Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

One of the pieces of classical music I remember being drawn to as a younger man is Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

The fantasia is probably one of Vaughan Williams’s most famous orchestral works. He based it on a theme written by the English Renaissance composer (yes, you guessed it) Thomas Tallis (1505-1585).

The piece, written and premiered in 1910, is dramatic and rhapsodic, rising to great heights then becoming soft and lyrical once again. It’s the kind of music that makes me dream of witnessing a live orchestral performance again.

Another Vaughan Williams composition is Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, a piece for harp and strings orchestra. Vaughan Williams based that work on the folk tune “Dives and Lazarus,” which he also turned into the hymn tune “Kingsfold” (1906). This tune is the basis for the hymn, “I Feel the Winds of God Today,” which is my favourite hymn, Number 625 in the United Church of Canada’s Voices United hymn book. (English school teacher Jessie Adams [1863-1954] wrote the lyrics for the hymn.) It’s a song that stirs me deep in my soul every time I think of it, never mind hear it, which is rare since I haven’t regularly attended church in many years, and haven’t sung it for as many. I’m not sure if I knew before that Vaughan Williams had written the tune; if I did, I’d forgotten.

Another popular work is Fantasia on “Greensleeves” (1934), based on the melody of the 16th century English traditional folk song, Greensleeves.” This fantasia is an arrangement, by composer and arranger Ralph Greaves, of an orchestral interlude from Sir John in Love (1928), the only work of Vaughan Williams’s that he classified as an opera.

Vaughan Williams had a long career in music, writing music for sixty years. He took time away from his music to join the military at age 42 when World War I broke out, and served as an ambulance driver in the Royal Medical Corps. He later served in the Royal Artillery, where the noise from guns led to hearing loss. The horrors of war and comrades’ deaths undoubtedly influenced his later compositions, though I don’t know enough about those. I would like to explore his work some more.

Vaughan Williams served in a civilian role in World War II as chair of the Home Office Committee for the Release of Interned Alien Musicians.

Now you know a little about why this is my song of the day for today. Thanks for joining me here, and please enjoy.

Here’s a video of a physically-distanced performance from the Philharmonia Sessions in 2020 by the Philharmonia Orchestra (London, UK), conducted by John Wilson, from the orchestra’s official YouTube channel:

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