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Thomas Tallis is known as one of the greatest composers of English sacred music, though little is known about his life. Even his exact date of birth is unknown. His musical education is also a mystery, though it is probable that he sang in the church choirs as a boy. One possibility is that he was one of the “children of the Chapel Royal” but this has never been confirmed.
In 1532 Tallis began his musical career with his appointment to the Benedictine Priory in Dover as organist. By 1537 he had moved on to a second job, at the St Mary-le-Hill in Billingsgate London. From there he continued on to the Walham Abbey in London, where he remained until 1540, when it was dissolved.
Tallis also took William Byrd on as a student, most likely in 1522, before he was appointed church organist. This was the same period that he married.
Some of Tallis’ compositions date from this early period, such as his Missa salve intemerate, which was written in the late 1520s to early 1530s.
Tallis found work again in 1541 at the Canterbury Cathedral as a clerk. Two years later he was appointed a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He also sang with and helped lead the choir, in addition to composing and playing the organ. Tallis remained with the Chapel Royal throughout his entire life. His position in the King’s service marked the beginning of his true success as a composer, becoming one of England’s main church music composers.
Tallis lived in a complicated time in England. During his lifetime he saw four different monarchs succeed each other, and with that came changes in the national religion, from Catholic to Protestant and back to Catholic, and then Protestant again. As can be expected, each religion required that the music fit the order of the service. Tallis thus became skilled at writing for both religions and did not flaunt his own Catholic roots too loudly. His output consists almost entirely of sacred music, his contributions to the madrigal and secular genres is negligible.
Differences in his pieces can be heard based on for which church he was composing. For the Catholic Church he often used much polyphony and set Latin texts to music. The Protestant Church preferred English texts and much simpler choral settings. Many of his settings for the Protestant church are still in use today, notably his Canon.
Left: Nineteenth-century stained glass window of Thomas Tallis, in St Alfege's Church, Greenwich, where Tallis is buried.
In addition to the influence of the church, the style of music can also be attributed to the influence of musical developments throughout the continent.
Several of Tallis’ works do, perhaps, make statements regarding the unfair persecution of Catholics, though he managed to keep his messages subtle, unlike Byrd who received fines on several occasions. His work,Lamentations of Jeremiah provides a fine example with its use of the text "Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum" (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God). These words likely resonated with Tallis and the work was likely intended to be sung in private by loyal Catholics.
Another example of his flexibility and adaptability can be found with his Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, which was originally an anthem with English text, that he adopted for the Latin text.
Tallis’ famous Spem in alium, a work for 40 voices, combines elements of Protestant and Catholic music traditions by including moments of polyphony along with chordal moments. This work was the answer to a challenge set forth by the Catholic Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. Howard challenged the composers of England to create a piece that would be more impressive than the Italian Striggio’s 40-partEcce beatum lautam. It is unknown why Tallis took this challenge, likely for his own legacy.
Other Latin-text works in Tallis’ output include many votive antiphons, which were widely present before the 1530s. These works include hisAve Dei patris, Ave Rosaand Salve intemerata and most likely represent his earliest surviving works.
During the 1530s, the style of composition became less florid, a direct influence of Cranmer who demanded a clearer word-setting. He was also influenced by developments in continental music. The music from this time aims to express the meaning of the text.
Between 1547-53, Tallis was one of the first musicians to compose for the new Anglican liturgy. Works from this period include the anthemsHear the voice and prayer, If ye love me and Remember not. The music he wrote under the Reign of Elizabeth features a very simple chordal style.
Tallis remained an active composer even in his old age. His last motets were probably written around the age of 70. These works show signs that he continued to develop his musical style through their chromatic inflections and expressive style.
A great majority of Tallis’ works have survived without dates, especially his Latin-text works, making the chronology of his work very difficult.
Tallis’ contributions to secular and instrumental music are quite small. Within this genre he composed several partsongs, either during or just after Edward’s reign. He also composed two contrasting In Nomine settings and a setting based onLibera nos, salva nos.
It is assumed that Tallis wrote much more keyboard music, as he was an active organist for at least 50 years. Only a small fraction of what he wrote has survived. Most of his surviving keyboard works include hymn verses set against a plainchant cantus firmus. Some virtuoso works, most likely for the queen in the Chapel Royal have also survived. These include two settings of theFelix namque (1562 and 1564)plainchant which can be found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.
Interestingly, Tallis, along with William Byrd, acquired a monopoly on printing music and manuscript paper in England in 1575.
Thomas Tallis died in Greenwich on 20 or 23 November 1585.