Introducing Classical Music #3 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Okay, so now it is that time of the year where everyone has packed away the decorations, and even though the evenings are still dark, and there is that cold wind whirling around that makes life miserable and not very nice at all. There is hope. Spring is only just around the corner.

There are very few pieces of music that quite make me think of a warm day in spring when the flowers are out in bloom, birdsong fills the air, and the sun’s warmth floods down upon us bathing in such a warm light that our eyes go yellow when we look upwards with them closed. But this is one of them. I can never listen to it without thinking of spring days full of life and joy. Cricket is being played in parks and fields around the country, and life feels that much brighter and enjoyable.

Okay, it is very cliched. But there are not a lot of composers who quite evoke the gentleness of the English landscape in full bloom quite like Vaughan Williams. For that reason, many either look at him with disdain, while others wave his music around like a George’s Cross flag. A defining mark of their Englishness. Giving little thought to the man, and the more significant meaning behind his music.

Yes, he was a very proud Englishman. Not in the mould that we find in abundance today, who sees the pride of nationality as little more than a loathing of all other nations. For him being a proud Englishman meant that he took pleasure in the folk and music customs of the country. He and George Butterworth spend the pre-war years travelling the land recording the lyrics and music of songs that were fast dying out, in an effort to save them for posterity. Like Yeats in Ireland who recorded the folk stories that in turn gave shape to his vision of the art of Ireland, Vaughan Williams used these folk melodies to give a definitive English voice to his music.

He did this because he wanted English music to be clearly defined away from the German mode which was prevalent due to the Germanic world’s iconic composers who had themselves heavily influenced composers from the rest of Europe, Elgar himself was heavily influenced in the Germanic musical tradition in no small part to his being embraced there before he became the definitive voice of English music.

That Vaughan Williams did this at a time when Sibelius, Dvorak, and others were also looking to their native music and stories for inspiration shows how much he was on the pulse of the growing nationalism that saw Europe tip over into a destructive war, one which RVW himself served in as an ambulance driver and killed George Butterworth and other young voices that could have become greats too had they lived.

He also looked to English music of the Renaissance period, and this piece is based on a melody written by one of the great English Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis, whose Spem in Alium (I will get around to this piece) is just an exquisite piece of muscle flexing by a composer from a country looked down upon by the continent.  The melody was composed in 1567 to be included in a hymn book.

The Fantasia was composed and performed in 1910, but was altered a couple of times between then and 1919 before RVW was happy with it, and we have the version known and loved by many today.

So it should be no surprise that this music conjures up the feeling of being out in the British landscape in spring, feeling the carefree joie de vivre which only spring can evoke in us.

So listen to this music close your eyes and see if this music makes you think of spring too, which given the cold weather made bleaker by another Ashes defeat in Australia, might be a welcome prospect for you dear reader, as it is for me. Enjoy the glorious nostalgia for happy times and just breath in the prospect of a gorgeous spring day which is not too far away from us now.

This version is taken from the 2014 album released by the Halle Orchestra under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.


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