Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

In 1908, Vaughan Williams travelled to Paris to study orchestration with Maurice Ravel. It proved to be an inspiring experience.

When he returned home, he undertook one of his most fruitful periods of composition. The year 1910 saw the premiere of not just his mighty first symphony (A Sea Symphony) but of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, too – at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival.

This lush, expansive work for string orchestra amply proves that Vaughan Williams’s focus on orchestration had paid off. He blends the instruments exquisitely, creating a rich and unmistakably British sound across a fifteen-minute duration. Interestingly, rather than simply being written for a single ensemble, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is, in fact, scored for large string orchestra, slightly smaller string ensemble, and a string quartet, all playing alongside each other. It was the work that was to cement Vaughan Williams’s reputation not just at home, but across the rest of Europe, too.

The Fantasia’s main theme, heard after the hypnotic opening chords, was discovered by the composer when he was commissioned to put together the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal. The process of research served Vaughan Williams incredibly well: many of the tunes he came across were to be put to good use in all sorts of later works.

Recommended Recording

Britten Sinfonia; Nicholas Cleobury (conductor). Classic FM: CFMcd 44.