The Story Behind the Beloved Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Jan 23, 2018

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.  

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

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 music while editing a new English hymnal.

“There’s sound coming from somewhere but you’re not quite sure where it is, “says Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles, who is chief conductor of BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, among other positions.  

“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, January 21st at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, listen to Donald Runnicles lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in program that includes Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. In addition to his position in Scotland, Runnicles is also general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and music director of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson, Wyoming.