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The Curwen edition of the Tallis Fantasia orchestral score
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, also known as the Tallis Fantasia, is a piece of orchestral music by the Britishmarker composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was composed in 1910 for the Three Choirs Festival, and was one of the first major successes for Vaughan Williams. He revised the work twice, in 1913 and 1919. Performances of the work generally run for some 16 minutes.

The work takes its name from the original composer of the melody, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585). Vaughan Williams took much inspiration from music of the English Renaissance and many of his works are associated with or inspired by the music of this period. In 1906 Vaughan Williams included Tallis's Third Tune in the English Hymnal, which he was then editing, as the melody for Joseph Addison's hymn When Rising from the Bed of Death. The tune is in Double Common Meter (D.C.M. or C.M.D.).


The work is scored for an expanded string orchestra divided into three parts: orchestra I, a full-sized string orchestra; orchestra II, a single desk from each section (ideally placed apart from Orchestra I); and a string quartet. Vaughan Williams makes this configuration resemble an organ in sound, with the quartet representing the swell division, orchestra II the choir division, and orchestra I the great division; it is difficult to listen to this piece without imagining the acoustics inside a church.

In structure this piece resembles the Elizabethan-age "fantasy." The theme is heard in its entirety three times during the course of the work, but the music grows from the theme's constituent motives or fragments, with variations upon them. A secondary melody, based on the original, is first heard on the solo viola about a third of the way into the Fantasia, and this theme forms the climax of the work about five minutes before the end.

The original 1567 theme

Tallis's original tune is in the Phrygian mode and was one of nine he contributed to the Psalter of 1567 for the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. When Vaughan Williams edited the English Hymnal of 1906, he also included this melody (number 92). Tallis's original words to the hymn were:

In popular culture

This work, with its pleasing melodies, has been featured in several movies. It was played in the 1988 film Remando al viento starring Hugh Grant as Lord Byron, was prominently featured in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World with Russell Crowe, and was seamlessly woven into the post-crucifixion music of John Debney's score to the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. New Yorker critic Alex Ross has noted in his blog that the love theme from the movie Troy (composed by James Horner) bears resemblance to Fantasia.Horner also drew inspiration from the fantasia in his score for Field of Dreams.

Parts of the work were also used as the theme music to the ITV1 coverage of the annual University Boat Race on the River Thames in England each spring, during the commercial broadcaster's five-year contract to televise the event.

The National Film Board of Canada also used the work as the soundtrack for its award-winning short film Zea[81785]


  1. Horatius Bonar's hymn I heard the Voice of Jesus Say and many other D.C.M. hymns may also be sung to this tune.
  2. Remando al viento (1988)
  3. The Rest is Noise

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