A Century of The Lark Ascending 

 Philip Napier Miles of Kings Weston

This year sees and important centenary for Kings Weston; in 1920 the house hosted composer Ralph Vaughan Williams at the invite of his friend Philip Napier Miles, and together with a gifted violinist Marie Hall, completed work on William’s most famous work The Lark Ascending. Philip Napier Miles was a gifted composer, one might hesitate in calling him an amateur as he’d both published scores and had choral and operatic work performed on the London Stage, but his principal occupation remained focused on being an active member of the landed gentry. It’s not known when Napier Miles and Vaughan Williams first became friends, but it may have been when the latter was studying under Hubert Parry in London. However it might have been its known that Vaughn Williams was a frequent visitor to Kings Weston as a focus for musical life in Bristol.

Napier Miles’s passion for music saw him found several choral societies, and a concert season in the City in the decades before the turn of the Twentieth Century. He keenly promoted classical music and opera and, at one point, was one of the promoters of a plan to develop a festival opera house in Glastonbury to celebrate native English opera and rival Germany’s Bayreuth. In 1902 Miles supported a planned public hall for Shirehampton. Donating land along Station Road, and the sum of £100, he also ensured that the design of the building was adapted for the sort of theatrical and musical performances he loved; this resulted in the addition of a gallery at the back of the hall as one of the more unusual features. He ensured that his estate architect Frederick Bligh Bond was secured for the project to ensure his brief was met for both performance and architectural display. The hall opened in 1904.

Shirehampton Public Hall shortly after opening in 1904. 

Napier Miles had also given musical and financial support to a struggling musician 16-year old Marie Hall at about the same time. He and some likeminded musical friends in Bristol had discovered her and her remarkable talent with the violin when she was virtually destitute and had ensured she’d acquired a full musical education in London and on the Continent. Their dedication paid off and she grew to become an internationally renowned artist, though continued a friendship with Napier Miles and was a frequent performer in Bristol’s concert programme. The stage was then set for these three people, Hall, Napier Miles, and Vaughan Williams, to come together at Kings Weston house and complete work on what would become one of Britain’s best-loved pieces of classical music.

Marie Hall at about the time of the Shirehampton Premiere.

Vaughan Williams in 1920 

The room used by Napier Miles as his music room is today the Kneller Room on the far northern corner of the main floor. It’s one of the smaller rooms in the house, but with once-spectacular views across the Severn. It was here, late in the year in 1920, that the trio would have sat around a grand piano and worked on a planned concert performance in Shirehampton Hall. For it Vaughan Williams had revived an earlier piece of music he’d begin in 1914 but had either never completed, or resolved to his satisfaction. This, The Lark Ascending, would showcase Marie Hall’s skills accompanied only by piano.The premiere was an unremarkable event. The concert was held on 15th December and went without notice in the local press. Marie Hall was accompanied by well-known pianist Geoffrey Mendham. Sadly we are left to imagine how it was received by the gathered audience that evening.

The Lark Ascending received more recognition when it was performed in London the following year with full orchestral accompaniment, but its true premiere is now commemorated at Shirehampton with a brass plaque mounted on the doors. With its romantic violin evocation of lark song strung through the score it’s become recognised as Vaughn William’s master work and is regularly voted as the nation’s most popular piece of classical music. It will be performed again to mark the centenary on the 15

th December by the Bristol Ensemble and we’ll publicise the event closer to the time.  


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