Moving, Lyrical, Very English - and Timeless
Featuring today: the quintessential early 20th c. British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) a.k.a. “RVW.”
Vaughan Williams “Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis”
Posted May 10, 2013
The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis at Gloucester Cathedral, where in 1910, it was played and conducted for the first time by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This is possibly the finest ever performance of this most beautiful piece.
[From Video Description Box]
NOTE: This video has a lower sound volume than others, having been taped inside a spacious cathedral. Would that one were actually in the building together with the orchestra. The reverberating acoustics of the place would have been stunning — the original “Sensurround” experience. The standard stereophonic system cannot quite capture that vastness, short of an audiophile’s 5-speaker setup. (Would that the more beautiful and sacred, traditional Catholic hymns and chants written for such places were sung at our Masses…!)
This popular work is scored for a string orchestra.
The sweeping, lyrical melodies set to shifting time signatures strike subtly at one’s very core. The music ebbs and flows like a giant ocean wave moving in slow motion. The key signatures change constantly, too, going from minor-sounding (darker, more moody) to major (happier-sounding), and back again; strictly called the “Phrygian mode” — the musical scale used in Medieval times, related to the modern minor scale. Between clouds of gray, the glow of bright sun peeks through hither and yon. The shimmering strings in the upper register are like reflections upon the water’s surface of the day’s setting orb.
It sounds very “modern” in structure, yet is accessible to all audiences. It transcends space and time, and I doubt will ever lose its appeal in any era. (At least, I hope so.)
The work is performed here at Gloucester Cathedral, where its premiere took place in 1910.
So, what exactly is that “theme from Thomas Tallis” that RVW references?
It’s this one: The Inspiration for Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”
(Aside: Thomas Tallis was born a Catholic, but thanks to his adaptability and creativity, he was somehow able to work for both Protestant and Catholic monarchs during the tumultuous 16th century. The period’s constantly changing religious royal affiliation could pose a danger to anyone working at court. )
The pros say it better than I can:
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis plays with our perception of space and sound. Scored for double string orchestra and string quartet, it unfolds as an antiphonal conversation between “choirs.” A full string orchestra alternates with a second, smaller string orchestra. The organ-like string quartet emerges as a distant, haunting echo from the past. At moments, the poignant solo voices of the viola and violin emerge. This spacial dialogue is not unlike the weaving interplay of the choral music of Renaissance polyphony. One spectacular example is Tallis’ Spem In Alium, which features no less than 40 separate voices.
READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE: Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”: Ghosts of the English Renaissance
Personal note: It was a self-professed atheist friend from Europe who introduced this piece to me. It sounded unusual to me then, having heard nothing of RVW before. It would grow on me with the passing of years.
Funny thing is that this atheist loved a lot of sacred music, whether from medieval, Renaissance or more modern times. Looking back on this, I’ve decided that every person — including the nonbeliever — searches for something to soothe or stir his innermost soul. If it isn’t God he finds, it’s something else — that echoes His grandeur and majesty. Interestingly, RVW was himself an agnostic.
Below, another popular work — a moving piece evoking pastoral landscapes, airiness, perhaps the restlessness of a bird in flight. Again, fluid time and key signatures, arpeggic leaps in melody, and a smidgen of dissonance make for a compelling listening experience.
Vaughan Williams ~ The Lark Ascending
Sep 1, 2010
An English classic, performed here by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Nolan on violin and Vernon Handley conducting. (Picture: "The Cornfield", 1826, by John Constable)
Want to hear more RVW?
Here’s another lovely piece written for strings and harp:
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus"
Posted Jun 5, 2013
Skaila Kanga, Harp
London Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Bryden Thomson
FOR FURTHER READING/LISTENING:
An article written to commemorate the composer’s 150th birthday, October 12, 2022:
Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Master of Orchestration Turns 150
Entry in the New World Encyclopedia:
Ralph Vaughan Williams
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ah a bit on Thomas Tallis here also...