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Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis


951 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2015 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
strings (divided into full string section, string nonet, and string quartet)

Composed 1910. First performance: 6 September 1910, Gloucester Cathedral. Ralph Vaughan Williams, conductor.

England’s relationship with music has always been paradoxical. The nation has long possessed a rich musical tradition, with some of the world’s greatest orchestras, opera companies, and concert halls adding to a storied heritage of choral and liturgical music. However the country has rarely managed to produce composers on par with its performers and ensembles. Even the most active concert-goers would be hard-pressed to name a significant English composer active in the two centuries following the death of Henry Purcell in 1695. (Handel? A German import. Sullivan? The Savoy operas owe their success more to W.S. Gilbert’s clever lyrics than Arthur Sullivan’s musical innovation.)

English musicians at the turn of the 20th century were acutely aware of this, and it only became more apparent as the nation became reacquainted with past musical glories. The manuscript of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, for instance, was rediscovered in 1910 and given its first production in over two centuries by Gustav Holst. Many young English composers began looking to past masters like Purcell, Tallis, and Dowland for clues on how to create a canon of English works which could stand proudly beside the German, French, and Italian music that filled the nation’s concert halls.

By his early 30s, Ralph Vaughan Williams had become devoted to expanding his compositional palette and, in the process, became fascinated with his nation’s musical past. In 1903, he began spending days riding his bike through the English countryside, transcribing and collecting folk tunes from the workers and farmers he met on the way. He also became intimately acquainted with the Anglican liturgical tradition as he edited the 1906 English Hymnal for the Church of England (most of his work is still used in Episcopal and Anglican churches today as The New English Hymnal).

In 1908, Ralph Vaughan Williams traveled to Paris to study orchestration with Maurice Ravel. Until this point, the English composer’s music had been very densely orchestrated in ways which frequently could sound awkward and even amateurish. The French master encouraged Vaughan Williams to think carefully about the sound emerging from the ensemble, pushing him to create maximum effect with minimal forces. The Englishman returned from France with a new sense of delicacy in the texture of his music.

Shortly after his return from France, Vaughan Williams was commissioned to write a piece for the 1910 Three Choirs Festival. The performance venue seems to have resonated with the composer, and he began to write a fantasia exploring Thomas Tallis’ Third Psalter Tune, written in 1567 and featured as hymn number 92 in Vaughan Williams’ hymnal. Gone are the ponderous sonorities and heavy textures so prominent in his earlier music. In their place, we find a work of majestic power and shimmering beauty. And despite restricting himself to an orchestra consisting solely of strings, this music features more variety of sonic color than most of his pre-France works for full orchestra. Vaughan Williams clearly took to heart his lessons with Ravel.

The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was favorably received by its first audience. The Times reviewer was mesmerized by the piece, commenting “One is living in two centuries at once… Throughout its course one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new. The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown regions of musical thought and feeling.”

Vaughan Williams composed the work for a string orchestra divided into three ensembles: a full string orchestra, a smaller orchestra of nine players, and a string quartet. This division is key to the variety of instrumental colors and effects Vaughan Williams achieves. Throughout the piece, the smaller orchestra tends to act as a shadow or echo of the larger orchestra, adding a kind of celestial shimmer to its statements. The quartet, in contrast, is frequently used in a more prominent role to introduce material which will be manipulated by the larger ensembles.

The source melody by Thomas Tallis is in Phrygian mode and is structured in two sections. The first half consists of two very similar phrases, and the second consists of two contrasting phrases with more rhythmic variety.

Vaughan Williams’ fantasia begins with a series of descending chords establishing the mystical atmosphere of the work. Melodic fragments from pizzicato strings foreshadow Tallis’ tune, which enters in a full statement by the three combined ensembles. Soaring violin arpeggios add ornamentation to the melody as the orchestra plays through it a second time.

Having ensured his audience’s familiarity with the hymn tune, Vaughan Williams begins to use his three ensembles to dissect it. First, the two orchestras enter a musical dialogue using fragments of the first half of the theme, with the smaller orchestra echoing ideas set forth by the larger string section. A solo viola then begins exploring the tune’s third phrase. This episode features a dialogue between the solo voices of the string quartet, which eventually engage the larger ensembles in their meditation. The ensembles continue to elaborate and dialogue on fragments of Tallis’ melody until the music dissolves into chords reminiscent of the introduction.

The lower strings pluck out the beginning of the tune once more, and their effort is picked up by the solo violin and viola, who deliver an elaborate duet restatement of the melody over a shimmering background provided by the rest of the orchestra. The work ends with the same mystical chords it began, over which the solo violin delivers one final benedictory statement.

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