Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958): Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, rev. 1919)
This Fantasia is so well-known and well-loved today that it is arresting to think of it being considered ‘modernist’ or ‘challenging’ when it was new. Although most of the audience seemed baffled at its first performance in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, the composers Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells recognised it as a revelation, and walked the streets of Gloucester all night, unable to sleep in their excitement at the new direction that had been opened up, pointing away from the Germanic models which Stanford and Elgar had followed.
Yet a piece which was so ‘new’ was simultaneously rooted in the Elizabethan sound world of many centuries before. Rather than employing traditional patterns of major and minor chords, Vaughan Williams's use of the Phrygian mode (imagine playing a scale on E but using only the piano’s white notes) brings with it some abrupt major-minor contrasts, which permeate the work. It also creates a tangible sense of timelessness, as the listener cannot determine for certain a ‘home key’: the music seems to float weightlessly, phrases spun-out endlessly, unfettered by conventional harmonic phrase-lengths.
After five fleetingly ethereal chords spread over a massive breadth of pitches, a fragmented and tentative melody (the Tallis theme of the title) begins to emerge in pizzicato cellos and basses, as if distantly remembered. There is an increasing restlessness as the intensity builds to a glorious climax, and much of the rest of the Fantasia seems to be spent searching for the lost sound of the opening bars. At the end, we are granted some sense of closure, but the unique serenity of those opening chords is never quite recaptured in its original state.