‘Hark, hark, the Lark’, from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline.
Schubert’s famous setting of these words has been in my mind since I was a teenager, and its insistent piano rhythm and soaring vocal melody has delighted countless listeners since it was composed around 200 years ago. So it was a bit of a hard act to follow – and I decided that the only way that I could do it was to try and forget Schubert’s vision for a time, and imagine myself in a wide open cornfield, at the end of a beautifully sunny day, with a skylark overhead.
In my vision, the piano became the skylark’s song, trilling, rising and falling, and the voices the effortless motion of the bird as it hovers above the field, climbing high and swooping down.
The poem is quite short:
Hark, hark, the lark at heav’n gate sings, and Phoebus ‘gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs on chaliced flowers that lies.
And winking marybuds begin to ope their golden eyes;
With ev’rything that pretty is, my lady sweet arise!
(Phoebus is Apollo, the sun-god: ‘gins = begins to: marybud = marigold: ope = open)
I extended it by using the first four words (‘Hark, hark, the lark’) as a kind of refrain, returning three times – and then, after a climax on the word ‘arise’, the piece ends with the voices repeating ‘Hark, Hark’, echoing each other, as a background to the piano/skylark as it circles into the distance,
The music is published in the collection entitled Hark, Hark, the Lark edited by Bob Chilcott, and also, in a version with an added optional baritone part, in The Oxford Book of Flexible Choral Songs. The upper voice version is also available separately as a digital download from here, or from other OUP digital providers.
There are several recordings on YouTube: Here’s a lovely live recording by the Amabile Choirs of Kendal. Hope you like it!