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Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

Vaughan Williams believed that a composer “should make his art an expression of the whole life of the community”. His music reveals that he meant this at the “personal” rather than the “national” level, and as a basis for his development as a composer he turned to the music he felt most representative of long, communal tradition: English folk-song and the music of Sixteenth Century composers. The former influence earned him a place in the school referred to scathingly as “cow-pat composers”. In the present work, a product of the latter, there's not a cow-pat in sight (or smell). The theme Vaughan Williams used is Tallis' Why Fumeth in Fight, the third of nine psalm tunes of 1567, written for Archbisop Parker's Psalter, and which Vaughan Williams had already included in his own English Hymnal. 

The Tallis Fantasia, premiered in Gloucester in 1910, is also a product of the aftermath of Vaughan Williams' three months' pilgrimage to Paris to study with Ravel, specifically to sharpen up his orchestral technique. These studies he put into practice with a vengeance, scoring the Fantasia for unusual, and sonically challenging, forces: a large string orchestra, a chamber-sized string orchestra, and a string quartet. 

These particular forces were not chosen “just to be different”: if you think of the main band as the “universal”, the chamber band as “community”, and the soloists of the quartet as “members of the family”, then they begin to reflect Vaughan Williams's professed credo. They also reflect the acoustic of a large ecclesiastical enclosure, in which Vaughan Williams envisaged them being distributed antiphonally. Moreover, in the music itself, he deploys these forces strategically. Starting with the main band only, projecting “immensity”, he gradually draws the chamber band into a dialogue, zooming in to the “communal”. Likewise, the introduction of the string quartet pares down the scale to one of intimate, personal communion. Like in a painting, our attention is drawn in, focused onto this still centre, from where Vaughan Williams builds outwards, purposefully revealing a “whole” that is more than the “sum of its parts”. 

It's a bit like the experience of visiting a cathedral. On entering, you sense only the immense space, but as you tread (respectfully) inwards, you gradually become aware of the columns and arches defining that space, and the pews that contain the congregational community. Having advanced all the way down the nave to stand before the altar, you can now see the attendant array of artefacts concerned with personal communion. Here, you turn around - and are engulfed by the vastness of the whole, now magnified by your awareness of its parts. But, it's not just that, is it? These buildings span the ages, connecting us to our mysterious forebears. In his music Vaughan Williams, through his reworking of Tallis' resonant melody, creates an analogous continuity, a stairway from “now” receding into the mists of time. Two words say it all: awe-inspiring.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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