I never thought I would be able to do this. In fact I'm still not sure that I have actually 'done' anything with it. I hope it is enough to say that this is the piece of music - above all others on this entire web site - that I have spent the longest time recording. Four months in total. I've started and stopped it twice and scrapped it once, but I felt I just had to soldier on regardless because I was doing something. I even thought at one time I would only be recording this for myself, as I never thought I could possibly do it justice. Listening to it now I hope that I have.
Vaughan Williams wrote this masterful music specifically for Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, composing it for a double string orchestra and a string section, each of the three parts being used to mimic the swell, great and choir divisions on an organ. The theme (heard only three times in the piece's duration) is based upon Thomas Tallis' Why Fum'th In Fight, but the remainder takes its cue from the extemporisation that places this deeply within the Elizabethan Fantasy category, where (again, a recurring theme with me) one thing flows into another and then to another and so on, never coming back to where it started but always slipping you the hint that it might. Of course, this does happen in the end of the Tallis Fantasia but not until it has exhausted all other correct possibilities of exploration.
This composer is often dismissed as being a tad too romantic, too rolling English hills, too folk music, too soundtracky, too pastoral, too lightweight for many to take entirely seriously. The Tallis Fantasia is all of these things in a sense - it's not music that could possibly come from any other country than England - yet it fulfills so much more than wistful longings for the simple life that arguably never really existed anyway. And it pulls some magnificent musical tricks too. The best of the lot is the opening, with the grounded basses and cellos playing only half a dozen legato notes in harmony along with violins at the upper end of their range, slowly fading into the picture. The distance between the tones provides you with not only a foundation, but a huge vaulted ceiling above it - Vaughan Williams was building a cathedral in sound within which context the rest of the music will be heard, and it's impossible (I think) to hear the slow entrance of these notes without thinking of sunlight streamed through stained glass windows in the nave. Magnificent.
Like good English beer there is something profoundly satisfying about this composition. It may be the sonority of the strings, the delicacy of the small section juxtaposed with the enormity of a double orchestra, the winding and meandering lines of the viola towards the end, the endless rising upwards of the two orchestras playing across one another...or it might just be that it just feels completely right.
Playing it is hard work. Listening to it is a revelation. I don't believe much of what I read about him, but when I hear this I feel like I've just met the Almighty himself. Heaven knows what this must sound like to the devout.