Thomas Tallis

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Thomas Tallis, 18th-century engraving; a posthumous portrait by Gerard Vandergucht Thomas Tallis 001.jpg
Thomas Tallis, 18th-century engraving; a posthumous portrait by Gerard Vandergucht

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 23 November 1585) [2] was an English composer who occupies a primary place in anthologies of English choral music. He is considered one of England's greatest composers, and he is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship. [3] No contemporaneous portrait of Tallis survives; the one painted by Gerard Vandergucht dates from 150 years after Tallis died, and there is no reason to suppose that it is a likeness. In a rare existing copy of his blackletter signature, he spelled his name "Tallys". [4]

Gerard Vandergucht engraver

Gerard Vandergucht was an English engraver and art dealer.

Blackletter Old script typeface used throughout Western Europe

Blackletter, also known as Gothic script, Gothic minuscule, or Textura, was a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 until the 17th century. It continued to be used for the Danish language until 1875, and for German, Estonian and Latvian until the 20th century. Fraktur is a notable script of this type, and sometimes the entire group of blackletter faces is incorrectly referred to as Fraktur. Blackletter is sometimes referred to as Old English, but it is not to be confused with the Old English language, which predates blackletter by many centuries and was written in the insular script or in Futhorc.



Early years

Around 1538, Tallis was appointed to serve at Waltham Abbey in Essex Holy Cross nave - - 1032795.jpg
Around 1538, Tallis was appointed to serve at Waltham Abbey in Essex

Little is known about Tallis's early life. He was born in the early 16th century toward the end of Henry VII's reign. The name "Tallis" is derived from the French word taillis, which means a "thicket." There are suggestions that he was a child of the chapel (boy chorister) of the Chapel Royal, the same singing establishment which he joined as an adult. [5]

Henry VII of England King of England

Henry VII was the King of England and Lord of Ireland from his seizure of the crown on 22 August 1485 to his death. He was the first monarch of the House of Tudor.

The Children of the Chapel are the boys with unbroken voices, choristers, who form part of the Chapel Royal, the body of singers and priests serving the spiritual needs of their sovereign wherever they were called upon to do so. They were overseen by the Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal.

The Chapel Royal is an establishment in the Royal Household serving the spiritual needs of the sovereign of the British royal family. Historically it was a body of priests and singers that travelled with the monarch. The term is now also applied to the chapels within royal palaces, most notably at Hampton Court and St James's Palace, and other chapels within the Commonwealth designated as such by the monarch.

Tallis's first known musical appointment was in 1532 as organist of Dover Priory (now Dover College), a Benedictine priory in Kent. [6] His career took him to London, then to Waltham Abbey in the autumn of 1538, a large Augustinian monastery in Essex which was dissolved in 1540. He was paid off and acquired a book about music that contained a treatise by Leonel Power which prohibits consecutive unisons, fifths, and octaves. [7]

Dover Priory

The Priory of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Martin of the New Work, or Newark, commonly called Dover Priory, was a priory at Dover in southeast England. It was variously independent in rule, then occupied by canons regular of the Augustinian rule, then finally monks of the Benedictine rule as a cell of Christchurch Monastery, Canterbury.

Leonel Power was an English composer of the late Medieval and early Renaissance eras. Along with John Dunstaple, he was one of the major figures in English music in the early 15th century.

Tallis served at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent Wenceslas Hollar - Canterbury Cathedral- south side (State 1).jpg
Tallis served at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent

Tallis's next post was at Canterbury Cathedral. He was sent to Court as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543, where he composed and performed for Henry VIII, [8] Edward VI (1547–53), Mary I (1553–58), and Elizabeth I, until he died in 1585. [9]

Canterbury Cathedral Church in Kent, England

Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England. It forms part of a World Heritage Site. It is the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, currently Justin Welby, leader of the Church of England and symbolic leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its formal title is the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury.

Gentleman of the Chapel Royal was the title given to adult male singers of the Chapel Royal, the household choir of the monarchs of England.

Henry VIII of England King of England and Ireland

Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 until his death in 1547. He was the second Tudor monarch, succeeding his father Henry VII. Henry is best known for his six marriages, in particular his efforts to have his first marriage annulled. His disagreement with the Pope on the question of such an annulment led Henry to initiate the English Reformation, separating the Church of England from papal authority. He appointed himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England and dissolved convents and monasteries, for which he was excommunicated. Henry is also known as "the father of the Royal Navy", in which he invested heavily, increasing its size greatly from a few to more than 50 ships.

Tallis avoided the religious controversies that raged around him throughout his service to successive monarchs, though he remained an "unreformed Roman Catholic", [10] in the words of Peter Ackroyd. Tallis was capable of switching the style of his compositions to suit the different monarchs' vastly different demands. [11] He stood out among other important composers of the time, including Christopher Tye and Robert White. Walker observes that "he had more versatility of style" than Tye and White, and "his general handling of his material was more consistently easy and certain." [12] Tallis was also a teacher of William Byrd and of Elway Bevin, an organist of Bristol Cathedral and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. [13]

Christopher Tye British organist and composer

Christopher Tye was an English Renaissance composer and organist. Probably born in Cambridgeshire, he trained at the University of Cambridge and became the master of the choir at Ely Cathedral. He is noted as the music teacher of Edward VI of England and was held in high esteem for his choral music, as well as chamber works such as his 24 polyphonic In nomines. It is likely that only a small percentage of his compositional output survives, often only as fragments; his Acts of the Apostles was the only work to be published in his lifetime.

Robert White probably born in Holborn, a district of London, was a Catholic English composer whose liturgical music to Latin texts is considered particularly fine. His surviving works include a setting of verses from Lamentations, and instrumental music for viols.

William Byrd British composer

William Byrd, was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard, and consort music. Although he produced sacred music for Anglican services, sometime during the 1570s he became a Roman Catholic and wrote Catholic sacred music later in his life.

Tallis married around 1552, and his wife Joan outlived him by four years. They apparently had no children. Late in his life, he lived in Greenwich, possibly close to the royal palace; tradition holds that he lived on Stockwell Street. [14]

Greenwich town in south-east London, England

Greenwich is an area of South East London, England, located 5.5 miles (8.9 km) east-southeast of Charing Cross. It is located within the Royal Borough of Greenwich, to which it lends its name.

Work with William Byrd

Tallis's pupil William Byrd (1543-1623) William Byrd (1543-1623).jpg
Tallis's pupil William Byrd (1543–1623)

Queen Mary granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent which provided a comfortable annual income. [15] In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted him and William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music [16] and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country. [17] Tallis's monopoly covered "set songe or songes in parts", and he composed in English, Latin, French, Italian, and other languages, as long as they served for music in the church or chamber. [16] Tallis had exclusive rights to print any music in any language, and he and Byrd were the only ones allowed to use the paper that was used in printing music. They used their monopoly to produce Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur in 1575, but the collection did not sell well and they appealed to Queen Elizabeth for her support. [16] People were naturally wary of their new publications, and it did not help that they were both avowed Roman Catholics. [17] They were also forbidden to sell any imported music. Lord points out that they were not given "the rights to music type fonts, printing patents were not under their command, and they didn't actually own a printing press." [18]

Tallis retained respect during a time of religious and political upheaval, and he avoided the violence which claimed Catholics and Protestants alike. [19]


Tallis died in his house in Greenwich in November 1585; most historians agree that he died on 23 November, though one source gives the date as 20 November. [20] [21] He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege Church, Greenwich, though the exact location in the church is unknown. His remains may have been discarded by labourers between 1712 and 1714 when the church was rebuilt, and nothing remains of Tallis's original memorial in the church. John Strype found a brass plate in 1720 which read:

Entered here doth ly a worthy wyght,
Who for long tyme in musick bore the bell:
His name to shew, was THOMAS TALLYS hyght,
In honest virtuous lyff he dyd excell.

He serv’d long tyme in chappel with grete prayse
Fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen);
I meane Kyng Henry and Prynce Edward’s dayes,
Quene Mary, and Elizabeth oure Quene.

He mary’d was, though children he had none,
And lyv’d in love full thre and thirty yeres
Wyth loyal spowse, whose name yclypt was JONE,
Who here entomb’d him company now beares.

As he dyd lyve, so also did he dy,
In myld and quyet sort (O happy man!)
To God ful oft for mercy did he cry,
Wherefore he lyves, let deth do what he can. [22]

William Byrd wrote the musical elegy Ye Sacred Muses on Tallis's death.

Liturgical calendar

Tallis is honoured with a feast day, together with William Byrd and John Merbecke, on the liturgical calendar of the American Episcopal Church on 21 November.


Early works

The earliest surviving works by Tallis are Salve intemerata virgo, Ave rosa sine spinis and Ave Dei patris filia, both devotional antiphons to the Virgin Mary which were sung in the evening after the last service of the day; they were cultivated in England at least until the early 1540s. Henry VIII's break from the Roman Catholic church in 1534 and the rise of Thomas Cranmer noticeably influenced the style of music being written. Cranmer recommended a syllabic style of music where each syllable is sung to one pitch, as his instructions make clear for the setting of the 1544 English Litany . [23] As a result, the writing of Tallis and his contemporaries became less florid. Tallis' Mass for Four Voices is marked with a syllabic and chordal style emphasising chords, and a diminished use of melisma. He provides a rhythmic variety and differentiation of moods depending on the meaning of his texts. [24]

The reformed Anglican liturgy was inaugurated during the short reign of Edward VI (1547–53), [25] and Tallis was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English words, although Latin continued to be used alongside the vernacular. [26] Mary Tudor set about undoing some of the religious reforms of the preceding decades, following her accession in 1553. She restored the Roman Rite, and compositional style reverted to the elaborate writing prevalent early in the century. [27] Two of Tallis's major works were Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater [28] and the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis , and both are believed to be from this period. Puer natus est nobis based on the introit for the third Mass for Christmas Day may have been sung at Christmas 1554 when Mary believed that she was pregnant with a male heir. [29] These pieces were intended to exalt the image of the Queen, as well as to praise the Virgin Mary. [27]

Some of Tallis's works were compiled by Thomas Mulliner in a manuscript copybook called The Mulliner Book before Queen Elizabeth's reign, and may have been used by the queen herself when she was younger. Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister in 1558, and the Act of Uniformity abolished the Roman Liturgy [30] and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer. [31] Composers resumed writing English anthems, although the practice continued of setting Latin texts among composers employed by Elizabeth's Chapel Royal.

The religious authorities at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign inclined towards Calvinism, which tended to discourage polyphony in church unless the words were clearly audible or, as the 1559 Injunctions stated, "playnelye understanded, as if it were read without singing". [32] Tallis wrote nine psalm chant tunes for four voices for Archbishop Matthew Parker's Psalter published in 1567. [33] One of the nine tunes was the "Third Mode Melody" which inspired the composition of Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910. [34] His setting of Psalm 67 became known as "Tallis's Canon", and the setting by Thomas Ravenscroft is an adaptation for the hymn "All praise to thee, my God, this night" (1709) by Thomas Ken, [35] and it has become his best-known composition. The Injunctions, however, also allowed a more elaborate piece of music to be sung in church at certain times of the day, [32] and many of Tallis's more complex Elizabethan anthems may have been sung in this context, or alternatively by the many families that sang sacred polyphony at home. [36] Tallis's better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet) [15] for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs, for which he is mostly remembered. He also produced compositions for other monarchs, and several of his anthems written in Edward's reign are judged to be on the same level as his Elizabethan works, such as "If Ye Love Me". [37] Our records are incomplete on his works from previous periods; 11 of his 18 Latin-texted pieces from Elizabeth's reign were published, "which ensured their survival in a way not available to the earlier material". [38]

Later works

Toward the end of his life, Tallis resisted the musical development seen in his younger contemporaries such as William Byrd, who embraced compositional complexity and adopted texts of disparate biblical extracts. [39] Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy [30] and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal. [30] He composed during the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his music often displays characteristics of the turmoil. [40]

Fictional portrayals

A fictionalised Thomas Tallis was portrayed by Joe Van Moyland in 2007 on the BBC television series The Tudors . [41]

See also


  1. Cole, Suzanne (13 September 2008). "Who is the Father?: Changing Perceptions of Tallis and Byrd in Late Nineteenth-Century England". 89 (2): 212–226. Retrieved 25 February 2017 via Project MUSE.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. 3 December 1585 by the Gregorian calendar
  3. Farrell, J: Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 125.
  4. Cole, Suzanne. Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2008, p. 62.
  5. Walker, Ernest. A History of Music in England, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952, p. 48.
  6. Lord, Suzanne; David Brinkman, Music from the Age of Shakespeare: A Cultural History, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, p. 197.
  7. Walker 19–20.
  8. Holman, Peter. Dowland: Lachrimae (1604), Cambridge Music Handbooks, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 201.
  9. Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I, New York Houghton-Muffin Trade and Reference, 1998, p. 136.
  10. Ackroyd, Peter (2004). Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. New York: First Anchor Books. p. 184.
  11. Phillips, Peter. "Sign of Contradiction: Tallis at 500", p. 8. Musical Times 146 (Summer 2005): 7–15.
  12. Walker 58–59
  13. Walker 75.
  14. Paul Doe/David Allinson, Grove online.
  15. 1 2 Cole 93.
  16. 1 2 3 Holman 1.
  17. 1 2 Lord 69
  18. Lord 70.
  19. Gatens. "Tallis: Works, all." American Record Guide 68.3 (May–June 2005): 181.
  20. Harley, John (2015). Thomas Tallis. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate. p. 212. ISBN   9781317010364.
  21. Rimbault, Edward F. (1872). The Old Cheque-Book or Book of Remembrance of The Chapel Royal from 1561 to 1744, J.B, Nichols and Sons, p. 192.
  22. Rimbault 192–193.
  23. Willis, Jonathan P. Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England, Ashgate, 2010, p. 52.
  24. Manderson, Desmond. Songs Without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice, University of California Press, 2000, p. 86.
  25. Lord 75.
  26. Lord 200.
  27. 1 2 Shrock 148
  28. "Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater (Thomas Tallis) – ChoralWiki" . Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  29. Milsom , John, "Tallis, Thomas", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  30. 1 2 3 Farrell 125.
  31. Thomas 89.
  32. 1 2 Willis, 57.
  33. Lord 86.
  34. Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 291.
  35. "Tallis's Canon",
  36. Milsom, John, "Sacred Songs in the Chamber" in John Morehen (ed.), English Choral Practice, 1400–1650, CUP, 1995, p. 163.
  37. Phillips 11.
  38. Phillips 13.
  39. Phillips 9.
  40. Gatens 181.
  41. "BBC Two - The Tudors, Series 1, Episode 1". BBC. 5 October 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2019.

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