Vaughan-Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis


In 1904, Ralph Vaughan Williams was given the task of editing the new edition of The English Hymnal. He took this job in spite of the fact that he claimed to know little about church hymns. Not only were historic hymns used in the book, but he also commissioned a number of them from contemporary composers. He also contributed four of his own, but they are attributed to an anonymous individual in the hymnal. His attention was caught Hymn no. 92, "When rising from the bed of death," a noble and expressive melody by Thomas Tallis, one of the masters of the English Renaissance. This was the third of nine hymn tunes Tallis composed in 1567 for Archbishop Matthew Parker's metrical psalter, and it made a strong impression on Vaughan Williams. In 1908 (three years after the publication of The English Hymnal and just after he returned from Paris, where he studied with Ravel), Vaughan Williams began his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. It was first performed in 1910 at the Three Choirs Festival.

The work, with one foot firmly planted in the distant musical past and another in the 20th century, became an immediate success for its composer and it soon became and continues to be his most popular work Scored for double string orchestra and solo string quartet, this allows for many chances to imitate the polyphonic techniques of Tallisís time. The music begins with five luminous chords, after which the theme is introduced in fragments by pizzicato strings, until finally the entire theme is presented in earnest by the complete ensemble. It is truly a timeless and unforgettable work.

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