Thomas Tallis is considered one of the most important English composers—in truth, he’s probably one of the most important Renaissance composers from any country. And if you check MY personal playlist, he’s one of the best composers of all time. But don’t take my word for it. The proof is in the facts: During a time when Catholics were being executed if they didn’t convert to the new Church of England, Tallis, a practicing Catholic and former monk, was allowed to continue composing and (quietly) practicing his Catholic faith.
Thomas Tallis was the master of diversity. His works encompass Latin Masses and hymns, English-language (Protestant) service music, and other sacred works that reflect the religious and political upheavals in England. He also wrote one of the most complex choral pieces ever written, but more on that in a bit.
You have to remember that between 1534 and 1558, the height of Tallis’ compositional life, English church music suffered greatly due to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which had long been a musical stronghold. He was pensioned off at the dissolution of the Waltham Abbey in 1540, which means that he was given money to retire and go about town as a regular private citizen. He had already served 10 years in various monastic capacities, scrupulously avoiding all of the reformation activities going on all around him. But he was too young to properly retire, and so he sought work as a musician. Fortunately, he had quite a talent for it.
During Henry VIII’s reign, despite their religious disagreement, Tallis was appointed to the Chapel Royal, a body of musicians engaged to sing and compose for the monarch’s private services. There, Tallis learned about continental styles of music and puritan ideals. He would remain with Chapel Royal until his death.
Tallis composed the official English liturgy under Edward VI (1547-1553) after Henry VIII’s death, and he did the Latin rites during the reigns of Mary Tudor (1553-1558) and Elizabeth (1558-1603). Mary regarded him as her principal composer, commissioning him for every important occasion. When Elizabeth was queen, she asked for small amounts of both Latin and English church music, more for special occasions than for regular liturgical use. The Chapel Royal had the best musicians anywhere, and Tallis was at its center. He was by far the most eminent musician in England.
Until the Reformation in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg cathedral door, musicians were usually monks, and organists were rare and seldom paid. Composers were anonymous, serving in the church and for the church, and not gaining personal notoriety. Tallis served in this capacity, and despite—or perhaps because of--his love of creating and making music, he managed to avoid political and religious controversy.
Tallis maintained his Catholic faith without being prosecuted during a time when being Catholic was an act of treason, and was conspicuous as the chief composer for the new Church of England despite his own religious feelings. Some of his pieces make a subtle but sad point about the fate of many Catholics, such as in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, with themes of desolation, penitence, and loss. These were probably not meant to be performed in the church. They’d have been sung in private performances or at the secret—and illegal—Masses held in private homes.
It’s not known exactly when or where Tallis was born and he seems to have been a quiet and studious man after he left the monastery. Not much is known about his education, although he was probably a choir boy somewhere. The first record of him is in 1532, when he was appointed organist at a Benedictine Priory in Dover. In 1537, he served at St Mary-le-Hill in Billingsgate in London, and then at Waltham Abbey in London, until its dissolution in 1540. He found work as a lay clerk in Canterbury Cathedral in 1541 and then entered the king’s service at Chapel Royal in 1543. There, he sang, played the organ, ran the choir, and composed. He remained organist for the royal household until his death in 1585.
Tallis married around 1552, around the same time he took William Byrd (c1540-1623) as a pupil. (Byrd would later exceed Tallis in fame. There will be a blog on him soon.) Tallis’ wife outlived him by about four years. They had no children, or at least, there is no record of children. He probably lived in Greenwich at the time of his death, possibly on Stockwell Street.
In 1575, Tallis and Byrd were granted a 21-year monopoly for printing music in England, which Byrd owned wholly after Tallis’ death. Only they were allowed to use the special paper used for printing music. Initially, the public was suspicious of them as they were both Roman Catholics, so the two musicians appealed to Elizabeth for patronage. Even with her support, the whole thing was a precarious arrangement. They were not allowed to sell any imported music (all the other countries were Catholic, remember). They were not given the rights to the fonts they needed for music type, they couldn’t print patents, and they didn’t own a printing press.
Tallis used his license to publish his own music, in particular, the Cantiones sacrae (Latin for sacred songs) and motets. He was one of the first composers to compose specifically for the Anglican liturgy.
Music of this period was not a melody with accompaniment. Chords had been invented, but were not a driving force in music. Each “voice,” whether instrumental or sung, had its own distinct melodic line. In vocal music, the words were of utmost importance, and melodic shapes were inextricably married to the natural inflections in speech.
Following the fashion of polychoral motets, in around 1570, Tallis wrote “Spem in Alium,” probably his most famous piece, and my absolutely most tippitty-top favorite piece of music ever. But he wasn’t the first to write such a masterpiece. In 1560, the Italian composer Alessandro Striggio (c1536-1592) wrote a Mass for 40 voices, also divided into eight choirs of five singers each. Striggio’s piece was performed in Florence during a visit by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II in 1567, and it and another motet for 40 voices, “Ecce beatam lucem,” were performed in England when Striggio took his show on the road. Tallis heard these pieces and was inspired to write Spem (we insiders call it that for short). Striggio is famous, but not nearly as famous as Tallis, and it’s the Tallis piece that gets performed whenever 40 solo-skilled voices can be found.
Spem was partially the result of a challenge from the (Catholic) Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, later executed as a result of charges of plotting with Mary Queen of Scots for the English throne. The song has elements of both polyphony and chords, and there’s even a moment when so many different notes are sounding that the music passes through what we now know as “white noise.” To me, it seems like an aural reflection of the tension and pressure between Catholics and Protestants. After the first performance of Spem, the Duke removed the heavy gold chain that he wore around his neck and placed it around Tallis’ as a sign of his utmost respect and gratitude.
Tallis might have been trying to prove that England could hold its own with continental composers, he might have been proving that he still had composing—and conducting—skills in his old age, or he might have been producing his own masterwork. We’ll never know, but all of those things proved true.
Tallis was capable of ingenious contrapuntal feats, such as the seven-part “Miserere nostri,” which is still fairly Medieval sounding although it was published around 1575. In this piece, the top two parts are in canon (like a round), and bottom four parts are also in canon—a separate canon from the top two. This was another musical marvel, like Spem, where everyone is very busy singing with everyone else in various ways, although Spem is more like variations on a theme with moments of canon.
Because of the political atmosphere during his lifetime, Tallis only wrote two Masses, a Christmas Mass and a Mass for Four Voices. Masses took a very specific form, and each of the movements were based on Gregorian chants. After Reformation, Lutheran Masses took the same form, but in England during Tallis’ lifetime, folks were very sensitive to anything at all Catholic sounding. The tide turned briefly during Mary Tudor’s Catholic reign, and Tallis promptly set a bunch of Latin psalms and Lamentations to music. (Lamentations are a very specific musical form that describe the sadness of the Jews returning to Jerusalem to find it destroyed and deserted.)
One of the things Tallis did was to reformat his own early Catholic works to suit Protestant sensibilities. For instance, he turned many of his own Mass movements into English anthems (which is a specific form of Anglican music) by just changing the words. (A common anthem is Tallis’ “If Ye Love Me.” Search for it, and you’ll find a lot of listening options.)
Any discussion of Tallis’ church music needs to stress the functional nature of what he wrote, rather than the religious significance, because so much was written for Protestant rulers. It’s probably how he reconciled himself to not writing liturgical music, to separate himself from his personal pain of not being able to publicly practice his own faith.
Within the body of his work, there is at least one example of every musical genre of the time (except processional items and verse music). Through them, it’s easy to read the musical changes taking place in England, including the advent of a humanist aesthetic and a more subjective interpretation of liturgical texts than had been previously heard.
Collections of music from this period often neglect the plainsong (chant) that would have been part of the polyphonic music, usually sung before the polyphonic piece. They probably weren’t collected because they were so commonly known (much like “Amazing Grace” today), so we don’t have a completely accurate record of how the music would have been performed. Most of the time, we can only guess which chant was added, but as many chants used the same text, and not all of the polyphony sounded like the chant in any way, there’s no way to know which chant was intended to be used.
Regarding Tallis’ own thoughts and feelings, it’s not clear whether Tallis was a subversive Catholic, following one faith in public and professionally and another in private, or whether he was just following his love of the musical liturgy he’d known since childhood.
Thomas Tallis was buried in the chancel of the parish of St. Alfege’s Church in Greenwich. The chancel was torn down in 1720 and none of the memorials remain, although there are stories of a brass plate engraved with a eulogy to Tallis. His former student William Byrd wrote the elegy “Ye Sacred Muses” about Tallis’ death.
One of my favorite albums ever, “Utopia Triumphans” from the Huelgas Ensemble and conducted by Paul Van Nevel, has both the Striggio pieces and Spem, along with many other truly wonderful multi-choir pieces. Rush out and get it!
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham, Oxford University Press, New York,1985
“The New Grove High Renaissance Masters,” Jeremy Noble, Gustave Reese, et al, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984
“The Pelican History of Music: Volume 2, Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens, Penguin Books, London, 1973
“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997
“Oxford Studies of Composers: Tallis,” by Paul Doe, Oxford University Press, London, 1976