Transatlantic Accents: Two Stunning Musical Works Converse Across the Pond

Jan 11, 2018

A noted French author once said the accent of one's birthplace persists in the mind and heart as much as in speech.

The same holds true for musical works, and for two musical works, in particular — English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the American work it inspired, Thomas Canning’s Fantasy on a Hymn Tune.

Each work marshals the burnished sound of the string orchestra to lush and gorgeous heights and in the expression of profound emotions. Each work also delves into the rich musical past of its birthplace and, in doing so, preserves its native accent - in heart as much as in sound.

A native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of the Oberlin College, Canning composed his Fantasy on a Hymn tune in response to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, No. 1 on my list of 10 Pieces of Music That Can Change Your Life.

The 18th-century American singer and composer Justin Morgan is thought to have composed in the 1790s the hymn tune known as Amanda, on which Canning based his fantasy. The hymn tune appears with the text “Thro’ every age, eternal God” by Isaac Watts in The Harmonia Sacra, an important Mennonite shape note hymnal first published in 1832 under the title A Compilation of Genuine Church Music.

Here is the Montreal-based Ensemble Inversus performing the Amanda tune beginning with the fifth stanza of Watts’ text:

In a 2012 article in the Journal of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, musicologist Allan Atlas pointed out the many similarities between Canning’s fantasy and Vaughan Williams’ fantasia.

But listen even to just a few minutes of each of the two works and you’ll be able to hear the similarities – the warm string sound swaddling the slow and pensive treatments of the Tallis and Morgan hymn tunes, the freely flowing waves of music that, through peaks and valleys, lead each work to an emotionally rich high point, then to a subtle and satisfying close.

Here is a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tadaaki Otaka conducting:

And here is Thomas Canning’s Fantasy on a Hymn Tune performed by the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra, Warren Friesen conducting:

Vaughan Williams’ fantasia is lush like the English countryside, and its sound-world resounds with evocative echoes of Britain’s rich musical past. Like the long-breathed lines in Vaughan Williams’ work, Canning’s fantasy varnishes Morgan’s rough-edged hymn tune in lingering lyrical phrases while preserving the essence of the tune’s distinctly American sound.

Please join me for a performance of Thomas Canning’s Fantasy on a Hymn Tune on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.