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Tallis, Thomas (c1505-1585)

Thomas Tallis

born: c1505
died: 23 November 1585
country: United Kingdom

Thomas Tallis (c1505–1585) lived and worked through the reigns of four radically different and difficult monarchs, all of whom forced their own religious beliefs on an increasingly confused and divided country. Their various attitudes to the religious questions of the day meant that each required different liturgies and different music to adorn them. Henry VIII (1509–1547) inherited and encouraged a tradition of grand, lengthy music, with soaring lines which amplified, extended and enhanced the text to be sung. Yet, as he began the process of the English Reformation, and as composers became influenced by the more succinct style of their colleagues on the Continent, this style had to change. Pieces became shorter and more syllabic—a process encouraged by Archbishop Cranmer who believed that each syllable should have no more than one note. Under the boy-king Edward VI (1547–1553) and his Protestant advisors music was even more restricted, with the once famous high treble part (commented upon by Erasmus) removed and Latin texts abandoned. For Mary (1553–1558), determined to restore Catholicism to England, composers returned to the Latin language and wrote more substantial pieces, dividing the voices so as to produce pieces in six or seven parts rather than the more severe four-part writing of the Edwardine years. For the astute Elizabeth (1558–1603), the style changed yet again: Latin could still be used but the length of pieces again became more modest. The fact that Tallis produced excellent music in all of these styles is a tribute to his talent, to his patience and to his diplomatic skill, or at least to his devotion to his employers.

We cannot be sure of his date of birth—no records have yet come to light—but so complete is his understanding of the pre-Reformation style that he must have been born in time fully to experience and assimilate it. He produced Votive Antiphons, at least one Mass and a Magnificat setting which would not have been acceptable to Edward VI and would not have been à la mode for Queen Mary. Only Henry’s more Catholic regime would have required such pieces. The ‘best guess’ therefore is that Tallis was born around 1505, so that by the time we first hear of him as the organist of the very modest Benedictine Priory of Dover in 1532, he was about twenty-seven, old enough to compose with confidence and producing music for a rite which did not begin to change substantially until the mid-1530s. By 1537 he had come to London and found employment at the church of St Mary-at-Hill in Billingsgate, but in 1538 he moved again, this time to the Augustinian Abbey at Waltham in Essex. This proved to be something of a mistake. Henry’s systematic suppression of the monasteries began in earnest in 1536 (Dover Priory was an even earlier casualty in 1535) and ended in 1540 when Waltham Abbey was the last to be dissolved. Tallis found himself with neither job nor pension but quickly re-surfaced singing in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, once a Benedictine institution but recently re-founded as a secular Cathedral. In 1544, Tallis’ name is found on the lay subsidy roll for the sovereign’s private chapel, the Chapel Royal, and he must have returned to London sometime after 1542.

Tallis married his wife, Joan, in or around 1552 and in 1557 was granted a twenty-one-year joint lease on a manor in Minster near Thanet in Kent by Queen Mary. In 1572 Tallis and his younger colleague William Byrd (1539/40–1623) petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for financial assistance and she responded by granting them a twenty-one-year monopoly on the printing and publishing of music. The Cantiones sacrae of 1575 was their only foray into the commercial world of publishing. Today it is appreciated as a fine collection of motets but at the time it quickly proved a financial disaster and led to a further petition for funds from the Queen in 1577. Tallis’ connection with the Chapel Royal remained throughout his life and he undoubtedly would have filled a variety of roles as composer, teacher, organist and singer. He died around 20 November 1585 and was buried in the Church of St Alphege in Greenwich.

from notes by Andrew Carwood © 2013


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