Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) - A short biography

Despite his stature as one of the great composers of English sacred music, little is known about the personality of English composer Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505 - 1585). The last two lines of his epitaph - "As he did live, so also did he die, in mild and quiet sort (O happy man!); To God full oft for mercy did he cry, wherefore he lives, let death do what it can." - allude to a quiet, pious man, but little else.

Tallis' music, however, suggests much more. The composer lived in an England whose political and religious landscape was much more volatile than that of its 21st century counterpart. As monarchs changed - and Thomas Tallis saw four of them - so did the national faith. The pendulum swung from Catholic to Protestant to Catholic, and back to Protestant again. Both religions claimed numerous martyrs in defence of the "One True Faith;" kings and queens demanded different loyalties. And they also demanded liturgical music to fit the prevailing order of the day. Thus at least two conclusions can be drawn, reliably, about Tallis' personality from his work: first and most obvious, his creativity, and second, his adaptability. His output, for the most part, did not display the floridity of composers like Cornysh; nor did he compose much in the way of madrigals or other secular music; his music demonstrated more restraint than the exuberance of his pupil Byrd. Much of Tallis' work possesses a moody, reflective quality (for example, Lamentations of Jeremiah, Suscipe quaeso, Miserere), but occasionally he could demonstrate supreme technical skill. The best, and most well-known, example may be the 40-part Spem in alium, with its amazing tapestry of voices, but one can also point to pieces such as the giant six-voice antiphon Gaude gloriosa (probably written to honour Queen Mary Tudor) and some of Tallis' intricate keyboard pieces, most notably the two Felix namque settings, displaying a spirit of experimentation wildly at odds with the more reserved nature of much of his music.

As stated before, little is known about Thomas Tallis himself. His date of birth is murky, and at best music history scholars can narrow it down to "about 1505." Tallis' musical education as a youth is not known either, though he was probably a choirboy somewhere (it has been suggested he was probably one of the "children of the Chapel Royal," but there is nothing to confirm this), as that was how many composers in his day learned their music.

The first definite date marking the start of Tallis' musical career is 1532, when he was appointed organist of Benedictine Priory in Dover. The year 1537 found him at his second job, organist at St Mary-le-Hill in Billingsgate, London, and then on to Waltham Abbey in London until its dissolution in 1540 under Henry VIII. The unemployed Tallis then set out to find work, which he did in 1541 at Canterbury Cathedral as a lay clerk. Finally, he settled into the King's service, appointed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543. He sang with the Chapel Royal, played the organ, helped in running the choir, and continued to compose. In 1575, with William Byrd, Tallis secured a monopoly on printing music and music paper in England. Tallis remained with the Chapel Royal until his death in 1585, while finding time to marry his wife Joan and taking on the young Byrd as a pupil (both probably around the same time, in 1552).

While Tallis was undoubtedly composing before he entered the Chapel Royal - Missa salve intemerata, for example, was written by the young composer in the late 1520s or early 1530s - it was this move into the King's service which marked the real beginning of a career which would establish him as England's main composer of church music.

Thomas Tallis would prove himself adept in writing for both the Catholic and Protestant liturgies. Born a Catholic, he managed to survive - apparently without being persecuted - as a member of the "Old Faith," while becoming the chief composer for the new Church of England. For the Catholic Church he set Latin texts to music in the form of vocal polyphony; for the new Anglican Church he provided clear chordal settings for English texts, many of which are still used by church choirs today (Tallis' Canon is perhaps the best-known example).

Though not as "in your face" about retaining his Catholic faith as Byrd was (Byrd was fined on several occasions for being a recusant), Tallis may have very well intended some of his pieces to make a point about the persecution of Catholics in a newly Protestant England. The haunting, expressive quality of his Lamentations of Jeremiah suggests desolation, penitence; the work, says Paul Doe, was more than likely not conceived as church music at all, "but rather for private recreational singing by loyal Catholics." For Tallis, the words "Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum" - Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God - may have had special significance for Tallis, a Catholic in a Protestant country.

One of Tallis' most famous compositions, the 40-voice Spem in alium, also alludes to a strong allegiance to Roman Catholicism, with its mix of voices both polyphonic and chordal. Spem is also a work with an interesting history in its own right. It was ostensibly the result of a challenge by one of the composer's supporters, the Catholic Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk (executed not long after as the result of trumped-up charges accusing Norfolk of colluding with Mary Queen of Scots). The work challenged was Striggio's 40-part Ecce beatum lautam; the challenge was for an Englishman to produce a work that would excel this piece produced by an Italian. Tallis answered the challenge, perhaps to defend England's creative honour; or to prove himself as an old man still capable of creating great work; or to produce - like many composers - a masterwork which history would remember him by. At any rate, Tallis set to work answering Howard's challenge. And answer it he did: Apparently after its first performance at the palace of Nonsuch (or the Long Hall), owned by Henry Fitzalan, 12th Earl of Arundel, Spem in alium moved Thomas Howard enough to remove a heavy gold chain from around his neck, placing it around Tallis' own, thanking the older Thomas for the glorious piece he had crafted.

Whether Tallis was a subversive Catholic, following one faith professionally but the other one in private, or merely demonstrating a love of the old liturgy he knew as a child, one may never know for certain, but it is clear that Thomas Tallis' music stands up not just for its creative merit, but as a reflection of one man's response to the tumultuous - and often treacherous - politics of Tudor England.

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) - Discography

This by no means is meant to be a complete discography of Tallis' works; however it aims to indicate the variety of recordings now available. While the name most commonly associated with the composer is his namesake ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, many other prominent groups such as the King's Singers, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge have all recorded his works. Of special interest is a project by a group of London-based singers, the Chapelle du Roi, currently recording all of Tallis's complete known works in a nine-CD set. Another disc by Danish ensemble Ars Nova is notable for the two Felix namque settings - virtuoso pieces Tallis wrote for keyboard - featuring Lars Ulrik Mortensen on harpsichord.

Tallis: Spem in alium, etc.
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury (director)
Argo D 115496
Tallis: Motets / Lamentations
Laudantes Consort - Guy Janssens
Arsonor 007
Tallis and Byrd: English Renaissance
Haec dies (Byrd); Te lucis ante terminum (Tallis), etc.
The King's Singers
BMG Classics 09026-68004-2
Tallis: Mass "Puer natus est"
The Clerkes of Oxenford - David Wulstan
Calliope 9623
Tallis: Spem in alium
Sacred choral works: Gaude gloriosa; Lamentations of Jeremiah; O nata lux, etc.
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Chandos Records CHAN 0513
Tallis: Choral and Organ Works
Jesu salvator saeculi; Gloria tibi trinitas; Veni redemptor gentium, etc.
Robert Woolley (organ); Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge / Christopher Robinson
Chandos Records CHAN 0588
Madrigals 1600
Gaude gloriosa Dei mater; Magnificat; Nunc dimittis, etc.
New College Choir, Oxford / Edward Higginbottom
CRD 3429
Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah
Lamentations; Salvator mundi; O sacrum convivium, etc.
Hilliard Ensemble
ECM New Series 1341
Tallis: Latin Church Music
Spem in alium; Complete Responds, etc.
Taverner Consort and Taverner Choir / Andrew Parrott
EMI Records CDC 7495552
Tallis: Latin Church Music II
Gaude Gloriosa; Lamentations; Motets from Cantiones Sacrae (1575)
Taverner Consort & Choir / Andrew Parrott
EMI Reflexe 49563
Spem in alium; Gaude gloriosa dei mater; loquebanter variis linguis, etc.
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell Records 454 906-2
Tallis: the Complete English Anthems
Blessed are those that be undefiled; Christ rising again; Tunes from Archbishop Parker's Psalter, etc.
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell Records CDGIM 007
Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah, etc.
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell 454 925
The Tallis Christmas Mass
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimell 454 934
Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah, etc.
Deller Consort / Alfred Deller
Harmonia mundi "Musique d'Abord" HMA 190 208
Lamentations of Jeremiah; In jejunio et fletu; Absterge Domine; O sacrum convivium, etc.
David Douglass (violin/director); Theatre of Voices, Kings Noyse / Paul Hillier
Harmonia Mundi HMU 907154
Music by Thomas Tallis: Felix namque I and II; Videte Miraculum; O nata lux; Lamentations of Jeremiah, etc.
Lars Ulrik Mortensen (harpsichord); Ars Nova / Bo Holten
Kontrapunkt 32003
Tallis: Spem in alium; Lamentations; Mass & Motets
Magnificat / Philip Cave
Linn 075
Tallis: Spem in alium, Lamentations of Jeremiah
Spem in alium; In manus tuas; In jejunio et fletu, etc.
King's College Choir, Cambridge; St. John's College Choir, Cambridge
London Records 455 029-2
Tallis: The Canterbury Years
Salve Intemerata - Music for Canterbury Cathedral from the Reign of Henry VIII
Choristers and Lay Clerks of Canterbury Cathedral Choir - David Flood
Metronome 1014
Tallis: Mass for four voices, motets
Mass for four voices; Loquebantur variis linguis; Salvator mundi; etc.
Oxford Camerata / Jeremy Summerly
Naxos 8550576
Thomas Tallis: The Complete Works, volume 1
Ave Dei patris filia; Mass Salve intemerata; etc.
Chapelle du Roi / Alistair Dixon
Signum Records SIG 001
Tallis: The Complete Works, volume 2
Magnificat; Nunc dimittis; Mass for four voices, etc.
Chapelle du Roi / Alistair Dixon
Signum Records SIGCD 002
Tallis: The Complete Works, volume 3
Mass: Puer natus est nobis; Gaude gloriosa; Suscipe quaeso, etc.
Chapelle du Roi / Alistair Dixon
Signum Records SIGCD 003
Tallis: The Complete Works, volume 4
Hodie nobis caelorum; Salvator mundi; Quod chorus vatum, etc.
Chapelle du Roi / Alistair Dixon
Signum Records SIGCD010
Tallis: The Complete Works, volume 5
Music for the Divine Office - 2
Chapelle du Roi / Alistair Dixon
Signum 016
Tallis: Lamentations; Hymns
Alfred Deller et al.
Vanguard Classics (Arcade) "Alfred Deller Edition" 08 5062 71

Thanks to Alistair Dixon for some discographic material.

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Sue Hickey