Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Programme note

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis

Although it was commissioned for first performance in an English cathedral – at Gloucester during the Three Choirs Festival in 1910 – the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis loses little of its atmosphere wherever it is played. Both its national character and its cathedral acoustic are part of the actual fabric of the piece. The acoustic effect, the impression of space and height, is made by the division of the string orchestra into three unequal groups. Set apart from the main body of strings, at some distance if possible, there is a second orchestra of two first violins, two seconds, two violas, two cellos and a double bass. Within the first orchestra there is a solo quartet. The three groups, with their different sound qualities, are used to make a variety of subtle suggestions of choral and solo voices, of distant echoes and even, paradoxically, of the ecclesiastical hush.

The English character of the work derives mainly, of course, from the theme on which it is based – a hymn tune in the Phrygian mode by the sixteenth-century composer, Thomas Tallis. Before his theme is introduced in full, there is an introduction involving the whole orchestra as one ensemble, with the first seven notes of the theme quietly plucked on the lower strings in unison. When the main theme makes its first definitive appearance, the orchestra remains together as one group, although there is already an acoustic effect in the two-part descant of the first violins hovering high over the G-minorish melody on second violins, violas and cellos. The orchestra divides as the fantasia development begins and as, in a quicker tempo, the solo viola introduces an eloquent variant of the Tallis theme. With each group now liberated, the texture of the middle section is made up (at its most complex) by eighteen different voices. At the climax of the construction, they regroup as one ensemble in a heavily emphatic version of the viola variant, with all the strings in rhythmic unison. The first part is recalled and, after the solo violin is ascent of a Gothic arch in F minor, the work ends on an ecstatic chord of G major.

© Gerald Larner