Fantasia On A Theme of Thomas Tallis: R Vaughan Williams

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It is easy to forget that Vaughan Williams had a reputation as a rebel, an unconventional and unpredictable man both personally and musically. Easy because the music which is his legacy has an appeal which is unusually wide in 20th Century compositions, and it displays resonances which encompass almost the entire history of English music, from folk songs to mediaeval Church music. He was in fact to free British music almost single-handedly from the German influences of the 19th Century.

The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, first performed at the Gloucester Festival in 1910, is one such work. It is a piece which seems designed to highlight the inadequacy of language to describe music, at once profound, uplifting, calming and thrilling.

Vaughan Williams had already used the Tallis theme in his edition of The English Hymnal. It was one of Nine Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, and had not even justified a separate title - yet Vaughan Williams was able to take this simple melody and weave from it patterns of harmony and changes of musical colour, whilst still retaining the essential simplicity of Tallis's original setting.

The result is a masterpiece, certainly one of the crowning glories of British music of the 20th Century.

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