Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis : Work information

Ralph Vaughan Williams ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Christopher Seaman (Conductor)

This work

Work name
Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis
Work number
1910-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Alan Peters
Dick Lewzey
Recording date

Track listing

  • Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis 14:59 min


The first Vaughan Williams masterpiece, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for double string orchestra and string quartet, shows clearly for the first time the composer's distinctive voice. Written in 1910 and subsequently revised in 1919, it has become one of  Vaughan Williams' most popular works outside his native England.

Vaughan Williams was working on an edition of the English Hymnal when he came across  Tallis' tune, written in 1567 for Archbishop Parker's Psalter. He became fascinated with the psalm tune, which seems to have triggered a leap forward in his compositional style, and used it as the basis for the Fantasia commissioned by the Gloucester Festival.

The grandeur that is acheived using strings alone is awe-inspriring. The opening parallel chords are wonderfully simple, but the effect of their progression is magical. The Tallis theme itself is first heard in pizzicato basses; it is soon bathed in glorious textures as the whole orchestra take up the melody.

The Composers

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph (pronounced “Raif”) Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire in 1872, descended from such distinguished figures as Charles Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood III. Before he went to the Royal College of Music in 1890 he had learned the piano, violin, viola, organ, figured bass and harmony. After leaving the RCM he went to Trinity College, Cambridge and then back to the RCM for a further year. He was taught composition by Parry, Wood and Stanford . He later studied with Max Bruch in Berlin and Maurice Ravel in Paris. He felt drawn irresistibly to English folksongs, a passion he shared with his friend Gustav Holst. By 1910 he had written the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and was an established writer, lecturer, music editor and folksong collector, as well as his composing.

After the First World War, having served in Salonika and in France, VW began to teach at the RCM, as well as conducting numerous societies including the Bach Choir and the Handel Society. He revised The Lark Ascending and A London Symphony and continued to compose. In 1922 a new friend, Adrian Boult, conducted the premiere of A Pastoral Symphony (No. 3), and his music was being performed in Salzburg, Venice, Prague, Geneva and London. From the 1920’s, VW specialised as a composer-conductor, particularly with works such as the London Symphony and Symphony No. 4 (1931-4). He was awarded many prizes, including honorary doctorates, the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1930), the Collard Life Fellowship (1934), the OM (1935), and the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (1955).

In 1939 Vaughan Williams objected to the plight of German refugees, and as a result his music was banned in Germany. He worked during the war for the benefit of interned musicians and helped other bodies which promoted music. His 6th Symphony was hailed as a ‘War Symphony’, although VW denied that it had been composed as such. He felt that more and more he was being treated as a ‘grand old man’, and objected to the idea by writing facetious programme notes. In 1951 his wife Adeline died at the age of 80, and married Ursula Wood 2 years later, moving to London. Although he was quite deaf, he enjoyed London and travelled abroad, lecturing at Cornell University in the USA, among others. His film music enjoyed great success, and he continued to be outspoken on subjects about which he felt strongly. Among these were the BBC’s Third Programme and the new organ for the Festival Hall. He also continued to write music, including three more symphonies. When he died in 1958, his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey near the graves of Purcell and Stanford.

Related Composers: Bruch, Ravel, Holst, Butterworth