Oh boy oh boy oh boy. I am such a RVW fangirl. The chord progressions he wrote open up a new dimension for me. It’s like the voice of the divine. It sounds very, very old but still vibrant. The “Fantasia” is the quintessential example of this. I will never forget the first time I heard it. I was driving in the car with one of my parents, probably my Dad, and it came on the radio. I was so entranced it was like I could see the music. It was so beautiful, it hurt. This is another one of those pieces that, for me, identifies and magnifies whatever mood I’m in. It is a magical piece.
Most classical music enthusiasts, or so I imagine, carry around in their heads at least a few names on a list of favorite composers who we believe are not as widely appreciated as they deserve to be. (If you are fortunate, this is balanced by a list of composers who aren’t as great as everyone else seems to think, since shunning the overrated ones helps offset the expense of buying CDs of the works by the people in the underappreciated group.) My roster for the first category is alas much longer than for the second, and right at the top sits Ralph (remember it rhymes with “safe”) Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Britain’s greatest symphonist.
Vaughan Williams wrote a plethora of wonderful music over the course of more than sixty years, but among it all his most enduringly beloved work is this one. There are very few compositions anywhere in the vast Western concert repertoire that surpass the sublime Tallis Fantasia for sheer beauty. It is neither ornamental nor ramblingly mystical, but both transcendental and sensible in a way that C. S. Lewis might be able to describe. Even after having sifted through dozens of renditions of this piece over the past few days while selecting a video for this post, when played well it still gives me chills.
This performance, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, was recorded in Gloucester Cathedral, the location for which the young RVW composed the Fantasia and where he conducted the premiere of the original version in 1910 (though they presumably didn’t play it in the dark on that occasion). While the direction of this video brings to mind Fred Astaire’s declaration early in his film career that “either the camera will dance or I will,” it aptly demonstrates the peculiar ensemble called for by the composition: a string orchestra, a quartet, and an additional group of players ideally to be seated well away from the others (often positioned in an upper gallery in performances in churches or halls so equipped). If the incessant crane and dolly shots in this video drive you crazy, there are literally hundreds of other recordings of the piece on YouTube, thanks in part to its popularity among high school and university orchestra directors.
The theme of the Fantasia comes from this tune by the incomparable Thomas Tallis, which appeared in Archbishop Parker’s Psalter of 1567