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Fantasia On Greensleeves Vaughan Williams Analysis Essay

Vaughan Williams wrote the Tallis Fantasia in 1910 for the Three Choirs Festival. He revised the work twice - in 1913 and in 1919. Many consider the work his first indisputable masterpiece, although I can find even earlier ones. Certainly, it is one of the most popular pieces in his catalogue.

Vaughan Williams had been thoroughly trained as a composer under Parry and Stanford (he also read history at Cambridge). His name, especially as a song writer, had begun to become known when he was asked to assume the musical editorship of The English Hymnal (he had previously edited the Welcome Odes for the Purcell Society). Under his editorship, the hymnal became the single most influential musical force not only in the English church, but in several American ones. Later hymnals routinely plunder the tunes found, arranged, composed, and commissioned by Vaughan Williams. Interestingly, he hesitated before accepting the position, since he knew that he would have no time for his own composition. It turned out, however, that years' immersion in some of the greatest tunes in the world had salutary effects on the composer. One of them was his acquaintance with the 'Third Psalter Tune', associated with Addison's hymn "When, rising from the bed of death" (No. 92 in the English Hymnal). This became the basis of the Fantasia.

In 1908, although Vaughan Williams had some important works to his credit, he took three months to study with Ravel (a younger man, by the way). This led, not surprisingly, to a new interest in sonority. Evidently, Ravel also took a few ideas from Vaughan Williams. Pre-Ravel Vaughan Williams orchestrates like Parry, who orchestrated like Brahms. He also studied Elgar's Dream of Gerontius intently, even though he later reacted against that piece in his own oratorios. After Ravel, we get an interest in the juxtaposition of distinct colors, as opposed to the "kaleidoscope effect" in Elgar, a line that constantly shifts colors, or the "black-and-white" high relief of Brahms, used mainly to clarify inner-voice counterpoint.

Given the new interest in color, Vaughan Williams seems almost perverse in writing a piece for string choir, usually thought of as homogenous. He also eschews the flashier string effects of col legno, glissando, martellato, and so on. He gets most of his contrast by dividing the strings into three groups of unequal strength:

1. A general choir - designated as orchestra I
2. A smaller group of 9 players, consisting of 2 first violins, 2 second violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 1 bass - orchestra II
3. A string quartet

He may have gotten the idea from Elgar's masterful Introduction and Allegro for string orchestra and string quartet (1905), a work Vaughan Williams certainly knew. However, the two works sound nothing alike, and they take from different sets of procedures. Elgar embraces the language of the late nineteenth century - deriving from Wagnerian and Brahmsian chromaticism. Vaughan Williams finds in the old church modes (also found in folk and Elizabethan music) an escape from what he considered a harmonic cul-de-sac. Elgar uses the forms of the Classical and Romantic Central European tradition: sonata-allegro, overture with two episodes, and fugue. Vaughan Williams bases his piece on the Elizabethan fantasy - an instrumental form which develops, primarily contrapuntally, several related themes in independent sections.

Despite its instrumental incarnation, the fantasy derives from the sectional and contrapuntal nature of madrigal. Basically, what we will hear are the announcement of themes and then their elaboration in more or less independent sections. The kicker and the stroke of genius lies in the difference between the sound of Elgar's and Vaughan Williams' string orchestra. It comes down to Vaughan Williams' second group, which generally provides a dying echo to the first group or acts as the "halo" of the sound. The richness and intense sweetness of the strings carries over into other works of this time - the Phantasy Quintet, the Five Mystical Songs, and the Symphony No. 2 "London." As Vaughan Williams' career proceeded, the string sound became leaner, more athletic, mainly because the music had changed. I wouldn't wish his compositional journey to have been any different, but I must admit an especial fondness for this sound - a fondness mixed with the regret that he had to move on.

Many people regard the work as grave or emotionally cool, and I must confess I find myself in the opposite camp. The score is full of directions like animato, animando, cantabile, espressivo, and molto espressivo. In fact, I'm surprised there's no appassionato. It may begin small and fall back, but only to provide a place where it can turn up the intensity a notch or two. To me, it shares the structure of a great sermon, starting with daily life and leading you to heaven by degrees.

The following guide uses timings (usually noted in parentheses) from the London Philharmonic Orchestra performance conducted by Sir Adrian Boult (EMI CDC747213 2). I do prefer Barbirolli's performance, but people in the U.S. may have trouble obtaining that particular CD. I emphasize that this is a listener's guide, meant to be followed as one listens to the piece. Unless you already know the work fairly well, the description alone makes little sense.

The Work in General

Someone jokingly remarked to the composer, "You know, VW, all your best-sellers are not your own," referring to works like the English Folk-Song Suite, the Fantasia on Greensleeves, the Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus, and this one. But the work is Vaughan Williams' as much as the Cantata No. 140, based on a pre-existing chorale tune, is Bach's. In fact, the tune is interesting mainly in the way Vaughan Williams elaborates on it. Also, despite the title "Fantasia," Vaughan Williams has composed a very tight work, with almost no wasted notes.

The Fantasia consists of the following large sections:

1. An introduction, where Vaughan Williams hints at 3 major themes (0:00)
2. Full statement of all themes (1:15), repeated at 2:31
3. First Episode (3:57)
4. Second episode (6:10)
5. Third episode (8:46) – the major climax of the work occurs here
6. Transition - or fourth episode – (12:15), leading to
7. Restatement of all themes (13:05)
8. Coda (14:50 to the end)

In other words, the overall form corresponds roughly to the Elizabethan fantasia for viols, the music the composer seeks to evoke. But the composer doesn't indulge in antiquarianism. He writes a thoroughly modern work. You wouldn't find, for example, section 6 or the elaborate transitions throughout the work (not to mention the extreme tempo and dynamic changes) in the older music. The harmony, though modal, is really a Vaughan Williams invention (with a little help from Debussy). Long before Stravinsky's neoclassic essays, Vaughan Williams reaches out over the centuries to shake hands with the Tudor composer Tallis. Unlike Stravinsky, however, who creates artistic tension between two eras by keeping past procedures and present distinct, Vaughan Williams, like many good Romantics, essentially incorporates the past to reinvigorate the present.

The Musical Material

The Fantasia uses two main themes:

The Tallis hymn: A "swaying" subject (Michael Kennedy's phrase), first heard at 0:37. This generates many of the subsidiary themes in the work.

The swaying subject initially doesn't sound all that promising. Essentially, it centers around one note. But Vaughan Williams finds remarkable uses for it. The subject functions in several ways:

1. As a response to the "call" of another theme
2. As a transition from one theme to another, or as an approach to or departure from a climax
3. As a theme in its own right

Vaughan Williams also breaks up the hymn into its constituent phrases, so that we really have a set of subthemes:

A1. A rising theme beginning with an identifying minor-third interval, first heard plucked by the lower strings at the beginning of the work (0:27)
A2. An answering phrase in the same rhythm as A1, first heard at 0:48, again plucked in the lower strings
A3. A dotted rhythm in triple time, on a rising, yearning phrase in Phrygian mode (on the piano, play e-f-g-a-g-f-e), heard in its full form at 1:49. This phrase apparently meant a great deal to Vaughan Williams. It stays with him throughout his career and culminates in his opera The Pilgrim's Progress, in the entrance into the Celestial City, where it is set to glorious alleluias.
A4. Yet another dotted rhythm in triple time (2:07), which moves like a galliard and usually is reserved for climaxes and backing off to quieter levels. It generally moves down in pitch.

We'll see how this plays out.


The Fantasia begins with a series of descending 'magic chords' (the melodic outline resembles that of Vaughan Williams' song, "Bright is the ring of words," from Songs of Travel) (0:00). At the time, Vaughan Williams was interested in unusual chord changes. You find the same thing introducing the slow movements to the Symphony No. 1 ("Sea") and Symphony No.2 ("A London Symphony"). In the low strings, we hear an adumbration of A1 plucked out softly (0:27). This is answered by the sway (0:37) under a held note from the high strings. The low strings now pluck out A2 (0:48). The sway rises to a shortened A3 (1:05), which abruptly cuts both itself and the introductory section off.


(1:15) The Tallis themes sound in their full forms: A1, sway, A2, sway, A3, and A4. All strings play in the first statement, with the second violins, violas, and first celli handling the melody in unison, for an incredibly rich string sound. Rising arpeggios from low to high in the upper strings (2:26) lead to a restatement of the theme (2:31) in the first violins and first violas (you shouldn't forget the theme). There's much octave double-stopping (each string player sounds two notes at once), a higher dynamic, and - guess what? – an appassionato marking after all! This reaches a climax, which dies in more magic chords, caught from the tail of A4.

First Episode

A2 and A3 explored. A declamatory, abrupt statement of A2 (3:57) alternates with the sway (4:09). At 4:56, A3 alternates with the sway. We then return to the introductory "magic chords" (5:07) in the smaller orchestra II, alternating with the sway in orchestra I. The sway reaches a small peak in both choirs, then dims as it alternates between orchestra I and orchestra II.

Second Episode

A3 explored. The solo viola leads off with a variant on A3 (6:10). This merges with the sway and an abrupt statement of A3, which the string quartet takes up (6:55). The sway begins again in the small choir and larger one joins in with another declaiming of A3. The string quartet continues its polyphonic meditation on the subtheme (8:11), and the full orchestra again declaims A3 (8:31) before it falls and dissolves into the sway of the string quartet (8:46).

Third Episode

Explores the swaying subject. The small choir extends the quartet's sway and takes off down new melodic bypaths, with annotations provided by the quartet (8:55). At 9:15, large and small orchestras embark on "the chant of pleasant exploration," to borrow Whitman, and begin to build (9:57) to a huge climax, culminating in A3 (11:12). This dies down to an "afterglow" in the small choir (12:00).

Fourth Episode

For me, this is the "deep heart's core" of the entire piece - a miracle of the imagination. The sway tries to start again, but doesn't seem to be able to get beyond two notes (12:15). It begins with a huge push and dissolves into fragments of "magic chords." This leads to


(13:05) The lower strings begin to pluck out Tallis's hymn once more (A1). The orchestra provides a featherbed of sound, and the solo violin and viola duet on A2, A3, and more sway. Everybody joins in on A4 (14:08), which loses heat and leads to more "magic chords" at 14:34.


At 14:50, the strings carry the sway to the end, with a short benediction.


I've known this work for almost forty years. I treasure it. I'm quite aware that understanding the skeleton says very little about the miracle of its life. If I knew how that were done, I wouldn't be writing prose.

Copyright 1995-2000, Steve Schwartz

Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra

This piece was written for a performance by the Rural Music Schools Association which took place in 1950 under the direction of Sir Adrian Boult, (and featuring a massed string orchestra of 400 players). This is why the strings are split into 3 sections: concertino – the skilled players, tutti – the intermediates, and ad lib – the beginners.
People often mistake Vaughan Williams as a "folk-y" composer, as if he wrote nothing more in his life than variations on "O Waly, Waly." His music ranges far wider than that, into very sophisticated realms. He originally wrote this string piece for all levels of string players: professionals, intermediates, and beginners who could play only open strings – even so, it's no pushover. The rhythmic problems alone will raise a player's hair. For some reason, it hasn't been performed or recorded much, and yet it's fully the equal of a work like Elgar's Introduction and Allegro or Stravinsky's Concerto in D. While not as intense as the Tallis Fantasia, it nevertheless has its passionate moments. Adrian Boult, usually so reliable in Vaughan Williams, misses the boat and turns in a lackluster performance. Norman Del Mar does considerably better.

Recommended Recordings:
Bournemouth Sinfonietta; Norman Del Mar. EMI CDC747812-2
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. Angel (LP) S-37211

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Vaughan Williams' first indisputable masterpiece and one of the great works for string orchestra written by anybody. Long before Stravinsky's neoclassic essays, Vaughan Williams looks back across centuries and shakes hands with the great Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. Further, Vaughan Williams does not merely exercise himself with recreating a surface style. Instead, the effect seems to transcend time, as a modern composer builds a modern work out of older materials and procedures. The string writing is at once audacious and assured, written with the ascoutics of Gloucester Cathedral in mind, which was where it was first performed. In fact, three independent ensembles make up the orchestra: a large group, a smaller 9-player ensemble, and a string quartet. This allows Vaughan Williams to play with both intimate and incredibly rich (and clear) textures. In fact, it's built somewhat like a great sermon: starting quietly and climbing to heaven by degrees, taking the listener along.
Other orchestral works of this period seem to borrow the Fantasia's string sound, in particular the Wasps Suite, the 5 Mystical Songs, and the 2nd Symphony. The composer's string writing became leaner as he got older – for his idiom changed and broadened as well. Still, I regret a bit that he never returned to these gorgeous sounds. Many have recorded this work; I find Boult's performance disappointing and Marriner's very thin.
For more information, see the Listener's Guide for a detailed analysis of this work.

Recommended Recordings:
Sinfonia of London, John Barbirolli. EMI CDC747537-2
Philharmonia Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent. EMI (LP) SP8676
New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein. MYK38484

Fantasia on Greensleeves

This very popular piece comes from an entr'acte and bits from RVW's marvellous opera "Sir John in Love". Despite its title, it's no fantasia, but a pretty straightforward setting of the tune Greensleeves, surrounding a vigorous section on the folk song "Lovely Joan." It's the middle section where Vaughan Williams did most of his work (the song appears very briefly in the opera), and one cannot give him a higher compliment than it enhances the beauty of the title tune. There are many recordings of this piece, and you can scarcely go wrong with any of them, but the Barbirolli CD is highly recommended.

Recommended Recordings:
Sinfonia of London; John Barbirolli. EMI CDC747537-2

5 Variants of Dives and Lazarus

This work is scored for string orchestra and harp, (preferably two), using as its basis a folk tune that Vaughan Williams had discovered over 30 years earlier. The folk tune can be heard in several parts of the British Isles, although it is known by different names; for example, in Ulster it is the basis of the folksong "The Star of the County Down". Although as Vaughan Williams states on the score: "These variants are not replicas of traditional tunes, but rather reminiscences of various versions in my own collection and those of others".
Constant Lambert, the British music critic and composer, once remarked that the only thing you could do to vary a folk song was to play it louder. Vaughan Williams, among others, proved him wrong. Delius, for example, used a simple variation technique. Vaughan Williams, more than any other British composer of his time, absorbed folk songs into his artistic psyche to such an extent, he not only wrote his own folk songs, but he was able to join them to large symphonic structures. Nowhere is this clearer than in the 5 Variants. This work is not theme and variations in the conventional sense. The folk song "Dives and Lazarus" is taken for a winding walk, pulled, and turned until it becomes an eleven-minute symphonic movement, without a trace of artistic self-consciousness.

Recommended Recordings:
The Jacques Orchestra; David Willcocks conducting. EMI CDC749023-2

In the Fen Country

As the title suggests, this is a tone poem. It is also an early work, written in 1904, and like so many of RVW's works of the period it was not published. At this point in his musical career Vaughan Williams was still developing as a composer and the piece waited 5 years after it was completed for its first performance. Despite being reorchestrated in 1935, this work was not published in the composer's lifetime and has only recently been resurrected.
It is one of the composer's first examples of great orchestral writing. Also significant is the fact that Vaughan Williams had just begun to collect folksong from the south of England, and although no folk melody is quoted directly, the inspiration of the countryside is clear – the tranquil sound of the midsection anticipating "The Lark Ascending", written 10 years later.

Recommended Recordings:
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner. Philips 442427-2
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bryden Thomson. CHAN8502

Norfolk Rhapsody #1 in E minor

When folksong meets classical music, it's usually as a rhapsody. You can thank Liszt for starting that. Vaughan Williams gathered together a number of Norfolk folksongs and by all accounts had planned to write a symphony with them, but in the end he settled for constructing 3 "rhapsodies". The first in E minor was performed at the 1906 Proms, and the other 2 at Cardiff a year later. Intriguingly though, the composer withdrew all 3 works soon after. The first rhapsody was eventually revised and published in 1925, with a tender ending replacing the original lively finish. Unfortunately, the second and third rhapsodies were never published … until 2002, when the 2nd Rhapsody was recreated from the remaining fragments and recorded for the first time by Chandos.
If the missing two are half as good as the surviving rhapsody, it's a major loss. This is a great work, using themes from the Norfolk fishing village folksongs "The Captain's Apprentice" and "The Bold Young Sailor". You'll remember two things about this work, the lovely quiet passages with woodwind piping, and the jig-like cameo appearance of the snare drum halfway through. Vaughan Williams did the nation a service by preserving this music.

Recommended Recordings:
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Norman Del Mar. EMI CDM565131 2
Philharmonia Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin. RCA 09026-61193/96-2

Partita for Double String Orchestra

Dissatisfied with its original form as a double string trio, Vaughan Williams recast it for string orchestra. It's another odd work, a very sophisticated study in rhythm, with movements honoring the British society band leader Henry Hall and, to my ears, Gustav Holst's Beni Mora. The best performance I've heard was Adrian Boult's for Everest (coupled with the Symphony #8). His second outing, for EMI, lacks the necessary rhythmic bite. Try Vernon Handley on EMI or Bryden Thomson on Chandos.

Recommended Recordings:
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Boult. EMI CDM769710-2
Royal Liverpool Symphony Orchestra; Vernon Handley. EMI (Classics for Pleasure) CDM641142
London Symphony Orchestra; Bryden Thomson, cond. Chandos CHAN8828

Copyright © 1995-2008 by Steve Schwartz & Classical Net.

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