Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis, 18th-century engraving; a posthumous, invented portrait[1] by Gerard Vandergucht

Thomas Tallis (c.1505–23 November 1585 by the Julian calendar still then in use in England)[2] was an English composer who occupies a primary place in anthologies of English choral music, and is considered one of England's greatest composers. He is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship.[3] No contemporary portrait of Tallis survives: that painted by Gerard Vandergucht (illustration), dates from 150 years after Tallis died, and there is no reason to suppose that it is a likeness. In a rare existing copy of his black letter signature, the composer spelled his last name "Tallys."[4]


Early years

Little is known about Tallis's early life, but there seems to be agreement that he was born in the early 16th century, toward the close of the reign of Henry VII. Little is also known about Tallis's childhood and his significance with music at that age. However, there are suggestions that he was a Child (boy chorister) of the Chapel Royal, St. James' Palace, the same singing establishment which he later joined as a Gentleman.[5] His first known musical appointment was in 1532, as organist of Dover Priory (now Dover College), a Benedictine priory in Kent.[6] His career took him to London, then (probably in the autumn of 1538) to Waltham Abbey, a large Augustinian monastery in Essex which was dissolved in 1540. Tallis was paid off and also acquired a volume and preserved it; one of the treatises in it, by Leonel Power, prohibits consecutive unisons, fifths, and octaves.[7]

Tallis's next post was at Canterbury Cathedral. He was next sent to Court as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543 (which later became a Protestant establishment[8]), where he composed and performed for Henry VIII,[9] Edward VI (1547–1553), Queen Mary (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558 until Tallis died in 1585).[10] Throughout his service to successive monarchs as organist and composer, Tallis avoided the religious controversies that raged around him, though, like William Byrd, he stayed an "unreformed Roman Catholic."[11] Tallis was capable of switching the style of his compositions to suit the different monarchs' vastly different demands.[12] Among other important composers of the time, including Christopher Tye and Robert White, Tallis stood out. Walker observes, "He had more versatility of style than either, and his general handling of his material was more consistently easy and certain."[13] Tallis was also a teacher, not only of William Byrd, but also of Elway Bevin, an organist of Bristol Cathedral, and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.[14]

Tallis married around 1552; his wife, Joan, outlived him by four years. They apparently had no children. Late in his life he lived in Greenwich, possibly close to the royal palace: a local tradition holds that he lived on Stockwell Street.[15]

Work with William Byrd

Queen Mary granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable annual income.[16] In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted to him and William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music[17] and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country.[18] Tallis's monopoly covered 'set songe or songes in parts', and he composed in English, Latin, French, Italian, or other tongues as long as they served for music in the Church or chamber.[19] Tallis had exclusive rights to print any music, in any language. He and William Byrd were the only ones allowed to use the paper that was used in printing music. Tallis and Byrd used their monopoly to produce Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur in 1575, but the collection did not sell well and they appealed to Queen Elizabeth for her support.[20] People were naturally wary of their new publications, and it certainly did not help their case that they were both avowed Roman Catholics.[21] Not only that, they were strictly forbidden to sell any imported music. "We straightly by the same be brought out of any forren Realmes...any songe or songes made and printed in any foreen countrie." Also, Byrd and Tallis were not given "the rights to music type fonts, printing patents were not under their command, and they didn't actually own a printing press."[22]

Tallis retained respect during a succession of opposing religious movements and deflected the violence that claimed Catholics and Protestants alike.[23]


Thomas Tallis died peacefully in his house in Greenwich in November 1585; most historians agree that he died on the 23rd.[24] He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege Church in Greenwich. To this day, the exact location in St Alfege Church of Tallis's remains is unknown. His remains may have been discarded by labourers between 1712 and 1714, when the church was rebuilt. Nothing remains of Tallis's original memorial in the church. Strype is said in 1720 to have found a brass plate with an engraving on it, which read:

“Entered here doth ly a worthy wyght,
Who for long tyme in musick bore the bell:
His name to shew, was THOMAS TALLYS hyght,
In honest virtuous lyff he dyd excell.

“He serv’d long tyme in chappel with grete prayse
Fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen);
I meane Kyng Henry and Prynce Edward’s dayes,
Quene Mary, and Elizabeth oure Quene.

“He mary’d was, though children he had none,
And lyv’d in love full thre and thirty yeres
Wyth loyal spowse, whose name yclypt was JONE,
Who here entomb’d him company now beares.

“As he dyd lyve, so also did he dy,
In myld and quyet sort (O happy man!)
To God ful oft for mercy did he cry,
Wherefore he lyves, let deth do what he can.”[1]

  1. ^ Rimbault 192–193

Byrd wrote the musical elegy Ye Sacred Muses on Tallis's death. (The name "Tallis" is derived from the French word "taillis," which means a "thicket.")

Liturgical calendar

Tallis is honoured together with William Byrd and John Merbecke with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 21 November.


See List of compositions by Thomas Tallis

Early works

The earliest surviving works by Tallis, Salve intemerata virgo, Ave rosa sine spinis and Ave Dei patris filia are devotional antiphons to the Virgin Mary, which were sung in the evening after the last service of the day and were cultivated in England until at least the early 1540s. Henry VIII's break with Roman Catholicism in 1534 and the rise of Thomas Cranmer noticeably influenced the style of music written. Cranmer recommended a syllabic style of music (which is a setting of text where each syllable is sung to one pitch), as his instructions for the setting of the 1544 English Litany make clear.[25] As a result, the writing of Tallis and his contemporaries became less florid. Tallis's Mass for Four Voices is marked with tendencies toward a syllabic and chordal (consisting of or emphasising chords) style and a diminished use of melisma. Tallis provides a rhythmic variety and differentiation of moods depending on the meaning of his texts.[26] Tallis helped found a relationship that was specific to the combining of words and music.[27]

The reformed Anglican liturgy was inaugurated during the short reign of Edward VI (1547–53),[28] and Tallis was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English words, although Latin continued to be used alongside the vernacular.[29] The Catholic Mary Tudor set about undoing some of the religious reforms of the preceding decades. Following her accession in 1553, the Roman Rite was restored and compositional style reverted to the elaborate writing prevalent early in the century.[30] Two of Tallis's major works, Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater[31] and the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis are believed to be from this period. Puer natus est nobis, based on the Introit for the third Mass for Christmas Day, was perhaps sung at Christmas 1554 when Mary believed she was expecting a male heir.[32] 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.[33]

Some of Tallis's works were compiled by Thomas Mulliner in a manuscript copybook called Mulliner Book before Queen Elizabeth's reign, and may have been used by the Queen herself when she was younger. Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister in 1558, and the Act of Uniformity, actually passed in the following year, abolished the Roman Liturgy[34] and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer.[35] Composers resumed writing English anthems, although the practice of setting Latin texts continued among composers employed by Elizabeth's Chapel Royal.

The religious authorities in the beginning of Elizabeth's reign inclined towards Calvinism, which tended to discourage polyphony in church unless the words were clearly audible, or as the 1559 Injunctions stated, 'playnelye understanded, as if it were read without singing'.[36] Tallis wrote nine psalm chant tunes for four voices for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, published in 1567.[37] One of the nine tunes, the "Third Mode Melody", inspired the composition of Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910.[38] His setting of Psalm 67 became known as "Tallis's Canon" and the setting by Thomas Ravenscroft is an adaptation for the hymn "All praise to thee, my God, this night" (1709) by Thomas Ken.[39] As a result of its widespread use in church services, it has become his best known composition. Meanwhile, however, the Injunctions also allowed a more elaborate piece of music to be sung in church at certain times of the day,[40] and many of Tallis's more complex Elizabethan anthems may have been sung in this context, or alternatively by the many families that sang sacred polyphony at home.[41] Tallis's better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet)[42] for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs. Tallis is mostly remembered for his role in composing office hymns and this motet, Spem in alium. Too often we forget to look at his compositions for other monarchs; several of Tallis's anthems written in Edward's reign, such as his If ye love me, ought to be considered on the same level as his Elizabethan works.[43] This is partly because we do not have all of his works from previous periods; eleven of eighteen Latin-texted pieces by Tallis from Elizabeth's reign were published, "which ensured their survival in a way not available to the earlier material."[44]

Later works

Toward the end of his life, Tallis resisted the musical development seen in his younger contemporaries such as William Byrd, who embraced compositional complexity and adopted texts built by combining disparate biblical extracts.[45] Tallis's experiments during this time period were considered rather unusual.[46] Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy[47] and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal.[48] Tallis composed during a difficult period during the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his music often displays characteristics of the turmoil.[49]

Fictional portrayals

A fictionalized Thomas Tallis was portrayed by Joe Van Moyland in 2007 on the Showtime television series The Tudors, an historical dramatization based upon the reign of Henry VIII of England.


See also


  2. 3 December 1585 by the Gregorian calendar
  3. Farrell, J: Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times, page 125. New York Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  4. Cole, Suzanne. Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, page 62. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2008.
  5. Walker, Ernest. A History of Music in England, page 48 Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952
  6. Lord, Suzanne.; Brinkman, David. Music from the Age of Shakespeare: A Cultural History, page 197. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
  7. Walker 19–20
  8. Farrell 125
  9. Holman, Peter. Dowland: Lachrimae (1604), page 201. Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  10. Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I, page 136. New York Houghton-Muffin Trade and Reference, 1998.
  11. Peter Ackroyd Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination ( New York: First Anchor Books, 2004), 184
  12. Phillips, Peter. “Sign of Contradiction: Tallis at 500”, page 8. Musical Times 146 (Summer 2005): 7–15.
  13. Walker 58–59
  14. Walker 75
  15. Paul Doe/David Allinson, Grove online
  16. Cole 93
  17. Holman 1
  18. Lord 69
  19. Holman 1
  20. Holman 1
  21. Lord 69
  22. Lord 70
  23. Gatens. "Tallis: Works, all." American Record Guide 68.3 (May–June 2005): 181.
  24. Rimbault, Edward F. (1872). The Old Cheque-Book or Book of Remembrance of The Chapel Royal from 1561 to 1744, page 192. J.B, Nichols and Sons.
  25. Willis, Jonathan P. Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England, page 52. Ashgate, 2010.
  26. Manderson, Desmond. Songs Without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice, page 86. University of California Press, 2000.
  27. Phillips 11
  28. Lord 75
  29. Lord 200
  30. Shrock 148
  31. Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater (Thomas Tallis) at
  32. Milsom 'Tallis, Thomas' Oxford DNB (Accessed 14 April 2015)
  33. Shrock 148
  34. Farrell 125
  35. Thomas 89
  36. Willis, 57.
  37. Lord 86
  38. Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide, page 291 New York Oxford Press, 2005.
  39. "Tallis's Canon",
  40. Willis, 57.
  41. Milsom, John. 'Sacred Songs in the Chamber' in John Morehen (ed.) English Choral Practice, 1400-1650, page 163. CUP, 1995.
  42. Cole 93
  43. Phillips 11
  44. Phillips 13
  45. Phillips 9
  46. Phillips 11
  47. Farrell 125
  48. Farrell 125
  49. Gatens 181


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