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Ralph Vaughan Williams

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams wrote the Tallis Fantasia in 1910 for the Three Choirs Festival. He revised the work twice - in 1913 and in 1919. Many consider the work his first indisputable masterpiece, although I can find even earlier ones. Certainly, it is one of the most popular pieces in his catalogue.

Vaughan Williams had been thoroughly trained as a composer under Parry and Stanford (he also read history at Cambridge). His name, especially as a song writer, had begun to become known when he was asked to assume the musical editorship of The English Hymnal (he had previously edited the Welcome Odes for the Purcell Society). Under his editorship, the hymnal became the single most influential musical force not only in the English church, but in several American ones. Later hymnals routinely plunder the tunes found, arranged, composed, and commissioned by Vaughan Williams. Interestingly, he hesitated before accepting the position, since he knew that he would have no time for his own composition. It turned out, however, that years' immersion in some of the greatest tunes in the world had salutary effects on the composer. One of them was his acquaintance with the 'Third Psalter Tune', associated with Addison's hymn "When, rising from the bed of death" (No. 92 in the English Hymnal). This became the basis of the Fantasia.

In 1908, although Vaughan Williams had some important works to his credit, he took three months to study with Ravel (a younger man, by the way). This led, not surprisingly, to a new interest in sonority. Evidently, Ravel also took a few ideas from Vaughan Williams. Pre-Ravel Vaughan Williams orchestrates like Parry, who orchestrated like Brahms. He also studied Elgar's Dream of Gerontius intently, even though he later reacted against that piece in his own oratorios. After Ravel, we get an interest in the juxtaposition of distinct colors, as opposed to the "kaleidoscope effect" in Elgar, a line that constantly shifts colors, or the "black-and-white" high relief of Brahms, used mainly to clarify inner-voice counterpoint.

Given the new interest in color, Vaughan Williams seems almost perverse in writing a piece for string choir, usually thought of as homogenous. He also eschews the flashier string effects of col legno, glissando, martellato, and so on. He gets most of his contrast by dividing the strings into three groups of unequal strength:

1. A general choir - designated as orchestra I
2. A smaller group of 9 players, consisting of 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 1 bass - orchestra II
3. A string quartet

He may have gotten the idea from Elgar's masterful Introduction and Allegro for string orchestra and string quartet (1905), a work Vaughan Williams certainly knew. However, the two works sound nothing alike, and they take from different sets of procedures. Elgar embraces the language of the late nineteenth century - deriving from Wagnerian and Brahmsian chromaticism. Vaughan Williams finds in the old church modes (also found in folk and Elizabethan music) an escape from what he considered a harmonic cul-de-sac. Elgar uses the forms of the Classical and Romantic Central European tradition: sonata-allegro, overture with two episodes, and fugue. Vaughan Williams bases his piece on the Elizabethan fantasy - an instrumental form which develops, primarily contrapuntally, several related themes in independent sections.

Despite its instrumental incarnation, the fantasy derives from the sectional and contrapuntal nature of madrigal. Basically, what we will hear are the announcement of themes and then their elaboration in more or less independent sections. The kicker and the stroke of genius lies in the difference between the sound of Elgar's and Vaughan Williams' string orchestra. It comes down to Vaughan Williams' second group, which generally provides a dying echo to the first group or acts as the "halo" of the sound. The richness and intense sweetness of the strings carries over into other works of this time - the Phantasy Quintet, the Five Mystical Songs, and the Symphony No. 2 "London." As Vaughan Williams' career proceeded, the string sound became leaner, more athletic, mainly because the music had changed. I wouldn't wish his compositional journey to have been any different, but I must admit an especial fondness for this sound - a fondness mixed with the regret that he had to move on.

Many people regard the work as grave or emotionally cool, and I must confess I find myself in the opposite camp. The score is full of directions like animato, animando, cantabile, espressivo, and molto espressivo. In fact, I'm surprised there's no appassionato. It may begin small and fall back, but only to provide a place where it can turn up the intensity a notch or two. To me, it shares the structure of a great sermon, starting with daily life and leading you to heaven by degrees.

The following guide uses timings (usually noted in parentheses) from the London Philharmonic Orchestra performance conducted by Sir Adrian Boult (EMI CDC747213 2). I do prefer Barbirolli's performance, but people in the U.S. may have trouble obtaining that particular CD. I emphasize that this is a listener's guide, meant to be followed as one listens to the piece. Unless you already know the work fairly well, the description alone makes little sense.

The Work in General

Someone jokingly remarked to the composer, "You know, VW, all your best-sellers are not your own," referring to works like the English Folk-Song Suite, the Fantasia on Greensleeves, the Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus, and this one. But the work is Vaughan Williams' as much as the Cantata No. 140, based on a pre-existing chorale tune, is Bach's. In fact, the tune is interesting mainly in the way Vaughan Williams elaborates on it. Also, despite the title "Fantasia," Vaughan Williams has composed a very tight work, with almost no wasted notes.

The Fantasia consists of the following large sections:

1. An introduction, where Vaughan Williams hints at 3 major themes (0:00)
2. Full statement of all themes (1:15), repeated at 2:31
3. First Episode (3:57)
4. Second episode (6:10)
5. Third episode (8:46) – the major climax of the work occurs here
6. Transition - or fourth episode – (12:15), leading to
7. Restatement of all themes (13:05)
8. Coda (14:50 to the end)

In other words, the overall form corresponds roughly to the Elizabethan fantasia for viols, the music the composer seeks to evoke. But the composer doesn't indulge in antiquarianism. He writes a thoroughly modern work. You wouldn't find, for example, section 6 or the elaborate transitions throughout the work (not to mention the extreme tempo and dynamic changes) in the older music. The harmony, though modal, is really a Vaughan Williams invention (with a little help from Debussy). Long before Stravinsky's neoclassic essays, Vaughan Williams reaches out over the centuries to shake hands with the Tudor composer Tallis. Unlike Stravinsky, however, who creates artistic tension between two eras by keeping past procedures and present distinct, Vaughan Williams, like many good Romantics, essentially incorporates the past to reinvigorate the present.

The Musical Material

The Fantasia uses two main themes:

The Tallis hymn: A "swaying" subject (Michael Kennedy's phrase), first heard at 0:37. This generates many of the subsidiary themes in the work.

The swaying subject initially doesn't sound all that promising. Essentially, it centers around one note. But Vaughan Williams finds remarkable uses for it. The subject functions in several ways:

1. As a response to the "call" of another theme
2. As a transition from one theme to another, or as an approach to or departure from a climax
3. As a theme in its own right

Vaughan Williams also breaks up the hymn into its constituent phrases, so that we really have a set of subthemes:

A1. A rising theme beginning with an identifying minor-third interval, first heard plucked by the lower strings at the beginning of the work (0:27)
A2. An answering phrase in the same rhythm as A1, first heard at 0:48, again plucked in the lower strings
A3. A dotted rhythm in triple time, on a rising, yearning phrase in Phrygian mode (on the piano, play e-f-g-a-g-f-e), heard in its full form at 1:49. This phrase apparently meant a great deal to Vaughan Williams. It stays with him throughout his career and culminates in his opera The Pilgrim's Progress, in the entrance into the Celestial City, where it is set to glorious alleluias.
A4. Yet another dotted rhythm in triple time (2:07), which moves like a galliard and usually is reserved for climaxes and backing off to quieter levels. It generally moves down in pitch.

We'll see how this plays out.


The Fantasia begins with a series of descending 'magic chords' (the melodic outline resembles that of Vaughan Williams' song, "Bright is the ring of words," from Songs of Travel) (0:00). At the time, Vaughan Williams was interested in unusual chord changes. You find the same thing introducing the slow movements to the Symphony No. 1 ("Sea") and Symphony No.2 ("A London Symphony"). In the low strings, we hear an adumbration of A1 plucked out softly (0:27). This is answered by the sway (0:37) under a held note from the high strings. The low strings now pluck out A2 (0:48). The sway rises to a shortened A3 (1:05), which abruptly cuts both itself and the introductory section off.


(1:15) The Tallis themes sound in their full forms: A1, sway, A2, sway, A3, and A4. All strings play in the first statement, with the second violins, violas, and first celli handling the melody in unison, for an incredibly rich string sound. Rising arpeggios from low to high in the upper strings (2:26) lead to a restatement of the theme (2:31) in the first violins and first violas (you shouldn't forget the theme). There's much octave double-stopping (each string player sounds two notes at once), a higher dynamic, and - guess what? – an appassionato marking after all! This reaches a climax, which dies in more magic chords, caught from the tail of A4.

First Episode

A2 and A3 explored. A declamatory, abrupt statement of A2 (3:57) alternates with the sway (4:09). At 4:56, A3 alternates with the sway. We then return to the introductory "magic chords" (5:07) in the smaller orchestra II, alternating with the sway in orchestra I. The sway reaches a small peak in both choirs, then dims as it alternates between orchestra I and orchestra II.

Second Episode

A3 explored. The solo viola leads off with a variant on A3 (6:10). This merges with the sway and an abrupt statement of A3, which the string quartet takes up (6:55). The sway begins again in the small choir and larger one joins in with another declaiming of A3. The string quartet continues its polyphonic meditation on the subtheme (8:11), and the full orchestra again declaims A3 (8:31) before it falls and dissolves into the sway of the string quartet (8:46).

Third Episode

Explores the swaying subject. The small choir extends the quartet's sway and takes off down new melodic bypaths, with annotations provided by the quartet (8:55). At 9:15, large and small orchestras embark on "the chant of pleasant exploration," to borrow Whitman, and begin to build (9:57) to a huge climax, culminating in A3 (11:12). This dies down to an "afterglow" in the small choir (12:00).

Fourth Episode

For me, this is the "deep heart's core" of the entire piece - a miracle of the imagination. The sway tries to start again, but doesn't seem to be able to get beyond two notes (12:15). It begins with a huge push and dissolves into fragments of "magic chords." This leads to


(13:05) The lower strings begin to pluck out Tallis's hymn once more (A1). The orchestra provides a featherbed of sound, and the solo violin and viola duet on A2, A3, and more sway. Everybody joins in on A4 (14:08), which loses heat and leads to more "magic chords" at 14:34.


At 14:50, the strings carry the sway to the end, with a short benediction.


I've known this work for almost forty years. I treasure it. I'm quite aware that understanding the skeleton says very little about the miracle of its life. If I knew how that were done, I wouldn't be writing prose.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz