While current copyright laws strictly regulate the practice of appropriating other persons’ creative property, it was a sign of esteem for a composer of the Renaissance to borrow a tune — or even a whole piece — from one of his colleagues and rearrange it in a new setting. Thus, there are countless interborrowings among Renaissance composers of masses and motets. There are also numerous "In nomine" pieces in the English string ensemble literature, all based on a fragment of plainchant used in a mass setting by the early 16th-century composer, John Taverner.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) honored that practice in borrowing a theme from his great 16th-century English forebear, Thomas Tallis, and extending it into an elaborate, richly textured fantasia for double string orchestra and a solo string quartet. The theme is the third of nine tunes (each in a different modal scale) that Tallis contributed to a metrical psalter compiled by Archbishop Matthew Parker in 1567. John Addison, a hymn writer born 15 years after the psalter was published, later added the text:
“When rising from the bed of death,
O’erwhelmed with guilt and fear,
I see my Maker face to face,
O how shall I appear?”
It was this composite version that Vaughan Williams encountered when he was asked to edit the English Hymnal in 1906. Tallis’ plaintive Phrygian-mode melody again came to mind in 1910 when Vaughan Williams was commissioned to write a work for the famed Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral.
The melody consists of two large sections, the first of which is subdivided into two nearly identical phrases. The two phrases in the second half complement each other in a question/answer profile; this half of the melody is further enlivened by constantly changing meters (3/4, 6/8, and 4/4) that alter the pulse in successive measures.
After a short introduction, the Fantasia begins with two complete statements of the theme by the combined string orchestras. In the second of these, the melody rises high in the violins and the accompanying figuration is more elaborate. Then, Vaughan Williams begins a process of dividing his forces and his musical materials. The two orchestras echo each other in a musical conversation based on the first half of the theme. The solo viola takes up the second half of the theme, later joined by the solo violin, the string quartet, and eventually the two orchestras. This turns into a lengthy discussion of various thematic fragments from the melody before the complete theme returns in an elaborate violin/viola duet accompanied by the full orchestra.
The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is notable for the full, shimmering tone of its many-voiced string ensemble, its flowing, interwoven themes, and the diaphanous modal harmony by which Vaughan Williams mutates the sound of the work’s 16th-century counterpart, the instrumental fantasia for an ensemble of strings so popular during the English Renaissance.
-- Carl Cunningham, former music critic of the Houston Post, has taught at universities in the Houston area for more than 20 years.
Composed: 1910; revised 1919
Length: 15 mintues
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 26, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting