Friday, September 25, 2015
On A September evening in 1910 a few hundred people gathered at Gloucester Cathedral for a concert that formed part of the Three Choirs Festival, the longest-standing music festival in the world, which rotates between the three cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford, and Gloucester. The main work on the programme was Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, long enough to fill a programme in itself. But on this occasion it was accompanied by a new work, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The composer was in his late-thirties but was not yet well known. The Tallis Fantasia must have come as a wake-up call for the audience that night: a major work by an English composer and a piece with a sound-world of its own, and very different from what most of its audience would have been used to. Two younger composers, locals Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney, spent a long time after the concert wandering around the dark streets of Gloucester in a daze, mulling over what they’d heard.
Vaughan Williams wrote the Tallis Fantasia with the acoustic of the cathedral specifically in mind. It’s based on a tune by the English Tudor composer Thomas Tallis that was originally composed as a setting for a psalm and was recycled as a hymn tune by Vaughan Williams when he edited The English Hymnal. The composer clearly saw then that there was much more he could do with this theme.
The composer created the piece’s distinctive and striking sound by writing for strings alone (no woodwind, no brass, no percussion) and by using harmonies more often associated with folk or Renaissance music than with orchestral scores of his own time. Above all, he got the effect he wanted by dividing up his orchestra into groups and arranging them spatially in a particular way.
Vaughan Williams arranged his strings in three groups: orchestra 1 (a full band of first violins, second violins, cellos, and double basses); orchestra 2 (one desk from each group of strings, making up a group of nine players); and a string quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) whose members also play solos. Vaughan Williams specified that if possible orchestra 1 and orchestra 2 should sit apart from one another, their spatial separation emphasizing the dialogue between the two groups, with its developments of the Tallis theme, and its echoes, responses, and layers of sound.
Space being at a premium in concert venues, conductors often have room for only a slight separation between the groups of strings. Andrew Davies, in his 2010 centenary recording, had the luxury of an empty cathedral. This is not quite how Vaughan William could have imagined the first performance of course, with its large audience, but it does give a wonderful impression of the way the two groups work together, just as the video gives a visual impression of the cathedral’s architecture. Moving past the dizzyingly intricate lierne vault of the choir, with its network of stone ribs, past the choir screen and organ, to the empty nave, its rows of massive round Norman piers, the video reveals not only something of the diversity of Gloucester’s architecture, but also of the cavernous quality of the space. As the groups of strings converse across the Romanesque spaces and their sounds reverberate against the Gothic masonry, one can appreciate how well Vaughan Williams’s masterpiece fits the building for which it was written.