Inside The Music: Tallis Meets Tchaikovsky

Discover more about classical music in our new video series and interactive programme notes.

Music by kind permission of Naxos Records

The entire gamut of emotions features in this concert – at the heart is Tchaikovsky in particularly despairing mood, although out of hopelessness and torment emerge some of his most glorious melodies.

To lighten the mood beforehand, however, Vaughan Williams’s luminescent 1910 Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis evokes the harmonies of the 16th century, while glancing forward to the 20th – a beautiful, sensuous experience. And although Sibelius’s mesmerizing Violin Concerto ends with a movement described by one critic as a ‘Polonaise for Polar Bears’, you can sense the bleakness and the beauty of Finland’s stark landscape throughout.

10 things you didn’t know about… Vaughan Williams

  • Vaughan Williams served as a wagon orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, driving ambulances in France and, later, Greece.
  • The hymn tune ‘Down Ampney’ is named after the village in which he was born.
  • The English folk song tradition was brought back from the brink, largely thanks to his efforts in travelling throughout the countryside, transcribing songs from locals.
  • For three months in 1908, Vaughan Williams went to Paris to study orchestration with Maurice Ravel. They became close friends.
  • Vaughan Williams is the editor of the 1906 edition of the English Hymnal and was inspired to write the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis on discovering his Third Mode Melody hymn tune.
  • Composers Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells were at the premiere of the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis at Gloucester Cathedral. They were so enthralled, they spent the rest of the evening pacing the streets of Gloucester, deep in excited conversation.
  • Fellow composer Peter Warlock commented that the Symphony No. 3 (the ‘Pastoral’) sounded like a ‘cow looking over a gate’, although the work is linked to Vaughan Williams’s memories of serving in the First World War.
  • Another of Vaughan Williams’s famous works, his Fantasia on Greensleeves, was originally written as part of his 1928 opera, Sir John in Love.
  • Vaughan Williams died in August 1958, days before a recording of his Symphony No. 9. The recording, conducted by Adrian Boult, went ahead as a memorial to the composer.
  • Vaughan Williams second wife, Ursula, died only in 2007. She was a noted poet and a biographer of the composer.

Read also… 10 things you didn’t know about Tchaikovsky

VIDEO: Oliver Condy

VIDEO: Jonathan James

Listen out for… 5 key moments

      1. 1. Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

      Around four minutes in, listen to the beautiful echo effects from the string quartet, intended to mimic the contrasting manuals of a cathedral organ.

      1. 2. Sibelius – Violin Concerto

      Like a shaft of light reflecting off the purest of glaciers, the opening melody radiates and floats above the shimmering orchestra.

      1. 3. In among the drama of the first and third movements lies the gorgeous violin melody that emerges 45 seconds into the start of the second movement. Pure heaven.
      2. 4. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5

      The third movement is Tchaikovsky at his capricious best – a seemingly delicate waltz tinged with regret and bubbling with nervousness.

      1. 5. Cruel fate seems to grab hold of this epic work until the tide suddenly turns at ten minutes into the 13-minute final movement when the composer picks himself up and dusts himself down.

A haunting homage, virtuosic violin  and fearsome fate

Vaughan Williams’s sumptuous Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was inspired by his work editing the English Hymnal – on discovering Tallis’s beautiful hymn setting, he  provided the mystical theme for this 1910 work. Scored for two string orchestras of different sizes, and string quartet, Vaughan Williams intended the antiphonal effects to mimic the different manuals of an organ, and when it was premiered in Gloucester Cathedral in the presence of composers Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells, the two spent the evening pacing the streets of the Midlands city, excitedly discussing the work and its inevitable impact on British music. ‘For a music-bewildered youth of 17,’ Howells later recalled, ‘it was an overwhelming evening, so disturbing and moving that I even asked RVW for his autograph – and got it!’

In contrast to the warm summery glow of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto is buffeted by an icy Nordic blast. Shimmering strings open the work, over which the violin intones a beautiful Slavic melody – from then on, the work ebbs and flows from one rhapsodic idea to another. The beautiful second movement at first appears to lighten the mood, but it, too, has a dark undercurrent; the sun finally emerges in the final movement, however, with a cheerfully lumbering dance that belies the technical mastery that’s required to play this incredible work.

Premiered in 1888, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony reveals the composer at his most raw, battling the inner demons of his artistic insecurity and his struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality. And with the support of the wealthy arts patron Nadezhda von Meck firmly in place, Tchaikovsky was able to concentrate on expressing these deepest feelings through the symphony, rather than worry about its commercial success of otherwise. And so the Fifth is a work that has the burden of fate pressing down upon it, threatening any chance of redemption at every turn. In the slow movement, when a beautiful melody begins to lighten the mood, the fate motif, as played in the opening bars of the symphony, threatens the bucolic charm. Even the third movement, a seemingly graceful, innocent waltz, has an air of threat about it, the fate motif once again muscling in to ruin the party. But all is well in the finale – the fate theme is transformed into the major key, and optimism triumphs at last.

Further listening

Vaughan Williams – Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’

A soulful fantasia on some of England’s most emotive, heartfelt folk tunes, melodies that Vaughan Williams helped rescue from obscurity.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner (Decca 414 5952)

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathétique’

Rather than finish in a blaze of glory, as the Fifth does, Tchaikovsky’s greatest and final symphony, premiered weeks before his death, resigns to eternal darkness.

Kirov Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (Decca E456 5802)

Words: Oliver Condy