Friday, September 25, 2015

Gloucester Cathedral

Tallis Fantasia

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.


Hels said...

What is the thing that links three cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester? Did the composers live locally or have a connection with those particular cathedrals?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Well, a lot of great English composers did come from this part of the country (Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst, for a start), but the festival predates them. It was largely chance - the fact that the three cathedrals are quite close geographically and the musicians who worked in them tended to know one another and sometimes to work together. One of the founders of the festival in the 18th century said it was 'a fortuitous and friendly proposal, between a few lovers of harmony and brethren of the correspondent choirs'. Festivals since 1729: not bad going, as we laconic Brits would say.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

A much worthier use of cathedral space than, e.g. filming Harry Potter in Gloucester cloisters, using Worcester cloisters as yet another sales space at the Victorian Fayre, or converting Norwich Cathedral into a film set for some Arthurian hall, and kicking me out on my one and only chance to visit on that trip! The mystery of the acoustics can't be explained simply in terms of Romanesque columns or Gothic vault: I imagine the builders built as they built, with features almost unique to Gloucester, and the science of producing a good sound was a matter of trial and error. The pierced parapets of Gloucester define the building & the city, but when I was having my lunch on a bench next to the cathedral, I still couldn't fully believe in the reality of what I saw. Now, that is what I call "building"!! .

Philip Wilkinson said...

Indeed. Gloucester is unique and amazing. I go back often (it's my nearest cathedral) and the effect does not fade. I'm not necessarily against cathedrals raising money by hiring spaces for, say, recording or film location shooting, but this does need to be balanced against the requirements of those who want to visit (or indeed pray). It's interesting about the acoustics: they clearly were the result of trial and error. People would soon have got the hang of what generally to expect from a large, stone-vaulted building of Romanesque or Gothic proportions, but those things cover a multitude of sins, of course, and the actual sound would be a matter of chance. And in any case, it depends on all sorts of incidentals, such as where you (and the musicians) are in the building, how many other people are in there, and so on and on.

Joe Treasure said...

I love the thought of Howells and Gurney together and encountering that piece for the first time. It's been too many years since I've seen Gloucester Cathedral, which was the site of some powerful musical experiences in my teenage years. Thanks for bringing it so vividly to mind.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Joe. It's a great image, isn't it, these two young men, just starting out themselves as composers, sharing this extraordinary experience. Gurney, I think, could have been a great composer, had he not been plagued with the illness that incapacitated him at a time when such mental afflictions were so imperfectly treated. One of his teachers at the Royal College (Stanford I think), who taught some big musical beasts, said that Gurney was potentially the greatest of the lot.