Thomas Tallis (c 1505–23 November 1585) was an English composer. Tallis flourished as a church musician during the often stormy sixteenth century in England. He occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered among the best of its earliest composers.
Little is known about his early life, but there seems to be agreement that he was born around 1505, toward the close of the reign of Henry VII. His first known appointment to a musical position was as organist of the Benedictine priory at Dover (now Dover College) in 1532. His career took him to London, then organist of Waltham Abbey, until the abbey was dissolved in 1540, then Canterbury Cathedral, and finally to court as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543, composing and performing for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth. He remained in the service of the Sovereign for the rest of his life as organist and composer, avoiding the religious controversies that raged around him.
The earliest works by Tallis that survive are devotional antiphons to the Virgin Mary, which were used outside the liturgy and were cultivated in England until the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. Henry VIII’s break with Roman Catholicism in 1534 and the rise of Thomas Cranmer noticeably influenced the style of music written. Texts became largely confined to the liturgy. The writing of Tallis and his contemporaries became less florid, with marked tendency toward a syllabic and chordal style and a diminshed use of melisma.
The reformed Anglican liturgy was inaugurated during the short reign of Edward VI (1547-1553), and Tallis was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English words, although Latin continued to be used also. Following the accession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, the Roman rite was restored and compositional style reverted to the elaborate writing prevalent early in the century. Two of Tallis’ major works, Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater and the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis are from this period. As was the prevailing practice, these pieces were intended to exalt the image of the Queen as well as to praise the Mother of God.
Queen Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister in 1558, and the Act of Settlement in the following year abolished the Roman liturgy and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer. Composers at court resumed writing English anthems, although the practice of setting Latin texts continued, growing more peripheral over time.
The mood of the country in the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign leant toward the puritan, which discouraged the liturgical polyphony. Tallis wrote nine psalm chant tunes in parts for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (the “Third Mode Melody”) published in 1567. One of the nine tunes inspired the composition of Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910. Tallis’ better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet) for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem In Alium written for eight five-voice choirs. It is thought that this 40-voice piece was part of a celebration of the Queen’s 40th birthday in 1573.
Toward the end of his life, Tallis resisted the musical development seen in his younger contemporaries like William Byrd, who embraced compositional complexity and adopted texts built by combining disparate biblical extracts. Tallis was content to draw his texts from the liturgy and write for the worship services in the Chapel Royal. Tallis remained a Catholic his whole life, and was well-regarded by the four Sovereigns he served. Queen Mary granted him a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable annual income. Queen Elizabeth granted to Tallis and Byrd a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country. He retained respect during a succession of opposing religious movements and deflected the violence that claimed Catholics and Protestants alike.
Thomas Tallis died peacefully in his house in Greenwich in November 1585, and was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege’s Church. A couplet from his epitaph reads:
As he did live, so also did he die, In mild and quiet Sort (O! happy Man).