The Contemplative Fantasia

Last night I posted a video to one of my favorite Contemporary Christian songs, “Speak to Me” by Rebecca St. James. But you know, if you want contemplative music, it doesn’t get much better than this:

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In 1986 I saw the National Symphony perform Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis at the Wolftrap Performing Arts Center, a gorgeous outdoor amphitheater located in the rolling hills of Virginia not far from Washington DC. It was 16 of the loveliest minutes of my life. While this Youtube video goes nowhere near to the splendor of hearing this music performed in a beautiful outdoor setting, it nevertheless gives you a taste of just how evocative of deep prayer lovely music can be — particularly music from the hands of two of England’s finest composers, Thomas Tallis from the sixteenth century and Ralph Vaughan Williams, four centuries his junior. I commend this music to you both as something to accompany the reading of great mystics like Evelyn Underhill or Julian of Norwich, but also — and especially — as worthy of your undivided attention. It will be sixteen minutes well spent.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Nick

    Very nice. I wonder if we might be able to discern what characteristics or features of a piece of music might make it worthy of the phrase “contemplative music”?

  • Gwyn

    I find this work amazing. The instrumentation compbined with the tempos and modalities figuratively and literally strike a chord. I think that if studies were done with this piece, you would find that it actually effects the cardio system, slowing heartbeat, thereby influencing the individual’s relaxative state. Which is one of the first, if not the first step to comptemplation and meditative prayer. Lovely, lovely piece of music. I love Thomas Tallis.

  • Carl McColman

    Nick’s question is well worth considering, and since I am not a musicologist in any sense, I must offer a rather naive response. For me, “contemplative” music is music that I find supports my discipline of contemplative prayer — Gregorian chant, medieval polyphony, the sacred works of folks like Tallis and Byrd and Palestrina, and some more recent composers like Vaughan Williams, Hovhaness, Lauridsen and Tippett all fill the bill. Generally speaking it is music that is expansive, atmospheric, slow, and if lyrics are involved, concerns sacred or religious themes. I know this is very subjective, but that’s about all I can offer…

  • Michelle

    This is absolutely lovely. Throwing in my two cents, I wold echo the above comments and say that contemplative music calms the mind and heart and focuses our attention on something besides our swirling thoughts and feelings. And that focus is on something beautiful and true. Check out Arvo Part’s music when you have a chance. He spent great amounts of time in silence in order to listen and then he composed. My favorites are Da Pacem, De Profundis, Te Deum, and Fur Alina (all albums). (Do we call them albums anymore?)