Posted by Anneliese McGee-Collett
Saturday 21st January, 2017

British Nostalgia

AYO National Music Camp
Week 2, Orchestral Concert: Saturday 21 January, 7.30pm

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

Porter Chamber Orchestra - Belinda McFarlane, director


‘People just love this work,’ says violist Patricia Pollett, ‘with its combination of the beautiful Tallis theme, the influence of Ravel and use of modal language, all tinged with a strong sense of nostalgia.’ She is discussing Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

The composer had just returned from Paris, where he had been studying with Maurice Ravel, when he composed the work in 1910. ‘He comes back home and uses a fusion of the influences that he was so enamoured with: Ravel and his way of writing, alongside a particular kind of English sentimentality.’

Despite these Ravelian influences, the music is still quintessentially British. The English love the work enough to have voted it among the top three on UK classical music radio station Classic FM’s ‘Hall of Fame’.

‘What’s so special about this piece is that viola solo! It’s rather like someone’s inner thoughts; it’s so personal, and here also tinged with sadness and wistfulness. The scoring, for two orchestras, string quartet with viola solo...it’s just magic. Vaughan Williams gets it so right. There’s often a feeling of nature stretched in this sound world; elongated and spacious, with a sense of peace and calm.’

The work is scored for an expanded string ensemble broken up into a full-sized string orchestra, a single desk from each section, and a string quartet. This is to resemble choral music, for which Tallis originally composed his psalm in 1567.

‘It translates well into a string orchestra because strings can sustain sound well. The solo viola line cuts through this sonority with its particular sound register so close to that of the human voice; it sits above the haze. In some ways the solo viola line could be likened to a lone voice in a world of many people; surrounded and yet still alone.’

Patricia speaks of the crucial role that the violas play. ‘The violas guide the harmonic logic and drama. If we don’t hear the harmony clearly – the tension and release, the strong and the weak – the melody doesn’t have anything to hang onto.’

Before Vaughan Williams, British music-making was traditionally German-dominated in style. Vaughan Williams’ music marked a decisive shift away from this tradition. Patricia comments:

‘When you look at the English countryside – the hills and dales, the sheer beauty of it – this music makes sense to me.’

– Anneliese McGee-Collett*

* Words About Music participant at AYO National Music Camp 2017