Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958)

For some reason, I just really wanted to hear this work today so you, too, get to hear about this one! I can't remember the first time I heard this work. It's always just "been there" somewhere in the back of my mind.

Vaughan-Williams, a British composer, wrote the work in 1910 and it was premiered in the same year. It's probably Vaughan-Williams's most famous work, but that doesn't make it a lesser work by any means. It is, to sum it up succinctly, amazingly gorgeous.

The theme the title references was a melody written in 1567 by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585). It was originally a contribution to a Psalter (a collection of psalms for liturgical use) for the Archbishop of Canterbury. The original words to the hymn tune are:

Why fum'th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?
Why tak'th in hand the people fond, vain things to bring about?
The Kings arise, the Lords devise, in counsels met thereto,
against the Lord with false accord, against His Christ they go.

Somehow those words aren't quite what I expect when I hear this lovely tune.

You can hear the original sung here, if you'd like to.

I have to say I like this tune because it's in a somewhat unusual mode: Phrygian. *puts on theory hat* For those who don't know what the heck I mean by that, Phrygian is a modal scale (not major or minor) that begins on the 3rd scale degree, so on white keys it would run from E to E. Go ahead and play it on a piano. It has a distinctly odd sound due to the half step between the first two notes of the scale. You might also notice right away that it is a minor-related mode. But the truly fun thing is that the Phrygian cadence (the ending of a Phrygian tune) tends to end on a major chord despite this. It's a fun mode and one of my favourite of the more unusual modes.

So Vaughan-Williams is editing the English Hymnal of 1906 and comes across this tune. The result was a Fantasia (or a fantasy) on the theme. Vaughan-Williams wrote his piece for a string orchestra that he divided into three sections:

(1) The full orchestra
(2) A single desk from each section(a "desk" in an orchestra is the pair of musicians who read off the same music in this case you would have two each of Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello and Bass for a total of 10 musicians)
(3) String Quartet (Violin I, Violin II, Viola and Cello)

So you have three groups of varying size from the small (4) to the large (full orchestra).

The score specifics that each group should be SEPARATE (if possible) and so the performing forces are fairly large. His goal here was to imitate the sound of an organ.

It is an amazingly intricate and gorgeous piece and despite its length (around 15 minutes long) the beauty of the work should enthrall you so that time passes without your even realizing it.

Here's a great version you can listen to by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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