For much of the 19th century, English classical music did not have its own distinct sound. Instead, English musicians wrote music that followed the Germanic tradition of composers like Beethoven and Wagner. Ralph Vaughan Williams set out to change that. Drawing on the cultural history of Tudor England, he helped create a uniquely English style that continues to inform English music to this day. Nowhere is this style more evident than in his well-known work, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.
Although it was written for string orchestra, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis ingeniously incorporates elements of England’s rich choral traditions. In the work, Vaughan Williams calls for a full string orchestra, a desk from each section (i.e., two additional players from each part), and a string quartet. Vaughan Williams designed this orchestration to invoke the sound of an organ in church, with each group representing one division of the organ. In fact, the score specifically requests that the different groups be placed apart from each other to further establish the organ-like effect. Considering England’s long history of organ and choral music, this orchestration choice reflects the composer’s commitment to producing music that sounds uniquely English.
In addition to the sound of the orchestra, Vaughan Williams draws on English musical traditions in a much more literal way — by basing the work around the melody of an earlier English composer. Thomas Tallis was a composer who lived during England’s Tudor period and who, like Vaughan Williams, is known for his uniquely English style in the music of his time. In using one of Tallis’ melodies, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis falls into the tradition of classical works with a similar concept, such as Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. By using an English composer’s melody in such a work, Vaughan Williams not only helped to create a decisively English sound, but also showed the world the extent of England’s musical heritage.
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis will be performed in Carnegie Hall on February 18, 2018, under the baton of Conductor Karen Frink. Tickets to the event will be available two months prior to the concert. To find out about other Carnegie Hall concerts on MidAmerica Productions’ 35th season, follow us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates.
Over the past 35 years, MidAmerica Productions has produced over 1300 concerts in Carnegie Hall and in historic concert halls all over the world. To have your ensemble perform in Carnegie Hall or internationally, give us a call at 212-239-0205 or visit us at www.midamerica-music.com.