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Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 23 November 1585) was an English composer. Tallis flourished as a church musician in 16th century Tudor England. He occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered among the best of England's early composers. He is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship.[1] No contemporary portrait of Tallis survives: the earliest, painted by Gerard van der Gucht, dates from 150 years after Tallis died, and there is no certainty that it is a likeness.[2]



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.[3] His first known appointment to a musical position was as organist of Dover Priory in 1530–31, a Benedictine priory at Dover (now Dover College) in 1532.[4] His career took him to London, then (probably in the autumn of 1538) to the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham until the abbey was dissolved in 1540. Tallis acquired a volume at the dissolution of the monastery of Waltham Holy Cross and preserved it; one of the treatises in it was by Leonel Power, and the treatise itself prohibits consecutive unisons, fifths, and octaves.[5]

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[6]), where he composed and performed for Henry VIII,[7] Edward VI (1547–1553), Queen Mary (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558 until Tallis died in 1585).[8] 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."[9] Tallis was capable of switching the style of his compositions to suit the different monarchs' vastly different demands.[10] 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."[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

Work with William Byrd

Queen Mary granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable annual income.[14] In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted to him and William Byrd a twenty-one year monopoly for polyphonic music[15] and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country.[16] Tallis' 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.[17] 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 but the piece did not sell well and they appealed to Queen Elizabeth for her support.[18] People were naturally wary of their new publications, and it certainly did not help their case that they were both unrepentant Catholics in a staunchly Protestant land.[19] 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."[20]

Tallis retained respect during a succession of opposing religious movements and deflected the violence that claimed Catholics and Protestants alike.[21]


Thomas Tallis died peacefully in his house in Greenwich in November 1585. Most historians agree that he died on the twenty-third.[22] He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege's Church.[23] The chancel was torn down in 1720, and none of the memorials remain. Strype claims to have found a brass plate with an engraving on it, which reads:

“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 yelypt 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.”[24]

Byrd wrote the musical elegy Ye Sacred Muses on Tallis's death.


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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 used outside the liturgy and were cultivated in England until the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. Henry VIII's break with Roman Catholicism in 1534 and the rise of Thomas Cranmer noticeably influenced the style of music written. Texts became largely confined to the liturgy.[25] 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 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] He also wrote several excellent Lutheran chorales.[28]

The reformed Anglican liturgy was inaugurated during the short reign of Edward VI (1547–53),[29] and Tallis was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English words, although Latin continued to be used.[30] The Catholic Mary Tudor set about undoing the religious reforms of the preceding decades. Following the accession of the Catholic Mary in 1553, the Roman Rite was restored and compositional style reverted to the elaborate writing prevalent early in the century.[31] Two of Tallis's major works, Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater and the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis are believed to be from this period. Only Puer natus est nobis can be accurately dated in 1554. 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.[32]

Some of Tallis's works were compiled and printed in the Mulliner Book by Thomas Mulliner 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 Settlement in the following year abolished the Roman Liturgy[33] and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer.[34] Composers at court resumed writing English anthems, although the practice of setting Latin texts continued, growing more peripheral over time.

The mood of the country in the beginning of Elizabeth's reign leant toward the puritan, which discouraged the liturgical polyphony. Tallis wrote nine psalm chant tunes for four voices for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, published in 1567.[35] 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.[36] Tallis's better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet)[37] for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs. It is thought that this 40-voice piece was part of a celebration of the Queen's 40th birthday in 1573. 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.[38] This is partially 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."[39]

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.[40] Tallis' experiments during this time period were considered rather unusual.[41] Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy[42] and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal.[43] Tallis composed during a difficult period during the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his music often displays characteristics of the turmoil.[44]


  • Cole, Suzanne. Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England. Great Britain: Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham, Wiltshire, 2008.
  • Doe, Paul and Allinson, David : Thomas Tallis, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 May 2007), (subscription access)
  • Farrell, Joseph. Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times. New York Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Gatens. Tallis: Works, all. American Record Guide 68.3 (May–June 2005): 181.
  • Holman, Peter. Dowland: Lachrimae (1604); Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Lord, Suzanne.; Brinkman, David. Music From the Age of Shakespeare: A Cultural History. Westport, Conn Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
  • Manderson, Desmond. Songs Without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice. University of California Press, 2000.
  • Phillips, Peter. Sign of Contradiction: Tallis at 500. Musical Times 146 (Summer 2005): 7–15.
  • Shrock, Dennis. Choral Repertoire. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. New York Oxford Press, 2005.
  • St. James Palace; Rimbault, Edward F. The Old Cheque-Book. Chapel Royal. Westminster: J.B, Nichols and Sons.
  • Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I. New York Houghton-Muffin Trade and Reference, 1998.
  • Walker, Ernest. A History of Music in England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952


  1. ^ Farrell, J: Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times, page 125. New York Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  2. ^ Cole, Suzanne. Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, page 62. Great Britain: Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham, Wiltshire, 2008.
  3. ^ Walker, Ernest. A History of Music in England, page 48 Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952
  4. ^ Lord, Suzanne.; Brinkman, David. Music From the Age of Shakespeare: A Cultural History, page 197. Westport, Conn Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
  5. ^ Walker 19–20
  6. ^ Farrell 125
  7. ^ Holman, Peter. Dowland: Lachrimae (1604), page 201. Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  8. ^ Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I, page 136. New York Houghton-Muffin Trade and Reference, 1998.
  9. ^ Peter Ackroyd Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination ( New York: First Anchor Books, 2004), 184
  10. ^ Phillips, Peter. “Sign of Contradiction: Tallis at 500”, page 8. Musical Times 146 (Summer 2005): 7–15.
  11. ^ Walker 58–59
  12. ^ Walker 75
  13. ^ Paul Doe/David Allinson, Grove online
  14. ^ Cole 93
  15. ^ Holman 1
  16. ^ Lord 69
  17. ^ Holman 1
  18. ^ Holman 1
  19. ^ Lord 69
  20. ^ Lord 70
  21. ^ Gatens. "Tallis: Works, all." American Record Guide 68.3 (May–June 2005): 181.
  22. ^ St. James Palace; Rimbault, Edward F. The Old Cheque-Book, page 192. Chapel Royal. Westminster: J.B, Nichols and Sons.
  23. ^ Lord 199
  24. ^ Rimbault 192–193
  25. ^ Shrock, Dennis. Choral Repetoire, page 136. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  26. ^ Manderson, Desmond. Songs Without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice, page 86. University of California Press, 2000.
  27. ^ Phillips 11
  28. ^ Walker 396
  29. ^ Lord 75
  30. ^ Lord 200
  31. ^ Shrock 148
  32. ^ Shrock 148
  33. ^ Farrell 125
  34. ^ Thomas 89
  35. ^ Lord 86
  36. ^ Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide, page 291 New York Oxford Press, 2005.
  37. ^ Cole 93
  38. ^ Phillips 11
  39. ^ Phillips 13
  40. ^ Phillips 9
  41. ^ Phillips 11
  42. ^ Farrell 125
  43. ^ Farrell 125
  44. ^ Gatens 181

External links



1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

TALLIS (TALLYS, Talys, or [[Tallisius), Thomas]] (c. 1515-1585), justly styled "the father of English cathedral music," was born about 1515. It has been conjectured that, after singing as a chorister at old Saint Paul's under Thomas Mulliner, he obtained a place among the children of the chapel royal. He is known to have become organist at Waltham abbey, where, on the dissolution of the monastery in 1540, he received, in compensation for the loss of his preferment, 20S. for wages and 20S. for reward. In the library of the British Museum there is preserved a volume of MS. treatises on music, once belonging to the abbey, on the last page of which appears his autograph, "Thomas Tallys" - the only specimen known.

Not long after his dismissal from Waltham, Tallis was appointed a gentleman of the chapel royal; and thenceforward he laboured so zealously for the advancement of his art that the English school owes more to him than to any other composer of the r6th century.

One of the earliest compositions by Tallis to which an approximate date can be assigned is the well-known Service in the Dorian Mode, consisting of the Venice, Te Deum, Benedictus, Kyrie, Nicene Creed, Sanctus, Gloria in Excelsis, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, for four voices, together with the Preces, Responses, Paternoster and Litany, for five, all published for the first time, in the Rev. John Barnard's First Book of Selected Church Music, in 1641, and reprinted, with the exception of the Venite and Paternoster, in Boyce's Cathedral Music in 1760.1 That this work was composed for the purpose of supplying a pressing need, after the publication of the second prayer-book of King Edward VI. in 1552, there can be no doubt. Written in the style known among Italian composers as lo stile famigliare, i.e. in simple counterpoint of the first species, nota contra notam, with no attempt at learned complications of any kind - it adapts itself with equal dignity and clearness to the expression of the verbal text it is intended to illustrate, bringing out the sense of the words so plainly that the listener cannot fail to interpret them aright, while its pure rich harmonies tend far more surely to the excitement of devotional feeling than the marvellous combinations by means of which too many of Tallis's contemporaries sought to astonish their hearers, while forgetting all the loftier attributes of their art. In self-restraint the Litany and Responses bear a close analogy to the Improperia and other similar works of Palestrina, wherein, addressing himself to the heart rather than to the ear, the princeps musicae produces the most thrilling effects by means which, to the superficial critic, appear almost puerile in their simplicity, while those who are able to look beneath the surface discern in them a subtlety of style such as none but a highly cultivated musician can appreciate. Of this profound learning Tallis possessed an inexhaustible store; and it enabled him to raise the English school to a height which it had never previously attained, and which it continued to maintain until the death of its last representative, Orlando Gibbons, in 1625. Though this school is generally said to have been founded by Dr Tye, there can be no doubt that Tallis was its greatest master, and that it was indebted to him alone for the infusion of new life and vigour which prevented it from degenerating, as some of the earlier Flemish schools had done, into a mere vehicle for the display of fruitless erudition. Tallis's ingenuity far surpassed that of his most erudite contemporaries; and like every other great musician of the period, he produced occasionally works confessedly intended for no more exalted purpose than the exhibition of his stupendous skill. In his canon Miserere nostri (given in Hawkins's History of Music) the intricacy of the contrapuntal devices seems little short of miraculous; [yet the resulting harmony is smooth and normal, and only the irregular complexity of the rhythm betrays the artificiality of its structure. The famous forty-part motet, Spem in alium, written for eight five-part choirs, stands on a far higher plane, and the tour de force of handling freely and smoothly so many independent parts is the least remarkable of its qualities. An excellent modern edition of it was produced by Dr A. H. Mann in 1888 (London, r eekes & Co.); and, when the reader has overcome the difficulty of reading a score that runs across two pages, he finds himself in the presence of a living classic. The art with which the climaxes are built up shows that Tallis's object in writing for forty voices is indeed 1 Boyce's unaccountable omission of the very beautiful Venite is a misfortune which cannot be too deeply deplored, since it has led to its consignment to almost hopeless oblivion.

to produce an effect that could not be produced by thirty-nine.] These tours de force, however, though approachable only by the greatest contrapuntists living in an age in which counterpoint was cultivated with a success that has never since been equalled, serve to illustrate one phase only of Tallis's many-sided genius. which shines with equal brightness in the eight psalm-tunes (one in each of the first eight modes) and unpretending little Veni Creator, printed in 1567 at the end of Archbishop Parker's First Quinquagene of Metrical Psalms, and many other compositions of like simplicity.

In 1575 Tallis and his pupil William Byrd - as great a contrapuntist as himself - obtained from Queen Elizabeth royal letters patent granting them the exclusive right of printing music and ruling music-paper for twenty-one years; and, in virtue of this privilege, they issued, in the same year, a joint work, entitled Cantiones quae ab argumento Sacrae vocantur, quinque et sex partium, containing sixteen motets by Tallis and eighteen by Byrd, all of the highest degree of excellence. Some of these motets, adapted to English words, are now sung as anthems in the Anglican cathedral service. But no such translations appear to have been made during Tallis's lifetime; and there is strong reason for believing that, though both he and Byrd outwardly conformed to the new religion, and composed music expressly for its use, they remained Catholics at heart.

Tallis's contributions to the Cantiones Sacrae were the last of his compositions published during his lifetime. He did not live to witness the expiration of the patent, though Byrd survived it and published two more books of Cantiones on his own account in 1589 and 1591, besides numerous other works. Tallis died November 23, 1585, and was buried in the parish church at Greenwich, where a quaint rhymed epitaph, preserved by Strype, and reprinted by Burney and Hawkins, recorded the fact that he served in the chapel royal during the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth. This was destroyed with the old church about 1710; but a copy has since been substituted. Portraits, professedly authentic, of Tallis and Byrd, were engraved by Vandergucht in 1730, for Nicolas Haym's projected History of Music, but never published. One copy only is known to exist.

Not many works besides those already mentioned were printed during Tallis's lifetime; but a great number are preserved in MS. It is to be feared that many more were destroyed, in the 17th century during the spoliation of the cathedral libraries by the Puritans. (W. S. R.)

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Simple English

Thomas Tallis (born c.1505; died Greenwich November 23 1585) was the almost important English composer of his generation.

We know very little about Tallis’s youth. He may have started his career as organist at Dover and then Waltham Abbey. After the Dissolution of the monasteries he had a job at Canterbury Cathedral for a short time, but he was soon made a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and he had a job in the royal household until his death, working for four monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I.

Tallis was organist and composer. He had to write music for the royal chapels. He was given the lease of a big house in Kent and a salary of £91 12s a year (£19.60 in modern money) which was a very good salary in those days. In 1575 Queen Elizabeth I gave Thomas Tallis and William Byrd a licence which meant they were the only people allowed to print and publish music in England (music printing was a very new invention at the time). Tallis owned a house in Greenwich were he died in 1585.

In the early 16th century church music was often very polyphonic voices imitated one another and sang different things at the same time. However, tastes were changing and Tallis wrote church music which was much simpler. In a lot of his music the choir sing chords homophony homophonic writing instead of using the older polyphony. For a short time, during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor, polyphonic music was in fashion again. This was the time when Tallis wrote an antiphon “Gaude gloriosa Dei mater” and a mass musical setting|mass “Puer natus est nobis”. These two works are once more very complicated polyphonic works. After that his works become simpler once more, but he was always keen to try out new ideas from the continent of Europe. He wrote some very fine anthems. Many of his works are settings of Latin words, but he also made settings of English texts.

One of his most beautiful works is called Spem in Alium. The choir divide into forty parts i.e. the choir need at least 40 people to sing it, and even then everybody would be singing a different line. It is possible that he wrote it for Queen Elizabeth I’s 40th birthday in 1573, but we cannot be sure.

His Diliges Dominum is a collection of contrapuntal exercises which includes a very famous canon often simply called “Tallis’s canon”.


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