Tallis is dead, and music dies

Detail from Pieter Bruegel’s The Fall of The Rebel Angels (1562)

I have always had a love for early modern music. One of my favourite composers is the chorister and organist Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), and what follows is a brief overview of Tallis’s life, with thanks to his most recent biographer, John Milsom.

Tallis was probably born c.1505, although nothing is known about his birthplace, parents, or early life.  Eight years before his death in 1585 he described himself as ‘verie aged’.  Like other church musicians, Tallis would have begun his career as a chorister.  His earliest known work, Salve intemerata, is complex and elaborate, suggesting he had learned how to play the organ and compose organ music, probably in a recognised and influential choral institution.  His first professional position was as organist of the Benedictine priory of Dover from 1530 -33, and he was later lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral, which suggests he may have had links with Kent and the south-east of England.

Moving from Dover to London in 1535, Tallis became a member of the choir of St Mary-at-Hill, a parish church with a strong musical tradition.  In 1538 he moved to Waltham Abbey in Essex.  One of the abbey manuscripts, a book of musical theory, bears his signature, and when the abbey was dissolved in 1540 he may have taken the book with him.  By the summer of the same year Tallis had moved to Canterbury, and his name is listed as one of the choristers in the newly-enlarged choir.  He stayed at Canterbury two years, but by 1543 he had joined the choir of the Chapel Royal, where he remained until his death in 1585.

Other than Salve intemerata, there are very few works which can be firmly attributed to Tallis during the early years of his career.  Several pieces included in a set of music books copied in 1540-1 may be by Tallis. One of them is a mass which derives in part from Salve intemerata, and demonstrates the early influence on Tallis by established composers such as John Taverner.

The choir of the Chapel Royal had been significantly developed during the reign of Henry VIII.  Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, all received training in music as part of their education, and Tallis benefitted from this interest in musical excellence during the latter part of the sixteenth century.  He performed with and composed for a group of astonishingly talented singers, rising to become the choir’s most senior member. Officially designated as a ‘gentleman’ (lay singer), in 1575 he also referred to himself as joint organist alongside his colleague William Byrd.  During the reign of Mary I, Tallis married a widow, Joan, who had previously been married to Thomas Bury, a gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  Like many other members of the royal choir, the couple lived in Greenwich.

From Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (1575)

In addition to particular performances at state occasions such as coronations, weddings, and funerals, the royal choir also took part in daily church services, which shifted substantially during Tallis’s career to reflect the developing and changing religious climate in England.  Under Edward VI a new repertory of canticles and anthems was introduced to English texts, but after the accession of Mary I, the Roman Catholic liturgy was once again restored.

No books used by the Chapel Royal survive from Tallis’s lifetime and a substantial number of works by him have almost certainly been lost.  However there are works which have survived in other sources, notably Gaude gloriosa Dei mater, a piece for a six-part choir in praise of the Virgin Mary.  Its composition cannot be dated, but it would have almost certainly been sung during the reign of Mary I.  Tallis’s setting of an English version of Te Deum, preserved in part, was probably written for an important state occasion. The most popular and enduring works written by Tallis at this time are the anthems and canticles he wrote 1549-53. Some of them, including ‘If ye love me’ and ‘Hear the voice and prayer’ have become firm constituents of the Anglican repertory, and served as models for the next generation of English composers.

According to his biographer, Tallis’s two popular settings of verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Incipit lamentatio and De lamentatione, which survive only in manuscript, refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, a theme often interpreted as a metaphor for the suppression of the Catholic faith.  Tallis’s most moving motet (a piece of music choral music with Latin text), the forty-voice Spem in alium has endured down through the years.  There have been attempts made to link Spem in alium with the fortieth birthday celebrations of Elizabeth I in 1573, but an anecdote in an early seventeenth-century notebook connects it to Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, who is said to have commissioned the piece in 1571.  A copy of Spem in alium is included in a 1596 inventory of Arundel’s books, and according to the anecdote the work was first performed at Arundel House in the Strand in London.

Tallis’s closest friendship was probably with fellow composer William Byrd (1542-1623). The two men worked closely together and Tallis was godfather to Byrd’s son Thomas. Tallis died on 23 November 1585 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church of St Alfege, Greenwich. After his death, Byrd wrote a lament, ‘Ye Sacred Muses’, which closes with the words ‘Tallis is dead, and music dies’.  Tallis’s burial was marked with a brass memorial, lost during the Second World War. The text however was recorded as follows:

He serv’d long Tyme in Chapp[ell] with grete prayse,
Fower sovereygnes reignes (a thing not often scene),
I mean King Henry and Prince Edward’s Dayes,
Quene Mary, and Elizabeth our Quene.
He maryed was, though Children had he none,
And lyv’d in Love full thre and thirty Yeres …
As he did Lyve, so also did he dy,
In myld and quyet Sort (O! happy Man).

Tallis’s position as one of the foundational composers of Protestant church music ensured that his name endured in English church worship from the sixteenth century onwards.  He contributed several of the pieces in Matthew Parker’s psalter, published for private circulation, which are now very famous, including the ‘Eighth Tune’, known as ‘Tallis’s Canon’ to the words ‘Glory to thee, my God, this night’, and the ‘Third Tune’, upon which Ralph Vaughan Williams based his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910).  In 1928 Tallis’s collected works were published, and today he is held in high regard as one of the most performed and respected composers of early modern England.

Source: John Milsom, DNB
A facsimile copy of the collection of Latin motets by Tallis and Byrd, Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (London, 1575), is available via EEBO.

Tallis: Spem in Alium - The Lamentations of Jeremiah - Choir Of King's College, Cambridge, Choir Of St. John's College, Cambridge, David Wilcocks, George Guest & Stephen Cleobury

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