Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Notes by TŌN violinist Xinran Li

The Background
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, also known as the Tallis Fantasia, is a one-movement work for string orchestra by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was premiered by the composer and the London Symphony Orchestra in the Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. The Fantasia is constructed for double string orchestra with string quartet, and is inspired by both a theme by 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis, and John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, with which Vaughan Williams had a lifelong obsession. He adapted the tune from a hymn by English poet Joseph Addison:

When rising from the bed of death,
O’erwhelmed with guilt and fear,
I see my Maker face to face,
O how shall I appear?

The Music
The harmonies in the piece have a continuous sweeping motion, and the work has a nonstop changing texture. With roots in improvisation by each of the solo players, the Fantasia builds up with its complicated, flowing layers with interesting tones. It is full, serene, and spiritual. It is covered by layers and layers of the string ensemble with its shimmering tones. Combining English folk and Renaissance stylings, the work blurs boundaries, switching between major and minor keys, creating an earthy, subtle chill. This piece brings me to a starry sky, and an oak forest. It sounds familiar but vague, something that is old but new, something that is so large but also so small. It is a rising swell, a wave that carries me away to a secret place of my own.