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Updated on: May 2023
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Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" and the Influences of Ravel and Tallis
What creates the popularity of this work is hidden in its synthesis of elements old and new, sacred and secular. This study will examine these supposedly opposing stylistic influences and how Vaughan Williams blended them to create a seamless whole.
Seemingly at odds with contemporary cultural trends that looked to the future, Ralph Vaughan Williams was intensely interested in England's musical past. Between 1904 and 1906, according to Lionel Pike, Vaughan Williams had been editing the English Hymnal. During this process, he came upon nine tunes composed by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), written in various modes for a psalter dedicated to England's first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, as noted by William Joyce. The third of these tunes became the theme for the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that Vaughan Williams would write around 1909.
Prior to 1910, he had written nothing that could be termed a masterpiece. One of his teachers had gone so far as to say he did not even believe Vaughan Williams could become a composer at all, comment Ottaway and Frogley. In 1908 Vaughan Williams himself felt the need to polish his style, leading him to begin studies with Maurice Ravel. It may at first seem odd that one of England's most nationalistic composers learned from a French Impressionist. However, these two elements, English Nationalism and French Impressionism, come together in the Fantasia, showing Vaughan Williams's own internal synthesis of stylistic influences.
The orchestration owes something to the English school, rather than the French. Scored for antiphonal string orchestras and a quartet of soloists, the Fantasia recalls the antiphonal nature of the choir stalls in which Tallis's original tune would have been sung. Vaughan Williams even requested in the score that in performance the orchestras be physically separated. Mark Radice calls this scoring for divided orchestra a mark of "genius."
Indeed, the use of antiphony to evoke the memory of old English church music was well matched to the environment of Gloucester Cathedral, where the London Symphony Orchestra premiered the Fantasia for the Three Choirs Festival on September 6, 1910. Because of this milieu, many commentators have described the work as mimicking the ambiance of a cathedral. David Gutman describes its "saturated stained-glass sonorities," and Michael Kennedy lauds the musical moments "in which sunlight floods through the arches and coloured glass of the cathedrals in which the music is often played." 
It is Kennedy's comment that follows that is in many ways the starting point of this study. He says, "Best of all is the strong impression that the work is as old as time itself and yet as new as though it had been written yesterday." What is it that gives this "strong impression"? Kennedy also cites Fuller Maitland, a writer for The Times and attendee of the premiere, who wrote, "Throughout its course one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new . . . . and it is hard to tell how much of the complete freedom of tonality comes from the new French school and how much from the old English one." Maitland even identifies sounds belonging to Debussy or "the old church musicians." These different influences, separated by time and geography, clearly made an impression at the first performance and still do today. What, then, causes this strong sense of the blending of old and new musical syntax?
The Fantasia, like all good music, presents a kind of problem to be overcome, a "conflict" among opposing influences. In the background, this opposition is found in a set of dichotomies, i.e. English versus French and old versus new. In the foreground, this opposition is readily apparent in the antiphony of orchestra versus orchestra.
In his works, Vaughan Williams holds England's musical past with a great deal of reverence. In the Fantasia in particular, this is evident in his choice of inspiration: a melody by an English Renaissance composer. His consciousness of the unique position England's musical history held among those of other European nations is evidenced in his writing, "There is no written record of musical soil which could have produced such . . . flowerings as when the wonderful Tudor school suddenly appeared." He goes on to attribute such a sudden appearance to the English people's love of caroling, overlooked by the "Frenchified [English] court and the Italianized [English] church" of the Medieval Era. This "Italianized church" would be undone by the Protestantism of Queen Elizabeth I, under whose reign Tallis flourished, even though he remained Roman Catholic.
Tallis's third tune, seen in Example 1  in its original four-voice texture, maintains the time-honored practice of keeping the melody in the tenor voice. The melody itself has a great deal of character due to its modal ambiguity, hovering between Aeolian and Phrygian until phrase D, where the lowered second scale degree at last makes itself known (tenor, m. 17).
Example 1, Tallis, "Third Psalter Tune"
The harmonies that accompany the melody assert Phrygian as early as phrase A (bass, m. 2), but even the harmonic progressions can be nebulous, such as when the major mode is invoked by the use of E major and B major triads in phrase B (mm. 4-6). Allusions to the major mode are also present via the E major triads in phrases A´, and B´ (mm. 7-12), but to a lesser extent due to the additional presence of e minor and F major sonorities. Other contributions to such modal ambiguity are the cadence at the end of phrase D on a subdominant-like sonority (a minor triad, m. 18), or seeming implications in phrase C´ of C major (cadences on C major triads in mm. 20 and 21).
In the pre-tonal language of the Renaissance, the use of consonance and dissonance determined appropriate harmonies. One expects to see non-functional harmony in music before the tonal era, but the influence of pre-tonality upon Vaughan Williams, writing his Fantasia in an increasingly post-tonal world, was profound.
One stylistic element of pre-tonal music that found its way into Vaughan Williams's ear was the false relation. As Renaissance polyphony became more complex, harmonic variety could be achieved by inflecting the pitch content of particular modes with accidentals. A false relation existed when this inflection resulted in the successive appearance of a pitch and one of its chromatic alterations in another voice (e.g. Example 1, m. 23: the tenor F-natural at the beginning of the bar becomes an F-sharp in the soprano by the end of the bar). Wilfred Mellers believes Vaughan Williams's fascination with the false relation and its striking effect is what makes the large-scale structure of the Fantasia convincing.
Another characteristic was gimell or faburden, what the French called fauxbourdon, a technique explained by Mark Bonds, which emphasized the consonance of the sixth, as opposed to the previously prevailing perfect intervals. Even the very name "fantasia"is of Elizabethan origin. "The fantasy [fantasia]," Michael Kennedy writes, "was an instrumental music which was based solely on thematic development . . . . A snatch of a theme would be announced, developed, and abandoned for another theme related to the original." This aspect of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis will be more apparent after an examination of the form of the work.
Modalism, a characteristic trait of Renaissance music, was, observes Kennedy, Vaughan Williams's answer to the same problem that confronted Schoenberg, when the late Romantic became a sinking ship, taking tonality down with it. But while Schoenberg sought an entirely new method of composition, Vaughan Williams sought an older one, both composers trying to escape what Steve Schwartz calls "a harmonic cul-de-sac."
When listing the historical influences on this work, Tudor music would naturally rise to the top, but strains of plainchant and even organum make themselves known. Such a comparison comes from Vaughan Williams himself: "We have direct evidence of the effect of folk-song on . . . plainsong . . . in the history of the French song [from the time of Charlemagne]. . . . [I]n plainsong . . . we see the muse of the people." Vaughan Williams concludes, "harmony grew out of the Organum."
Anthony Pople illustrates this with two main ideas from the Fantasia shown in Examples 2-4.
Example 2, Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (reduction), mm. 1-2
Example 2 shows the opening chords of the Fantasia, which Pople believes are strongly linked to Vaughan Williams's heavy leanings toward folksong. The pentatonic nature of the top-most line would lend credence to this notion.
Example 3, Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (reduction), mm. 4-6
Example 3 shows a short theme played pizzicato in the low strings. Pople uses this fragmentary theme as an example of plainchant's influence on Vaughan Williams's conception of the Fantasia. It is actually derived from Tallis's theme (see Example 1, mm. 1-3), but so early in the Fantasia, the listener does not yet know that. This motive is supplanted by the motive in Example 4, which features parallel motion, the hallmark of organum.
Example 4, Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (reduction), mm. 6-8
If one takes Vaughan Williams's own thoughts into consideration, then folksong played into the development of plainchant, which later developed into organum, which led to the complex polyphony of the Renaissance. Chant and organum, whether directly or indirectly, undoubtedly influenced the Roman Catholic Thomas Tallis. As Pople points out, one can see a microcosm of this evolution taking place within these first thirteen bars, as one motive gives way to the next, all leading to the first complete exposition of the "Third Psalter Tune" in mm. A.5-C.1. All these motives are, of course, derived from or inspired by Tallis's melody, but to the listener, they occur as a time-lapse experience of the evolution of early western music.
While Tallis is unmistakably the source of most material in the Fantasia, neither Tallis's "Third Psalter Tune," nor the idiom of Elizabethan church music can account for some of the stylistic elements and sonorities that occur therein. As Pople posited, there is a distinct link between Tudor church music and the folksong tradition that preceded it. Though the opening chords in the first two bars figure into his discussion of the evolution of music, there are better examples of the lyricism of English folksong emerging from the texture of the work. Vaughan Williams, having steeped himself in the native sounds and character of his country, allows these sounds to permeate the lines of the Fantasia.
Letter I in the score is the first occurrence of a truly strong folk idiom in an unaccompanied solo for viola (see Example 5). The texture of a solo voice without any accompaniment lends itself to the sense of a folk tune, conjuring the sound of a lone fiddler in the English countryside.
Example 5, Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, I.1-7
By the second bar, one can see that even this passage owes something to Tallis's theme. The dotted rhythms seem to echo phrase C of the "Third Psalter Tune" (see Example 1) In spite of this motivic similarity, the solo passage is wholly different from anything heard up to this point. The motive is spun out in what sounds to the listener to be improvisation. In the score, Vaughan Williams writes out the entire line, with the intent of giving the impression of improvisation. An interruption by the orchestras, playing the "sway theme" (or "organum theme") seen in Example 4, divides the end of the viola solo from the beginning of another unaccompanied solo, this time for violin (mm. J.2 and following). These two solos are imitative in many ways, though not identical. By m. J.7, the viola returns and the two voices seemingly improvise their way to m. K.1, where the violin/viola duet becomes a string quartet, each playing lyrical, folk-tune-like lines in counterpoint.
Rhythmic similarities between the various voices of the quartet also give the impression of imitation, even though it is not strict. Percy M. Young describes this passage as "a fugato section akin to the string fantasia practice of English composers from Byrd to Purcell."
The quartet tends to play a more independent role for the rest of the piece, though not constantly so. Solo violin and viola lines return at mm. U.2-W.9, this time preceded by the plainchant idea seen in Example 3 and followed by pianississimo accompaniment in Orchestras I and II.
The solo lines again recall the folk-song idiom by playing ascending pentatonic scales, until the violin finds its way to Tallis's tune (m. U.4 and following), while the viola seemingly improvises an accompanying line. The viola stays close to the confines of the pentatonic scale, D, E, G, A, B, introducing Ab's and eventually C's to accommodate the tune in the violin.
The solo violin returns in m. Z.2, arpeggiating an F minor triad, and carrying the piece to its last chord. After a climactic return to the Tallis theme in all orchestras, the violin solo strikes the listener as a last reminder of the folk-song roots of the music heard in the course of the entire Fantasia.
While folksong and Tudor church music do not seem so far removed from one another, they both may seem at odds with the notion that French Impressionism influenced Vaughan Williams in his conception of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Steve Schwartz describes the Vaughan Williams of 1909 (after his tutorials with Ravel) as a composer with increased interest in sound color. He quips, "Given the new interest in color, Vaughan Williams seems almost perverse in writing a piece for string choir, usually thought of as homogenous." Perversity aside, the composer's training did lead to certain nuances that can only belong to the new French school. Even in the examples already examined, there is the stamp of Impressionism. The "magic chords" of Example 2 are an instance of mode mixture or modal borrowing, a technique used even before Debussy, but certainly used to great extent by him and his contemporaries. While Example 2 was used to illustrate the possibility of folk influence, the pentatonic pitch collection of the upper-most voice also lends itself to Impressionism.
Example 4, what Schwartz calls the "sway theme," while evoking a sense of organum, is more truly considered an Impressionistic technique. One commonly finds parallel fifths in both organum and in the works of Debussy and Ravel. But only in the latter two does one find chord-type planing. Chord-type planing is the use of parallel triads of the same quality, in this case parallel major triads. Since the motive in Example 4 permeates the whole piece, it is in no way a momentary hint of Debussy. Rather, it is a recurring French coloration of an English melody, being closely linked to phrase B´ of the "Third Psalter Tune."
Many of these techniques spring from the neo-modalism of the early twentieth century. The Impressionists returned to the ecclesiastical modes to escape the highly chromatic musical language of Romanticism. In so doing, they saw the use of modes in new ways. As Kennedy points out, "Neo-modalism was seized upon by Vaughan Williams and Holst as their escape-route from the dilemma facing all composers at the start of the twentieth century, when chromaticism threatened to destroy ordinary major-minor tonality."
Neo-modalism opened the door for interesting key relations and harmonic motion. Such harmonic freedom can be seen in the score after letter E.
This passage is an interesting combination of late 19th-century chromaticism and Impressionistic neo-modalism. In other words, Vaughan Williams achieves a change of mode by way of root movement by third. Pople highlights this passage as a significant departure from the harmonic motion that has occurred in the piece up to this point. The pitch center shifts by a tritone (from F to B), and there is significant use of the chromatic-third relations among the roots of the chords. Pople observes, "Thus, by the double bar-line, a series of subtle connections has translated us from Tallis's harmonically inflected Phrygian modality . . . into a musical language encompassing the most dramatic shifts of expanded diatonic resource." Suffice it to say, these are certainly not elements that coincide with folksong or Tudor church music, and they belong very much to the realm of music around the time of Vaughan Williams.
What makes Vaughan Williams's treatment of harmonic language different from that of Romantic chromaticism is summed up by Ottaway and Frogley, "Rather than expunging non-diatonic elements, Vaughan Williams reintegrated them through modally enriched diatonic means, creating a musical tension not compromised by chromatic saturation."
Understanding the form of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is the key to understanding the interaction of the folk, Tudor, and Impressionistic elements. As stated earlier, the English fantasia (or phantasy) is a series of free variations subject to the composer's "fancy." In keeping with the history of the name, Vaughan Williams honors the English tradition in his modern Fantasia. After the opening bars' introduction of some of the elements he intends to use, the composer states the entire theme in mm. A.5-C.1. Measures C.1-E.1 comprise another full statement of the entire psalter tune, this time featuring a higher register, appassionato markings, and undulating arpeggios in the second violins. The chords shown in Example 8 end this section, recalling the "magic chords" of the opening bars (shown in Example 2).
Measure E.5 begins the first variation on a fragment of Tallis's theme. This episode develops elements from phrases A´ and B´ (see Example 1), the B´ material manifesting in the form of the "sway theme" (see Example 4). Orchestras I and II explore these motives in different keys through m. F.7. There, Orchestra I foreshadows the next variation by hinting at phrase C, before the sway theme takes over again at m. G.1. From G.2 to the end of the episode at H.10, the "magic chords," return, but the "sway theme" still dominates.
The second variation begins in m. I.1, where the solo viola begins to develop phrase C of Tallis's tune (see Example 5). The orchestras and solo violin enter, also developing phrase C. By m. K.1 the string quartet has taken up the idea (see Example 6) and is joined in m. K.7 by Orchestra II. This variation is the first to make extensive use of Vaughan Williams's antiphonal organization. The two orchestras and quartet pass the motive back and forth through m. L.10, where the third variation begins.
Variation three spans mm. M.1-O.5, developing the "sway theme" (which is, as stated earlier, derived from phrase B´). Antiphony continues to be the predominant texture of this episode as well, with Orchestra II playing the main role. (Up to this point, Orchestra II has "played second fiddle," as it were, to Orchestra I.)
Variation four is similar to variation three in that they both develop the same themes. But the fourth variation carries the work to its climax. More dissonances, higher registers, and increased rhythmic activity in all parts contribute to a heightened sense of intensity. The dotted rhythm of phrase C returns momentarily in mm. R.7-8, again foreshadowing, as it did in the first variation, what is to come in the next section.
Measures T.5-U.3 are a retransition from the developmental episodes back to a restatement of the entire "Third Psalter Tune." Orchestra I reiterates the pizzicato motive from phrase A (see Example 3), before solo violin and viola begin the Tallis theme in m. U.4. Though they are actually accompanied by both Orchestras, these two lines can be seen alone in Example 7.
The end of the work (mm. X.1-Z.9) is a kind of developmental coda, based on the "sway theme." The material at mm. E.1-4 (see Example 8) returns with slight changes in mm. W.10-X.4, paving the way for a completely different tonal area in m. X.5 from what was heard in m. E.5.
Through a broad overview of the formal structure of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one can see how so many fragmentary elements, some with a very Impressionistic stamp upon them, others with the ring of Tudor church music, and still others with the haunting barrenness of English folk song, interact in a way that creates a seamless whole. The Fantasia is a synthesis of old and new, English and French, sacred and secular. James Day reports that Sir Thomas Beecham once said "the reason why none of Vaughan Williams's other works had quite achieved the same degree of popularity was that [Vaughan Williams] had not used a theme by Tallis in any of them." While it is true that Tallis was the source of inspiration for the Fantasia, Vaughan Williams shows his mastery of assimilating and blending stylistic elements of both his own time, and the time he wished to evoke. Fuller Maitland, the writer from The Times, was correct when he said, "The voices of the old church musicians . . . are around one, and yet there is more besides, for the music is enriched with all that modern art has done since. Debussy, too, is somewhere in the picture."
 Simona Parkenham, Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Discovery of His Music (London: MacMillan amp; Co. Limited, 1957), 38.
 Lionel Pike, "Tallis: Vaughan Williams: Howells: Reflections on Mode Three," Tempo new ser., no. 149 (June 1984): 2.
 William Brooke Joyce, "Listening inside the Memory Palace" (Ph.D. diss., Princton University, 2005), 25.
 Hugh Ottaway and Alain Frogley, "Vaughan Williams, Ralph," in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., ed. by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell (New York: Grove Dictionaries, 2001) 26: 357.
 Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," in Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Other Works for Orchestra in Full Score (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999), iii.
 Mark A. Radice, Concert Music of the Twentieth Century (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2003), 121.
 David Gutman, "Ralph Vaughan Williams," Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, liner notes for 515224A (Oakhurst, New Jersey: Musical Heritage Society, 1994), p. 5.
 Michael Kennedy, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 126.
 Ibid., 93-4.
 Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 50.
 Thomas Tallis, Adapted from Choral Public Domain Library, "Third Psalter Tune" in Nine Psalm Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, accessed 19 February 2020.
 Wilfred Mellers, Man and His Music: The Story of Musical Experience in the West, Part Four, Romanticism and the Twentieth Century (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) 171.
 Mark Evan Bonds, A History of Music in Western Culture (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003), 102.
 Kennedy, 123-4.
 Ibid., 124.
 Steve Schwartz, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, 1995. (accessed 19 February 2020).
 Vaughan Williams, National Music, 75, 77, 25.
 All reductions and further examples adapted from the 1919 score revision. Vaughan Williams, "Fantasia," 97-8.
 Anthony Pople, "Vaughan Williams, Tallis, and the Phantasy Principle," in Vaughan Williams Studies, ed. Alain Frogley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 60.
 Percy M. Young, Vaughan Williams (London: Dennis Dobson Limited, 1953), 47.
 Kennedy, 124.
 Pople, 67.
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