Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

By Ralph Vaughan-Williams
Composed in 1906

This work is considered by many to be among Vaughan William’s finest compositions.

Its theme is taken from a tune composed by Thomas Tallis, a 16th-century English renaissance composer. Vaughan Williams came across the tune when editing the English hymnal in 1906. When Vaughan Williams edited the hymnal, he assigned a later text to it (John Addison’s “When rising from the bed of death”), and made it the basis for the Fantasia.

The orchestration is unusual. There are two string orchestras – a first “large” orchestra, and a second small “shadow” orchestra, physically separate from each other; a string quartet; and violin and viola soloists.

The Tallis theme is initially foreshadowed by plucked lower strings, before its full exposition, first in a calm mode by middle voices, then in an impassioned mode by the first violins. An introspective viola solo leads to a rich development, in which the large orchestra’s lush sound is echoed by the “shadow” orchestra, with interplay between the string quartet and both orchestras. After a climax (based largely on the second part of the Tallis tune), the work ends with a wistful repetition of the main theme, a soaring solo violin line, one last climax, and a slow fade away.