Fantasia on a Theme (Thomas Tallis) – by Vaughan Williams

“…the rich harmonies…are overwhelmingly beautiful,”

A work for double string orchestra, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis has been a favourite of TSO music director Peter Oundjian since his student days. “The juxtaposition of purity and intensity of the Thomas Tallis melody with the rich harmonies of Vaughan Williams are overwhelmingly beautiful,” says Oundjian.

An Introduction to Vaughan Williams

In 1908, Vaughan Williams travelled to Paris to study orchestration with Maurice Ravel. It proved to be an inspiring experience. When he returned home, he undertook one of his most fruitful periods of composition. The year 1910 saw the premiere of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis This lush, expansive work for string orchestra amply proves that Vaughan Williams’s focus on orchestration had paid off.

He blends the instruments exquisitely, creating a rich and unmistakably British sound across a fifteen-minute duration. Interestingly, rather than simply being written for a single ensemble, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is, in fact, scored for large string orchestra, slightly smaller string ensemble, and a string quartet, all playing alongside each other. It was the work that was to cement Vaughan Williams’s reputation not just at home, but across the rest of Europe, too.

The Fantasia’s main theme, heard after the hypnotic opening chords, was discovered by the composer when he was commissioned to put together the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal. The process of research served Vaughan Williams incredibly well: many of the tunes he came across were to be put to good use in all sorts of later works.

A work for double string orchestra, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis has been a favourite of TSO music director Peter Oundjian since his student days. “The juxtaposition of purity and intensity of the Thomas Tallis melody with the rich harmonies of Vaughan Williams are overwhelmingly beautiful,” says Oundjian.

Recommended Recording;

Britten Sinfonia; Nicholas Cleobury (conductor). Classic FM: CFMcd 44

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) is one of the most important composers of the 20th century.  Drawing on the influences of English folk song and Tudor polyphony, Ralph succeeded at reviving British music during a career that spanned over six decades.

Life and Music

  • Ralph’s interest in music began at an early age, when in addition to playing the violin, viola, piano and organ he became increasingly interested in composition.
  • He studied at the Royal College of Music alongside Gustav Holst, then for three years at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a pupil of Parry, Charles Wood and Stanford.
  • Ralph’s early work was influenced by his dissatisfaction with the English music scene. He decided to draw on native resources, rather than turning to foreign influences, therefore English folksong became a pivotal part of his composition.
  • Ralph’s first big public success came in 1910 at the premiere of his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, before achieving even greater praise for A London Symphony.
  • During the First World War Ralph volunteered himself into army life until the armistice when he was appointed director of music for the First Army of the British Expeditionary Force.
  • By 1919, Vaughan Williams had returned to the Royal College of Music as a member of the teaching staff and soon became conductor of the Bach Choir and the Handel Society.
  • At the age of 70, Ralph moved into a new genre of film music. He wrote the music for Scott of the Antarctica in 1948, from which he developed his Symphonia Antartica.
  • Ralph died peacefully in August 1958 and his ashes were placed by the grave of Henry Purcell in Westminster Abbey.
  • By 1994 the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society had been founded with the aim to widen knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the composer and to encourage the performance of his works.

Did you know?

By the end of his life, Vaughan Williams had composed in almost every genre, having written nine symphonies, six operas, a ballet and a variety of hymn tunes and scores for the stage and screen.

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