Thomas Tallis

The English composer and organist Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) wrote anthems, services, and other music for the Anglican rite. He is considered the father of English cathedral music.

Evidence points to Leicestershire as the birthplace of Thomas Tallis. Of his youth, education, and musical training nothing certain is known. The earliest official record of his professional activity places him as organist at Dover Priory in 1532. From his Benedictine cloister he moved first to St. Mary-at-Hill in Billingsgate about 1537 and then to the Augustinian Abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham, where he served until its dissolution in 1540.

Under the adverse circumstances which ensued, Tallis next joined the musical establishment at Canterbury, leaving 2 years later to become a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He stayed in that position for the rest of his life. For nearly a half century he composed, played, sang, and taught music at the English court. During that period he witnessed the stylistic transition from medieval to tonal polyphony, which culminated in his own compositions and in those of his brilliant pupil William Byrd. Tallis died in Greenwich on Nov. 23, 1585, survived by his widow, Joan.

Tallis composed mainly sacred works, and his oeuvre may most conveniently be divided into two kinds: those with Latin texts and those with English texts. Of the former there are four Marian motets, the colossal 40-voiced Spem in alium, along with some two dozen other motets; several responsories, antiphons, and office hymns; two Lamentations and two Magnificats; and three Masses. His sacred compositions on English texts include a "Great" and a "Short" Service; two service movements; various preces, litanies, responses, and psalms; and, most important of all, 28 anthems, among which 10 are clearly derived from his own Latin motets. The few extant secular pieces actually do not compose a separate class, since most of these are somehow related to sacred compositions. The instrumental In nomine and Felix namque compositions were composed upon sacred cantus firmi, and at least one piece, "Fond youth is a bubble, " is a secular contrafactum.

Some of Tallis's Marian motets, especially Gaude Virgo, reflect the hocketed, elaborate polyphony of the previous century, while the seven-part Miserere, with six parts in canon, and the elaborate polyphonic imitation of Spem in alium demonstrate the "deep learning" for which both Tallis and Byrd were famous. The same quality, but in more modern guise, is found in some of the 17 motets which make up Tallis's contribution to the Cantiones sacrae, a collection he and Byrd published jointly in 1575 as the first edition appearing under their new royal license.

Clarity of harmony and word setting become more pronounced in Tallis's compositions on English texts. Here too the transition from ancient to modern style may be traced, as can be seen by comparing the retrospective "Dorian" Short Service with the brighter and more tuneful anthems "Heare the voyce and prayer" and "If ye love me."


Further Reading on Thomas Tallis

Studies of Tallis include Leonard Ellinwood's "Tallis' Tunes and Tudor Psalmody" in Armen Carapetyan, ed., Musica Discipline, vol. 2 (1948), and Paul Doe, Tallis (1968). Additional information can be found in Ernest Walker, A History of Music in England (1907; 3d rev. ed. 1952); Morrison C. Boyd, Elizabethan Music and Musical Criticism (1940); and Harold C. Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers (1970).