Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

by Max Derrickson

Ralph Vaughan Williams     (b in Down Ampney, England, October 12, 1872; d in London, August 28, 1958)

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Paris and London have shared history with each other for many centuries.  Often their cultural influences floated across the Channel, as Ralph Vaughan Williams did in 1908 to study with Maurice Ravel, one of Paris’ leading composers.  Both composers swapped ideas, to be sure, but what Vaughan Williams brought back to England was a fresh sense of musical colors, a richer appreciation for ancient musical forms, and inspiration for unique ways in harmonizing.  His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, written in 1910, exploits all of these Ravellian inspirations.

Of course, Vaughan Williams had his own English inspiration with Thomas Tallis.  Tallis, considered England’s “Father of the Church Hymn,” wrote a hymn in 1567 set to the words “Why fumeth in fight?” for Archbishop Parker’s Metrical Psalter.  Vaughan Williams made Tallis’ hymn the basis for his Fantasia some 350 years later, and applied to it a structure from antiquity as well, namely the Elizabethan fancy, or fantasy – an instrumental form which develops several related themes in separate sections.

The Fantasia opens with five of what Vaughan Williams called “magic chords.”  Lush and meandering, they introduce the piece as a mystical rumination.  The changes between these chords don’t follow any particular harmonic rule except that of a rich Impressionist beauty.
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Glimpses of color-light are caught, refracted and bent round the ancient tune by Tallis.  That tune, by the way, is heard in its entirety a few bars after the “magic” introduction, played by the celli and violas, with the high strings in tremolo above in harmony.  The ancient mode (key) of the tune sounds aged to modern ears:
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Fantasia’s scoring is also remarkable, as Vaughan Williams divides the orchestra into three groups: two string orchestras (one of them serving as a “distant choir”) and a string quartet.  The effect achieved is enchanting – sounds seem to radiate with an inward light followed by a secondary glow, giving it a “halo effect.”
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