Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Born in Down Ampney, England, October 12, 1872; died in London, August 26, 1958


Related to both Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgewood, Ralph Vaughan Williams was the scion of a prominent English family that expected its sons to be lawyers and clergymen, not musicians. His own path to a composing career was unconventional, and he was almost 38 when he unveiled his first masterpiece, Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Vaughan Williams spent his 30s collecting folk songs from all parts of England. In 1904, he undertook another project that also influenced his creative development: the revision of the hymnal of the Anglican Church, making it, in his words, "a thesaurus of all the finest hymn tunes in the world." During this two-year labor of love, he immersed himself in the music of such Elizabethan masters as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tallis.            

For the hymn text "When, rising from the bed of death," he chose a stately melody composed by Tallis in 1567. It obviously made a deep impression, for in 1910 it became the theme of his Fantasia for Strings composed for the Three Choirs Festival held in Gloucester Cathedral. Vaughan Williams scored the work for three string ensembles: a large first orchestra, a small second orchestra of nine players, and a string quartet. With them, he created layers of contrasting sonorities that played off the cathedral's vast echoing spaces. The quartet's first violinist and violist are also featured in luminous solos and duets. At the work's premiere on September 6, 1910, listeners were too involved in the other piece on the program, Elgar's recent oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, to pay much attention. But within a few years, the Fantasy was being played by orchestras throughout Europe.

It begins with a preview of the theme plucked by low strings, followed by a short winding idea in violas and cellos that will also play a prominent role. Then we hear the Tallis theme played in its entirety by second violins, violas, and cellos. This melody will not return in full until the solo violin sings it near the end. The body of the piece is composed of meditations on phrases of the theme, new melodies spun from it, and the richly harmonized winding idea — all refracted by the different prisms of Vaughan Williams' three ensembles.

Although the Fantasy is not specifically religious music, it seems to speak to the spirit. As Fuller Maitland, a reviewer of its first performance, wrote: "The work is wonderful because it seems to lift one into some unknown region of musical thought and feeling. Throughout its course, one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new."


Instrumentation: Large string orchestra, echo string orchestra and string quartet.