Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis*

*1910 work by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Writing on 12/6/2010, Rob Young notes that, when this piece was first performed in Gloucester Cathedral, the cathedral organist described it as “A queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea”. A review in The Times a month later, however, commented: “One is living in two centuries at once…It cannot be assigned to a time or school but it is full of the visions which have haunted the seers of all times.”.

Young sets the context:

“This was also a generation that came of age at a time of literary time travel. William Morris’s 1890 novel News from Nowhere was set 200 years in the future, in an England transmuted to a medieval earthly paradise in which commerce, industry and government had been replaced by a system of exchange and barter between crafts-loving freemen. Richard Jefferies’s After London, or Wild England (1885) portrayed the metropolis reclaimed as a wilderness after an unspecified natural disaster. HG Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) pits the Eloi’s edenic lifestyle against the Morlocks’ industrial underworld. Along with Wells, Vaughan Williams and Holst had attended meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist Society at Morris’s home, which put them in touch with a Fabianite circle that included George Bernard Shaw and George Trevelyan.”.

He goes on to explain:

“Recurring throughout is an ascending phrase in the Phrygian mode – a scale Vaughan Williams detected repeatedly in English folk music. This motif, sounding like an ecstatic awakening, obsessed him: he used it in The Pilgrim’s Progress to denote the Christian pilgrim arriving at his goal, the Celestial City. It recurs as a portal ushering the listener through each of the Fantasia‘s brief, concentrated segments, all the way to the final unison chord which, if struck correctly, conjures the illusion of a church organ.”

Interesting, then, to read a piece, How Time’s Arrow and the Phrygian Half-Step Make Jewish Music Holy, by David P Goldman (29/9/14), in which he proposes:

“The high musical culture of Eastern European chazanut is a uniquely Jewish art form, but it is not sealed off hermetically from the ambient Western musical culture. Nonetheless it is uniquely Jewish both in form and—decisively—in function. I shall argue that although chazanut draws on elements of Western musical culture, it employs them in an entirely original fashion for a uniquely Jewish religious purpose. Eastern European synagogue chant evokes the reversibility of time in its most characteristic gesture, namely the “Phrygian” or Freygisch descent from the flattened 2nd of the scale to the 1st degree, or tonic note. To hear this move in the Freygisch (Ahavah raba) mode as transformation of the directionality of time, we must hear it in the context of the tonality of Western music, with its clear sense of time’s forward motion. The Freygish flattened half-step, I will argue, functions as an ironic reversal of the most characteristic gesture in Western tonal music: the ascent of the sharpened 7th degree of the ordinary Western scale, or leading tone, to the tonic. This is the most characteristic pointer to the forward motion of time in Western music.”

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