Old Wine in New Bottles – Tallis and Vaughan Williams

The listening theme for the month is old wine in new bottles. That is, music that is not only inspired by other music, but quotes, or otherwise uses and transforms other music to create something new. In many ways, this is what most music has been throughout history. In fact, I’m currently listening to a Renaissance Mass that uses a well known folk tune from the era as the main theme. Everything old is new again. 

The first piece in this series is inspired by the work “Third Tune for Archbishop Parker(“Why F’umth in fight”)” , or Third Mode Melody by Renaissance English composer Thomas Tallis. Have a listen:

The words for the Third Mode Melody:

Why fumeth in fight: The Gentils spite,
    In fury raging stout?
Why taketh in hond: The people fond,
    Vayne thinges to bring about?
The kinges arise: The lordes devise,
    In counsayles mett thereto:
Agaynst the Lord: With false accord,
    Against his Christ they go.
  —  Psalm 2:1–2 —  Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (1567)

What I find remarkable is how dramatic this music is 500 years after it was written. To contemporary ears relatively used to major and minor keys, the use of the Phrygian mode seems somewhat exotic (ask me in lessons).

The above work inspired another English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams to compose his work “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”. Notice the two parts to the title. A fantasia was a musical form that surfaced during the Renaissance era (16th century), and really just means “at the composers fancy”, or whatever the composer wants to write! The second part of the title is “on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”. Here Vaughan Williams takes the Third Mode Melody and spins out a relatively short work (really just 1 minute that repeats) into a 15 minute piece for 3 string orchestras. For me it is one of the most moving pieces of music ever written. If you have some time to really just sit and listen, definitely do so. It brings tears to my eyes every time.

Note that the above video is recorded where the first performance took place over 100 years ago! For a longer read about the Fantasia check out this great Guardian Article.

Happy Listening!

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