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Portrait of Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis (c.1515-1585)

THOMAS TALLIS (TALLYS, Talys, or Tallisius), justly styled "the father of English cathedral music," was born about 1515. It has been conjectured that, after singing as a chorister at old Saint Paul's under Thomas Mulliner, he obtained a place among the Children of the Chapel Royal. He is known to have become organist at Waltham Abbey, where, on the dissolution of the monastery in 1540, he received, in compensation for the loss of his preferment, 20s. for wages and 20s. for reward. In the library of the British Museum there is preserved a volume of MS. treatises on music, once belonging to the abbey, on the last page of which appears his autograph, "Thomas Tallys" — the only specimen known.

Not long after his dismissal from Waltham, Tallis was appointed a gentleman of the Chapel Royal [in the court of King Henry VIII]; and thenceforward he laboured so zealously for the advancement of his art that the English school owes more to him than to any other composer of the 16th century.

One of the earliest compositions by Tallis to which an approximate date can be assigned is the well-known Service in the Dorian Mode, consisting of the Venice, Te Deum, Benedictus, Kyrie, Nicene Creed, Sanctus, Gloria in Excelsis, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, for four voices, together with the Preces, Responses, Paternoster and Litany, for five, all published for the first time, in the Rev. John Barnard's First Book of Selected Church Music, in 1641, and reprinted, with the exception of the Venite and Paternoster, in Boyce's Cathedral Music in 1760.1 That this work was composed for the purpose of supplying a pressing need, after the publication of the second prayer-book of King Edward VI in 1552, there can be no doubt.

Written in the style known among Italian composers as lo stile famigliare, i.e. in simple counterpoint of the first species, nota contra notam, with no attempt at learned complications of any kind — it adapts itself with equal dignity and clearness to the expression of the verbal text it is intended to illustrate, bringing out the sense of the words so plainly that the listener cannot fail to interpret them aright, while its pure rich harmonies tend far more surely to the excitement of devotional feeling than the marvellous combinations by means of which too many of Tallis's contemporaries sought to astonish their hearers, while forgetting all the loftier attributes of their art. In self-restraint the Litany and Responses bear a close analogy to the Improperia and other similar works of Palestrina, wherein, addressing himself to the heart rather than to the ear, the princeps musicae produces the most thrilling effects by means which, to the superficial critic, appear almost puerile in their simplicity, while those who are able to look beneath the surface discern in them a subtlety of style such as none but a highly cultivated musician can appreciate.

Of this profound learning Tallis possessed an inexhaustible store; and it enabled him to raise the English school to a height which it had never previously attained, and which it continued to maintain until the death of its last representative, Orlando Gibbons, in 1625. Though this school is generally said to have been founded by Dr. Tye, there can be no doubt that Tallis was its greatest master, and that it was indebted to him alone for the infusion of new life and vigour which prevented it from degenerating, as some of the earlier Flemish schools had done, into a mere vehicle for the display of fruitless erudition. Tallis's ingenuity far surpassed that of his most erudite contemporaries; and like every other great musician of the period, he produced occasionally works confessedly intended for no more exalted purpose than the exhibition of his stupendous skill. In his canon Miserere nostri (given in Hawkins's History of Music) the intricacy of the contrapuntal devices seems little short of miraculous; yet the resulting harmony is smooth and normal, and only the irregular complexity of the rhythm betrays the artificiality of its structure.

The famous forty-part motet, Spem in alium, written for eight five-part choirs, stands on a far higher plane, and the tour de force of handling freely and smoothly so many independent parts is the least remarkable of its qualities. An excellent modern edition of it was produced by Dr A. H. Mann in 1888 (London, r eekes & Co.); and, when the reader has overcome the difficulty of reading a score that runs across two pages, he finds himself in the presence of a living classic. The art with which the climaxes are built up shows that Tallis's object in writing for forty voices is indeed to produce an effect that could not be produced by thirty-nine. These tours de force, however, though approachable only by the greatest contrapuntists living in an age in which counterpoint was cultivated with a success that has never since been equalled, serve to illustrate one phase only of Tallis's many-sided genius, which shines with equal brightness in the eight psalm-tunes (one in each of the first eight modes) and unpretending little Veni Creator, printed in 1567 at the end of Archbishop Parker's First Quinquagene of Metrical Psalms, and many other compositions of like simplicity.

In 1575 Tallis and his pupil William Byrd — as great a contrapuntist as himself — obtained from Queen Elizabeth royal letters patent granting them the exclusive right of printing music and ruling music-paper for twenty-one years; and, in virtue of this privilege, they issued, in the same year, a joint work, entitled Cantiones quae ab argumento Sacrae vocantur, quinque et sex partium, containing sixteen motets by Tallis and eighteen by Byrd, all of the highest degree of excellence. Some of these motets, adapted to English words, are now sung as anthems in the Anglican cathedral service. But no such translations appear to have been made during Tallis's lifetime; and there is strong reason for believing that, though both he and Byrd outwardly conformed to the new religion, and composed music expressly for its use, they remained Catholics at heart.

Tallis's contributions to the Cantiones Sacrae were the last of his compositions published during his lifetime. He did not live to witness the expiration of the patent, though Byrd survived it and published two more books of Cantiones on his own account in 1589 and 1591, besides numerous other works. Tallis died November 23, 1585, and was buried in the parish church at Greenwich, where a quaint rhymed epitaph, preserved by Strype, and reprinted by Burney and Hawkins, recorded the fact that he served in the chapel royal during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth. This was destroyed with the old church about 1710; but a copy has since been substituted. Portraits, professedly authentic, of Tallis and Byrd, were engraved by Vandergucht in 1730, for Nicolas Haym's projected History of Music, but never published. One copy only is known to exist.

Not many works besides those already mentioned were printed during Tallis's lifetime; but a great number are preserved in MS. It is to be feared that many more were destroyed in the 17th century during the spoliation of the cathedral libraries by the Puritans.


1 Boyce's unaccountable omission of the very beautiful Venite
is a misfortune which cannot be too deeply deplored, since it
has led to its consignment to almost hopeless oblivion.



      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XXVI.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 378.







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Robert Aske
Anne Askew
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Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
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Images:

Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
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Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
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c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London




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