Tallis, Thomas

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) is still revered as one of the most important English composers of all times. About his early years little is known, even no year of birth nor a portrait. There are suggestions that he was a chorister of the Chapel Royal, St. James’ Palace. But his first registered appointment was as organist of Dover Priory in Dover, Kent. His talent brought him to Waltham Abbey in Essex and later Canterbury Cathedral. He composed for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth until his death in 1585.
Tallis avoided the religious controversies that raged around him, staying an ‘unreformed Roman-Catholic’, although his patrons were alternately Protestant and Roman-Catholic. This mental agility and diplomatic skills are a hint towards his musical versatility, switching the style of his compositions to suit the different demands of his monarchs. Among his contemporaries Christopher Tye and Robert White, Tallis was outstanding. He was the teacher of several famous musicians, among them William Byrd.
Queen Elizabeth granted to him and William Byrd a longtime monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish music. A very favorable privilege indeed. He and Byrd had the exclusive right to use the paper that was used in music printing. They produced the album Cantiones quæ ab argumento sacræ vocantur in 1575, printed by Thomas Vautor, a composer himself. This collections of their motets did not sell very well and they appealed to Queen Elizabeth for some financial support. Later these motets became very well-loved and many times republished.
The early works by Tallis (like Salve intemerata virgo) were well-loved antiphons sung to the Virgin Mary and used in evening services until about 1540. After Henry VIII’s break with the Roman-Catholic church in 1534 the music style in the churches changed to a more syllabic style of music and less melismatic than for instance Salve intemerata virgo. But Tallis provided a rhythmic variety and differentiation of moods depending on the meaning of the texts. He found a relationship that was specific to the combining of words and music.
His best-known works are af course the Lamentations and the forty-voice motet Spem in alium. And last but not least If ye love me, a small but brightly shining jewel in English early music.
Cees Wagemakers, 2015