Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

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Curwen edition of the Tallis Fantasia orchestral score

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, also known as the Tallis Fantasia, is a one-movement work for string orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The theme is by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis. The Fantasia was first performed at Gloucester Cathedral as part of the 1910 Three Choirs Festival, and has entered the orchestral repertoire, with frequent concert performances and recordings by conductors and orchestras of various countries.

Background and first performance[edit]

Vaughan Williams did not achieve wide recognition early in his career as a composer, but by 1910, in his late thirties, he was gaining a reputation.[1] In that year the Three Choirs Festival commissioned a work from him, to be premiered in Gloucester Cathedral; this represented a considerable boost to his standing.[2] He composed what his biographer James Day calls "unquestionably the first work by Vaughan Williams that is recognizably and unmistakably his and no one else's".[3] It is based on a tune by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis, which Vaughan Williams had come across while editing the English Hymnal, published in 1906.[4] Vaughan Williams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the first performance of the Fantasia, as the first part of a concert in Gloucester Cathedral on 6 September 1910, followed by Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, conducted by its composer.[5][n 1]



First bars of Tallis's theme

Like several of Vaughan Williams's other works, the Fantasia draws on the music of the English Renaissance.[9] Tallis's tune is in the Phrygian mode, characterised by intervals of a flat second, third, sixth and seventh;[4] the pattern is reproduced by playing the white notes of the piano starting on E.[10]

Parker's verse for which Tallis composed the tune used by Vaughan Williams

Tallis's theme was one of nine tunes he wrote for the Psalter of 1567 of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. It was a setting of Parker's metrical version of Psalm 2, which in the King James Bible version begins, "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?", and is rendered by Parker as "Why fumeth in sight: The Gentils spite, In fury raging stout? Why taketh in hond: the people fond, Vayne things to bring about?".[n 2] The tune is in Double Common Metre (D.C.M. or C.M.D.).[12]

According to his biographer Michael Kennedy, Vaughan Williams came to associate Tallis's theme with John Bunyan's Christian allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress, a subject with which the composer had a lifelong fascination; he used the tune in 1906 in incidental music he composed for a stage version of the book.[13] For the Hymnal, he adapted the tune as a setting of Joseph Addison's hymn "When rising from the bed of death".[14][n 3]


The term "fantasia", according to Frank Howes in his study of Vaughan Williams's works, referred to the 16th-century forerunner of the fugue "in that a thread of theme was enunciated and taken up by other parts, then dropped in favour of another akin to it which was similarly treated".[15] Vaughan Williams's fantasia draws on but does not strictly follow this precept, containing sections in which the material is interrelated, although with little wholly imitative writing, and antiphony in preference to contrapuntal echoing of themes.[15]

The Fantasia is scored for double string orchestra with string quartet, employing antiphony between the three contributory ensembles. Orchestra I is the main body of strings; Orchestra II is smaller.[16] The published score does not stipulate the number of players in Orchestra I; Orchestra II consists of two first violins, two seconds, two violas, two cellos and one double bass[17] The composer's metronome marking indicates a playing time of 11½ minutes,[18][n 4] but in recorded performances the duration has varied between 12m 40s (Dmitri Mitropoulos, 1958) and 18m 12s (Leonard Bernstein, 1976), with a more typical time of between 15 and 16½ minutes.[18][23]

The piece is structured with an introduction, opening statement of the themes (Tallis’ original hymn melody broken up into its four constituent phrases and interspersed with a “swaying chord” motif), four episodes (exploring different variations of those themes and different voicings across the three ensembles), and then a restatement of the themes and a coda.[24]

The Introduction begins in B-flat major with all three groups playing together, ppp molto sostenuto for two bars of 4
time before moving to 3
and the low strings plucking hints of the first two phrases of the Tallis theme interspersed with the bowed sway motif.[25] Kennedy describes the introduction as “a hauntingly poetic introduction before we hear its first full statement in Tallis's four-part harmonisation".[13] Howes comments that "a phrase of swaying chords" after the initial statement of the theme "acts as a kind of recurrent refrain" throughout the main body of the piece.[15]

In the Opening Statement of the full theme, beginning in the 15th bar, the two orchestras and solo quartet come together. The first two Tallis phrases and sway motif are played on all second violins, violas and celli continuing into a 6
section in Phrygian mode for the third and fourth phrases of Tallis’ theme.[26] The first violins join for a restatement of the fourth phrase. In the 30th bar the time signature changes back to 3
and the music rises to a climax. Schwarts says “There's much octave double-stopping (each string player sounds two notes at once), a higher dynamic, and an appassionato marking after all!”[27] The statement ends dying away in 6
section dying with a texture remeniscent of the opening two bars.

In the First Episode the two orchestras divide, the key switches to C major and the time signature (but not the pulse of the music) changes rapidly. The section uses the second and third Tallis phrases alternating with the sway motif.

The solo viola leads off the Second Episode with a variation on the third Tallis phrase in E phrygian marked Poco più animato. The other three members of the quartet join, followed by the two orchestras, while “the string quartet continues its polyphonic meditation”.[28]

The Third Episode explores the sway motif. The quartet and orchestra 1 play together, contrasting with orchestra 2, and moving poco a poco animando to a crescendo to fortissimo. The climax is in 5
.[29] This dies down to a pianissimo "afterglow".[30]

In the Fourth and shortest episode, marked molto adagio, the sway motif is fragmented. Schwartz describes it as the "deep heart's core of the entire piece - a miracle of the imagination”.

The music reverts to the original time and key for the Restatement. The themes return once again plucked on the low strings then taken up by solo violin and viola, while the reunited orchestras provide a “featherbed of sound”.[31]

In Howes's analysis, "by way of coda the solo violin soars [and] The work ends on a chord of G major".[15]

Kennedy observes:

The spacious and sonorous use of spread chords, the majestic cadences and extreme range of dynamics, along with the antiphony between the two string bodies (playing alternately, the one answering the other, often like an echo), the contrast with the string quartet, and the passages for solo violin and solo viola combine to create a luminous effect.[13]

Vaughan Williams revised the work twice: first in January 1913 (for the first London performance), and then again in April 1919, making it more concise each time,[32] taking a total of about two minutes off the original 1910 playing time.[33]


The premiere of the Fantasia received a generally warm welcome, with a few exceptions: Herbert Brewer, the Gloucester cathedral organist, described it as "a queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea".[34] The Musical Times reviewer said, "It is a grave work, exhibiting power and much charm of the contemplative kind, but it appears over long for the subject-matter".[35] Other reviews were more enthusiastic. The reviewer in The Daily Telegraph praised Vaughan Williams's mastery of string effect and added that although the work might not appeal to some because of its "seeming austerity", it was "extremely beautiful to such as have ears for the best music of all ages".[36] In The Manchester Guardian, Samuel Langford wrote, "The melody is modal and antique in flavour, while the harmonies are as exotic as those of Debussy … The work marks out the composer as one who has got quite out of the ruts of the commonplace".[37] In The Times, J. A. Fuller Maitland also commented on ancient and Debussian echoes, and observed:

Throughout its course one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new. … But that is just what makes this Fantasia so delightful to listen to; it cannot be assigned to a time or a school, but it is full of the visions which have haunted the seers of all times.[38]

In 1954 Howes wrote:

The work in its definitive form has the solidity and grandeur of a cathedral, to which its strains seem to belong by a natural affinity. It has passed into the repertory of all the great orchestras of the world. Its intense Englishness has been no bar to international understanding, whatever may have been said along those lines about other of Vaughan Williams's compositions.[15]

Listeners of the British classical music radio station Classic FM have regularly voted the piece into the top five of the station's "Hall of Fame", an annual poll of the most popular classical music works.[39]


Although the BBC first broadcast the Fantasia in 1926, and again over the following decade, conducted by the composer and Arturo Toscanini,[40] it was not until 1936 that the work was recorded for the gramophone. The fledgling Decca company recorded it with Boyd Neel conducting his orchestra under the supervision of the composer in January 1936,[41] a set described by The Gramophone as one of the outstanding records of the year.[42] Since then there have been more than fifty recordings by orchestras and conductors from various countries.

Year Orchestra Conductor
1936 Boyd Neel Orchestra Boyd Neel
1940 BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBC SO) Sir Adrian Boult
1945 NBC Symphony Orchestra Arturo Toscanini
1945 Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra Dimitri Mitropoulos
1946 Hallé Orchestra John Barbirolli
1952 Philharmonia Orchestra Herbert von Karajan
1952 Stokowski Symphony Orchestra Leopold Stokowski
1952 New Symphony Orchestra of London Anthony Collins
1953 New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) Dmitri Mitropoulos
1957 Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra Boult
1958 NYPO Dmitri Mitropoulos
1959 Philharmonia Sir Malcolm Sargent
1960 Symphony of the Air Leopold Stokowski
1961 Vienna State Opera Orchestra Boult
1962 Sinfonia of London Barbirolli
1963 Boston Symphony Orchestra Pierre Monteux
1963 Philadelphia Orchestra Eugene Ormandy
1964 Morton Gould Orchestra Morton Gould
1965 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra William Steinberg
1966 London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) Istvan Kertesz
1967 Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Constantin Silvestri
1968 Utah Symphony Orchestra Maurice Abravanel
1970 LPO Boult
1972 Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) Neville Marriner
1973 LPO Vernon Handley
1974 New Philharmonia Stokowski
1974 LPO Handley
1975 LPO Boult
1975 RPO Stokowski
1976 NYPO Leonard Bernstein
1979 LSO André Previn
1980 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Norman Del Mar
1981 St Louis Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin
1983 ASMF Marriner
1984 English Symphony Orchestra William Boughton
1985 Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
1986 LPO Bernard Haitink
1986 LPO Bryden Thomson
1986 CBC Chamber Orch Alexander Brott
1988 Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) Previn
1989 Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Dalia Atlas
1989 RPO Sir Charles Groves
1990 BBC SO Sir Andrew Davis
1990 Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) Vernon Handley
1991 City of London Sinfonia Richard Hickox
1991 London Festival Orchestra Ross Pople
1991 Philharmonia Leonard Slatkin
1991 Consort of London Robert Hayden Clark
1992 New Queen's Hall Orchestra Barry Wordsworth
1997 LPO Roger Norrington
2001 New Zealand Symphony Orchestra James Judd
2002 RPO Christopher Warren-Green
2003 Chamber Orchestra of Europe Douglas Boyd
2005 LSO Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
2006 Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Robert Spano
2012 Christ Church Camerata (Newcastle, Australia) Geza Szilvay, David Banney
2016 RPO Pinchas Zukerman
2017 Hallé Sir Mark Elder
2019 RLPO Andrew Manze
2020 London Chamber Orchestra Warren-Green
2020 Philharmonia Orchestra John Wilson
2022 Park Avenue Chamber Symphony David Bernard

Notes, references and sources[edit]


  1. ^ Frank Howes in his book about Vaughan Williams (1954) says that the work had one prior performance, conducted by Thomas Beecham in London in 1909, but this is evidently an error. The Gloucester performance was the premiere, according to the published score,[6] and to studies of Vaughan Williams by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Ryan Ross, Alain Frogley and Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and contemporary newspapers recorded a Queen's Hall performance in February 1913 as the work's first performance in London.[7][8]
  2. ^ Musically, the same biblical passage is also familiar in Handel's Messiah: "Why do the nations so furiously rage together, And why do the people imagine a vain thing?"[11]
  3. ^ The Hymnal notes that Horatius Bonar's hymn "I heard the Voice of Jesus Say" and many other D.C.M. hymns may also be sung to this tune.[12]
  4. ^ Vaughan Williams's metronome markings for this and other works have been called into question.[19][20] He did not observe them himself when conducting his works, and was present at recordings by Boyd Neel and Sir Adrian Boult where he did not object to slower tempi than marked.[21] His musical assistant Roy Douglas has suggested that Vaughan Williams simply miscalculated because he did not possess a metronome.[22]


  1. ^ Howes, pp. 86–87; and Ottaway, Hugh, and Alain Frogley. "Vaughan Williams, Ralph", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2001. Retrieved 24 December 2020 (subscription required)
  2. ^ Ursula Vaughan Williams, p. 88
  3. ^ Day, p. 25
  4. ^ a b Howes, p. 87
  5. ^ "Three Choirs Festival", The Musical Standard, 3 September 1910, p. 143
  6. ^ Vaughan Williams, R. "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis", Serenissima Music, 2011. Retrieved 24 December 2020
  7. ^ "Balfour Gardiner Concerts", Pall Mall Gazette, 10 February 1913, p. 5 and "Latest News", The Scotsman, 12 February 1913, p. 9
  8. ^ Ursula Vaughan Williams, p. 88; Ross, p. 162; Frogley and Thomson, p. 82; and Shaw, Watkins, and John C. Phillips. "Three Choirs Festival", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, 2001. Retrieved 24 December 2020 (subscription required)
  9. ^ Mellers, pp. 49–50
  10. ^ Foreman, Lewis (2019). Notes to Onyx CD 4212
  11. ^ "Messiah libretto", Handel Institut. Retrieved 24 December 2020
  12. ^ a b Dearmer and Vaughan Williams, p. 63
  13. ^ a b c Kennedy, Michael (2014). Notes to Hallé CD CDHLL 7540
  14. ^ Frogley and Thompson, p. 90
  15. ^ a b c d e Howes, p. 91
  16. ^ Howes, p. 90
  17. ^ Ralph Vaughan Williams, p. 2
  18. ^ a b Atlas (2011), p. 119
  19. ^ Adams, Byron. "The stages of revision of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony", The Musical Quarterly, Fall 1989 (subscription required)
  20. ^ Atlas (2010), pp. 24–25
  21. ^ Culshaw, p. 121; Boult, Sir Adrian "Vaughan Williams and his Interpreters", The Musical Times, October 1972, pp. 957–958 (subscription required); and Notes to Somm CD SOMMCD 071 (2007) and Decca CD 00028947860464 (2013)
  22. ^ Douglas, p. 66
  23. ^ Notes to Parlophone 0724356724051 (Barbirolli); Parlophone 0077776401751 (Boult); Parlophone 0077774939454 (Haitink); Onxy ONYX4212 (Manze) and CDHLL7540 (Elder)
  24. ^ "Classical Net - Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, A Guide".
  25. ^ Ralph Vaughan Williams, p. 3
  26. ^ Ralph Vaughan Williams, p. 4
  27. ^ "Classical Net - Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, A Guide".
  28. ^ "Classical Net - Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, A Guide".
  29. ^ Ralph Vaughan Williams, pp. 9–17
  30. ^ "Classical Net - Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, A Guide".
  31. ^ "Classical Net - Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, A Guide".
  32. ^ Atlas (2011), p. 118
  33. ^ Atlas (2011), p. 141
  34. ^ Hurd, p. 24
  35. ^ "The Gloucester Festival", The Musical Times, 1 October 1910, p. 650
  36. ^ "Gloucester Festival", The Daily Telegraph, 8 September 1910, p. 7
  37. ^ Langford, Samuel. "Gloucester Musical Festival", The Manchester Guardian, 7 September 1910, p. 6
  38. ^ "Music", The Times, 7 September 1910, p. 11
  39. ^ "Hall of Fame 2014 and "Hall of Fame 2020", Classic FM. Retrieved 26 December 2020
  40. ^ "Vaughan Williams Fantasia Thomas Tallis", BBC Genome. Retrieved 24 December 2020
  41. ^ Stuart, Philip. Decca Classical, 1929–2009, AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music. Retrieved 5 September 2014
  42. ^ "Some records of the year", The Gramophone, December 1936, p. 279




  • Atlas, Allan (2010). "On the Structure and Proportions of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis". Journal of the Royal Musical Association. 135 (1): 115–144. doi:10.1080/02690401003597797. JSTOR 43741608. S2CID 191641106. (subscription required)
  • Atlas, Allan (Autumn 2011). "On the proportions of the passacaglia (fourth movement) of Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony". The Musical Times. 152 (1916): 19–32. JSTOR 23037971. (subscription required)

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