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Unveiling the Beauty: Exploring Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis-Viola Excerpt

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

A Pastoral Cliff Scene reminds us of more ancient times

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is a really special orchestral piece. This piece is written not just for orchestra-it is written for two orchestras. I’ve performed this piece twice so far in my career, and each time was a memorable experience. The first time I played this, I played from the second orchestra which was located at the very back of the stage, evoking a sense of great distance. I got to listen to the main orchestral tune and respond as if from a distant memory of the past. The second time I performed this I was in the main orchestra, so I got to sing out and listen to the distant memory from the second orchestra. The viola solo is lonely and expressive, it is a lovely tune but it is bittersweet, if not melancholic. Thomas Tallis was an English renaissance composer who died in 1585, so you can almost think of the tune as ancient music. This solo goes far beyond basic technique-it demands real maturity and experience in your viola playing.

Tone and legato are absolutely crucial in this viola excerpt, but we need to start with the basics of intonation and rhythm before we can tackle the finer details. The following exercises and pro tips that I’ll be sharing are the way I practice this piece as I’m getting started with the excerpt. Starting this excerpt right will propel your preparation for the Florida All State audition, so I hope that you are able to make the best use of this advice and have an awesome audition!


1. B minor, E minor scales-first things first, we need to pull out our good friend-the drone! Narrowing down the tuning could be tricky because this solo is actually written in E Phrygian mode, so practicing this combination of scales covers most of the highlights. You can also add in an A Major scale to cover some of the A Major arpeggios. Practice these scales in first position, and make sure that you are covering the range found in the music. The exercise below is more like an exploration of the key areas than a true scale, feel free to adjust it to emphasize the tuning of any notes that you need extra help with.

2. Practice the tune in first position-Before you dive into figuring out the best fingerings and practice the choreography of your hand, take some time to get to know how the tune sounds. Listening to recordings helps, but playing the tune in first position shows you how resonant it can sound under your ear. When you play this with your fingerings try to match the sound as it was in first position. The intonation should sound exactly the same as it did in first position, and the resonance should be as close as possible. If it sounds muddy or fuzzy with your fingering, than play a little closer to the bridge and keep an eye on your contact point.

3. Subdivide the rhythm-One of the most underrated challenges in music like this is the rhythm. When you listen to it the rhythm makes sense, but how precise is the rhythm when you play it? Sometimes our rhythm gets a little bit muddy without us realizing it. Our triplet dotted rhythms might sound a little “dupletty”, or dotted 8th’s and 16th’s might sound “tripletty”. The best way to counteract this is to practice subdividing the rhythm. Subdividing means to break down the rhythm into smaller pieces, so for a quarter note duple you will practice two 8th notes and for a quarter note in a triplet area you will practice triplets. In this exercise we anticipate the change from triplet to duple rhythms and vice versa because it helps to prepare for the next set of complex rhythms ahead of time. This exercise is also a fantastic way to practice counting through long notes-especially across bar lines. Put the metronome on quarter note=56 and if your metronome has the option, put it on ¾ time so that the downbeat gets a distinct click. This will help you keep track of where you are in the measure as you practice for the longer note values.

Rhythm Part 1

Subdivided rhythm practice

Rhythm Part 2

*Practice with the metronome on a slower tempo like quarter note=48 if you find it challenging to coordinate everything at quarter note=56.

*For an additional challenge, practice this with the metronome on eighth note subdivisions, then try it with the metronome on triplet subdivisions.


Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is a really special piece, and I highly encourage you to listen to the entire piece so that you can grasp the full beauty of the piece. These practice tips will help you get started with this excerpt and make sure the basics are in order as you work on the fullness and maturity of your tone with your teacher. I hope that you have a great time practicing, and have a fabulous audition!


Thank you for reading my blog, I hope it has been helpful and you have a great audition! 🎶🎵🎶



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