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How Ralph Vaughan Williams Was Inspired To Compose His 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis'

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958, in a photo from 1936.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty
Universal Images Group Editorial
Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872-1958, in a photo from 1936.

Two composers—working centuries apart—come together in Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.  WRTI’s Susan Lewis has the story about what became one of Vaughn Williams' most successful orchestral works.

Sixteenth-century composer Thomas Tallis wrote music for services in the royal chapels of British monarchs, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.  Among his many works were nine chant tunes for psalms compiled for the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1557.  

In the early 20th century, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams came across the Renaissance music while editing a new English hymnal; he seized upon the third tune, Why Fum'th in Fight?,  to explore with variations.

Fresh from a trip to France where he’d studied orchestration with Ravel, Vaughan Williams wrote the work for three different-sized string ensembles: a full string section, a smaller group of nine players, and a quartet, creating a lush soundscape with shimmering colors and echoes. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams came across the Renaissance work while editing an English hymnal.

“There’s sound coming from somewhere but you’re not quite sure where it is, “says Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles.

“This is a tribute to one of the greatest composers of that age, Thomas Tallis. Therefore you have two great English composers coming together, and straddling 400 years, almost.”

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis premiered in 1910 at the Three Choirs Festival, an annual event dating from 1709, that rotates among Worcester, Gloucester, and Hereford Cathedrals. It is among the most popular works in the English repertoire.

On Sunday, Nov. 7th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, Nov. 8th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2 listen to Donald Runnicles lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in program that includes Vaughan Williams’Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.