RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Ralph Vaughan Williams was born on October 12, 1872, at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England, and died in London on August 26, 1958. He composed the Tallis Fantasy in 1910 and revised it (mostly by abridgment) in 1913 and 1919. The first performance took place in Gloucester Cathedral on September 6, 1910, at a concert of the Three Choirs Festival, with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The Fantasia is scored for solo string quartet and string orchestra divided into two groups, one large and the other consisting of two each of first violins, second violins, violas, and cellos; plus one double bass.

From an early age, Ralph (pronounced in British fashion as “Rafe”) Vaughan Williams knew that he wanted to be a composer, but he was markedly dissatisfied with the state of composition in the British Isles. Following studies with Bruch in Berlin (1897) and Ravel in Paris (1908), designed to guarantee a professional finish to his technique, he recognized that he would have to find his creative path not by imitating foreign models but rather through inspiration arising from native resources. These included the rich English musical traditions of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and the wellspring of English folk song, of which he became an accomplished and determined collector. Both in the realm of folk song and in the hymnody of the Anglican Church, Vaughan Williams found himself in deep sympathy with the common aspirations of ordinary people as expressed in their music over the centuries.

One of his most important early tasks was that of selecting tunes for the 1906 revision of The English Hymnal. At first glance, the idea of devoting two years of his life to editorial duties might seem to be a waste of time for a young composer, but for Vaughan Williams, the experience had far-reaching consequences. He later remarked that two years’ close association with some of the best—and worst—tunes ever written had done him more good than any amount of academic study of fugue. He weeded out a good deal of saccharine Victoriana and replaced it with sturdy folksong melodies, tunes drawn from the nearly forgotten older heritage, and in a few cases (notably the celebrated Sine nomine to the text “For all the saints”) with tunes of his own composition. Many of the melodies that he worked with so assiduously stayed with him for years and had a significant effect on his own composition. One of these was a mysterious melody in the Phrygian mode (the scale that includes all the white keys from E to E on a piano keyboard) by the great sixteenth-century composer Thomas Tallis. He found in this melody some quality that spoke to him with the utmost directness, and he used it as the basis of his first unqualified masterpiece.

The world premiere of the Fantasia took place at the beginning of a festival concert at Gloucester Cathedral, where 2,000 people had gathered to hear Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Many of them—including some of the critics—were irritated at being forced to listen to a new work conducted by its composer, a thirty-eight-year-old giant with a rich shock of black hair. Most of the auditors, apparently, could discern no special qualities in the piece, which seemed to them drab compared to the brilliant scoring for large orchestra in Elgar’s masterpiece. But J. A. Fuller Maitland, writing for The Times, sensed the importance of the occasion and saluted the score much as later writers have come to rate it:

The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling. Throughout its course one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new. . . . The voices of the old church musicians . . . are around one, and yet there is more besides, for their music is enriched with all that modern art has done since. Debussy, too, is somewhere in the picture and it is hard to tell how much of the complete freedom from tonality comes from the new French school and how much from the old English one. But that is just what makes this Fantasia so delightful to listen to; it cannot be assigned to a time or a school, but it is full of visions which have haunted the seers of all times.

Few agreed with Fuller Maitland in 1910; not until the thirties did the Tallis Fantasia become one of the most famous and frequently performed of modern English scores.

The idea of writing a “fantasia” came from the revival of English Renaissance music that was taking place in the early part of the twentieth century under the energetic leadership of Edmund H. Fellowes, who singlehandedly edited and published most of the repertory of the English madrigalists and lutenist song writers. A fantasia (often anglicized by the Elizabethans into “fantasy” or “fancy”) was the most popular instrumental form, derived from the vocal style of the madrigal, in which the performers discourse upon a given musical idea, then pass on to another snatch of theme and develop it for a time, and so on. Vaughan Williams took the basic idea of the Elizabethan model, building his work in sections, each of which develops a given musical idea, but the relationships between his thematic ideas, derived from the underlying hymn tune, unify it into an indivisible entity.

The score is rich and warm without ever becoming thick or opaque. Its lyricism is evocative, but never sentimental. Vaughan Williams seized upon the modal harmonies of the Renaissance as a way out of the crisis of the chromatic harmony of late Romanticism, with the result that the chordal vocabulary remains quite simple, yet the sonorities are fresh and new. The Fantasia elaborates Tallis’s tune with endless inventiveness, building a veritable river of sound that reaches massive climaxes in the widespread chords for the divided strings, which alternate strikingly with the chamber music character of the solo sections. It is, as Fuller Maitland recognized in 1910, one of those rare scores that sound very old while remaining ever fresh—a true shaking of the hands between composers across the distance of four centuries. —© Steven Ledbetter