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The Inspiration for Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”


Thomas Tallis

We’re celebrating the Classical California Ultimate Playlist with a series of fun and informative blogs about the music you love.

Many of us hold a special place in our hearts for Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Whether it’s the mystical harmonies that seem to have one foot in the Renaissance period and the other in the 20th-century, or the luscious timbre of the string orchestra, or simply the transcendent and meditative sonic world the piece inhabits, the piece seems to be universally loved.

While many know the Vaughan Williams piece well, how many of us are familiar with the original work by Thomas Tallis that Vaughan Williams based his piece on?

Vaughan Williams first encountered the “Theme by Thomas Tallis” that he used while he was editing the 1906 English Hymnal for the Church of England. The haunting melody comes from the third psalm tune from Tallis’s Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, a collection of vernacular psalm settings being compiled in 1567 for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker.

This third psalm tune is nicknamed “The Third Mode Melody” as it is in the Phrygian mode, a Medieval church scale that is related to the modern minor scale. Here is Archbishop Parker’s text for the psalm:

Why fumeth in fight: The Gentils spite,
In fury raging stout?
Why taketh in hond: The people fond,
Vain thinges to bring about?
The kinges arise: The lordes devise,
In counsayles mett thereto:
Agaynst the Lord: With false accord,
Against his Christ they go.

Check out this performance of Thomas Tallis’s Third Tune from Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, “Why fum’th in fight.”

I’m sure you’ll find that Tallis’s original piece is as stunning as the Vaughan Williams Fantasia which drew its inspiration from it. It’s easy to hear how Vaughan Williams was enraptured with this haunting melody and created the timeless masterpiece that we all love today!

Written by:
Thomas Kotcheff
Thomas Kotcheff
Published on 09.15.2021

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