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Program note: Paul Stanhope's "Fantasia on a Theme by Vaughan Williams"

  • by Paul Stanhope

This piece pays homage to the famous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams uses a simple hymn-like choral piece by Thomas Tallis for his work; similarly I have used the famous hymn tune Down Ampney by Vaughan Williams as the thematic basis for mine. Rather than limit the piece to just strings, as did Vaughan Williams, I have used the full complement of orchestral instruments including a large percussion battery.

The structure of this piece is in six large sections which are as follows:

1.    Fanfares
Swirling figures in the woodwinds accompany trumpet flourishes in this heraldic exposition of the theme. Repetitive figures in the percussion, woodwind and strings are juxtaposed against boisterous brass chorales which shout out fragments of the theme. Towards the end of this section these outbursts become more peaceful and resigned.

2.    Lugubrious
The music takes a suddenly more mournful turn. Sighing string lines accompany an augmented and decorated version of the hymn tune in paired woodwinds. Later, the theme is inverted and taken up by the violins in a soaring passage, interrupted with foreboding figures in the brass and percussion.

3.    Percussive
This is a furiously energetic dance fuelled by drumming patterns on tom-toms, bongos, and timpani. Interrupted briefly by a devilish marimba solo accompanied by pizzicato strings, this section climaxes with a series of trombone glissandi, sending the piece hurtling towards a sort of musical underworld in the next section.

4.    a) Photo Negative  b) Chorales with Walking Bass
The first part of this section is so titled because it is the musical opposite of the previous: the musical world seems to have been turned on its head! Fragments of the theme are heard in the woodwinds at extreme parts of the range in rising and falling semitones. Eventually the fragments begin to reveal larger sections of the hymn tune. As an unexpected transformation, this stark section suddenly heads into the big band era!

5.     “Fanfares” Reprise
The opening material returns, but this time the pent up energy explodes into a joyful climax followed by a descent into chaos.

6.    Hymn
In the final section of the work, announced by the sounding of bells, the hymn tune is heard in a simple modal harmonisation, emerging out of the explosion that precedes it. In its last statement, the music strives heavenwards with high woodwinds, strings and metal percussion.

Although this work alludes to matters spiritual, my idea of using a hymn tune does not address specifically religious concerns. (Vaughan Williams was, interestingly enough, an atheist.) The opening line of Down Ampney is “Come down, O Love divine”. I interpreted this appeal to a divine love as a calling to our higher selves; a notion which, I hope, is ultimately humanising and uplifting.


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