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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