Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Composer: 

            Ralph Vaughan Williams (incidentally, pronounced: “Rayf, not Ralf”) is perhaps Britain’s most important and influential composer of the first half of the twentieth century.  Prolific in most musical genres, he was an active composer from his student days right up until his death in 1958, at the age of eighty-six.  He composed dozens of works that are part of the core repertory of British music of the last century, including the important series of nine symphonies.  He lived a long life—long enough to have written in a number of rather different styles, all of them authentic and reflective of his changing interests and the times.  He was born into an educated, upper middle class family, attended Cambridge University, and studied with eminent musicians and scholars, including a stint with Maurice Ravel.  Among his early close friends and fellow students were such luminaries as Bertram Russell, Leopold Stokowski, and, of course, Gustav Holst.

            In addition to his early activities as a rising composer, he and Holst were among the leaders in the efflorescence of serious study and collection of English folksong that arose in the late nineteenth century.  He and Holst frequently spent time in the countryside tracking the rapidly vanishing body of song, writing them down, and preserving them.  He later served as president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  And, inevitably, his appreciation of this great literature became a major influence on one facet of his musical style—evidenced by every American band student’s encounter with his English Folksong Suite.

            Another important interest and activity of his early on was his editorship of the English Hymnal (1906), his interest in the great English composer, Henry Purcell, and of all of the music, in general, of the Renaissance in England.  It is the latter that is the inspiration for one his early and most beloved compositions, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

            Thomas Tallis, along with William Byrd, was the most important of English composers of the Tudor era.  He served under English monarchs from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, dying in 1585.  If you were quick you would have seen his character on the television show, “The Tudors,” recently, so he certainly was not obscure.  And he was resourceful, for though he openly maintained his faith as a Roman Catholic, he served under various religious regimes.   One of his important publications (with his partner, Byrd, he enjoyed a monopoly granted by Elizabeth I printing any kind of music) was his 1567 collection of polyphonic settings of Psalm tunes.  

            In 1910 Vaughan Williams chose the third one of these as the basis for his own composition.  He was familiar with it, for he had included it in the 1906 English Hymnal.   The tune’s original title is simply “Third Mode Melody,” which refers to it being in the Phrygian church mode.  Not major, and not minor, it is a marvelously mysterious mode that can be heard by playing the scale from “e” to “e” on the white notes of the piano.  Written for strings, alone, the composer divides the orchestra into three groups of varying sizes, thus providing some interesting textural changes.  The main tune is heard several times, but like any good composer, Vaughan Williams take various elements of the melody and creates the “fantasy,” which of course was a typical musical procedure during the sixteen century.  A winsome diversion takes place not too long after the beginning in the form of a viola solo, this theme appearing in the full orchestra towards the end.  A dry description this is, doing little justice to a sonorous, timeless evocation of the genius of an earlier musical style that is rarely heard in the modern concert hall.  Vaughan Williams simultaneously created a tribute to one of the high points in the English arts, along with a perfect reflection of his own twentieth-century musical æsthetic.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan