Thomas Tallis

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

Thomas Tallis (c.1505 – 23 November 1585;[a] also Thomas Tallys or Thomas Talles) was an English composer who occupies a primary place in anthologies of English choral music. He is considered one of England's greatest composers, and he is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship.[2] No contemporaneous portrait of Tallis survives; the one painted by Gerard Vandergucht dates from 150 years after the composer's death, and there is no reason to suppose that it is a fair likeness. In a rare existing copy of his blackletter signature, he spelled his name "Tallys".[3]



As no records about the birth, family origins or childhood of Thomas Tallis exist, almost nothing is known about his early life or origins. Historians have calculated that he was born in the early part of the 16th century, towards the end of the reign of Henry VII of England, and estimates for the year of his birth range from 1500 to 1520.[4] His only known relative was a cousin called John Sayer. As the surnames Sayer and Tallis both have strong connections with Kent, Thomas Tallis is usually thought to have born somewhere in the county.[5]

There are suggestions that Tallis sang as a child of the chapel in the Chapel Royal, the same singing establishment which he joined as an adult.[6][7] He was probably a chorister at the Benedictine The Priory of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Martin of the New Work, where he was employed at an early age, but it is impossible to know whether he was educated there, or he may have sung at Canterbury Cathedral.[8]

Early career[edit]

1530s and 1540s[edit]

No record of Tallis exist before 1531, when he is named in the accounts of Dover Priory, a Benedictine priory in Kent.[8] He was employed there as the organist,[9] tasked with directing chants from the organ [10] A "Thomas Tales" is named as the "joculator organorum" at the priory who received an annual payment of £2.[11] The priory was dissolved in 1535; there is no record of Tallis’s departure.[12][11]

Tallis' whereabouts not known for the next few months until his employment at St Mary-at-Hill in London’s Billingsgate ward. [12] Records show he was paid four half-yearly payments from 1536 to 1538, with the last one being for services—as either a singer or an organist—for the year up to 25 March 1538.[11][13]

Around 1538, Tallis was appointed to serve at Waltham Abbey in Essex

Towards the end of 1538 Tallis moved to the large Augustinian monastery Waltham Abbey, Essex,[14] through contact with the abbot, whose London home was near to St Mary-at-Hill,[15] becoming a senior member there. [14] When the abbey was dissolved in March 1540, Tallis left without receiving a pension (being recently employed there), and was instead given a one-off payment of 40 shillings. He took away a volume of musical treatises copied by John Wylde, once a preceptor at Waltham. It contained a treatise by Leonel Power that prohibited consecutive unisons, fifths, and octaves; the last page is inscribed with his name.[11][6]

By the summer of 1540 Tallis had moved to the recently secularized Canterbury Cathedral, where his name heads the list of singers in the newly expanded choir of ten boys and twelve men. He remained there for two years.[14][11]

Tallis’s employment in the Chapel Royal probably began in 1543. His name appears on a 1544 lay subsidy roll and is listed in a later document. It is possible that he was connected with the court when at St Mary-at-Hill, as in 1577 Tallis claimed to have “served yo[u]r Ma[jes]tie and yo[u]r Royall ancestors these fortie yeres”. He may have been responsible for teaching the boys of the choir keyboard and composition.[11]


Tallis married, probably for the first time, in around 1552. His wife Joan was the widow of a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Like many other members of the royal household choir, Tallis and his wife lived in Greenwich,[15]although it is not known if he ever owned his house there. He probably rented a house, by tradition in Stockwell Street.[11] There seem to have been no children of the marriage. [11]

Mary I granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent which provided a comfortable annual income.[16] He was present at her funeral on 13 December 1558 and at the coronation of Elizabeth I the following month.[15]

Tallis avoided the religious controversies that raged around him throughout his service to successive monarchs, though he remained an "unreformed Roman Catholic".[17] Tallis was capable of switching the style of his compositions to suit the different monarchs' vastly different demands.[18] He stood out among other important composers of the time, including Christopher Tye and Robert White. Walker observes that "he had more versatility of style" than Tye and White, and "his general handling of his material was more consistently easy and certain."[19] Tallis was also a teacher of William Byrd and of Elway Bevin, an organist of Bristol Cathedral and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.[20]

Work with William Byrd[edit]

Tallis's pupil William Byrd (1543–1623)

Mary Tudor granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent which provided a comfortable annual income.[16] In 1575, Elizabeth I granted him and William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music[21] and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country.[22] Tallis's monopoly covered "set songe or songes in parts", and he composed in English, Latin, French, Italian, and other languages, as long as they served for music in the church or chamber.[21] Tallis had exclusive rights to print any music in any language, and he and Byrd were the only ones allowed to use the paper that was used in printing music. They used their monopoly to produce Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur in 1575, but the collection did not sell well and they appealed to Elizabeth for her support.[21] People were naturally wary of their new publications, and it did not help that they were both avowed Roman Catholics.[22] They were also forbidden to sell any imported music. Lord points out that they 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."[23]

Tallis retained respect during a time of religious and political upheaval, and he avoided the violence which claimed Catholics and Protestants alike.[24]


Tallis died in his house in Greenwich in November 1585; most historians agree that he died on 23 November, though one source gives the date as 20 November.[25][26] He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege Church, Greenwich, though the exact location in the church is unknown. His remains may have been discarded by labourers between 1712 and 1714 when the church was rebuilt, and nothing remains of Tallis's original memorial in the church. John Strype found a brass plate in 1720 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.

(Rimbault 1872, pp. 192–193)

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

Liturgical calendar[edit]

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


Early works[edit]

The earliest surviving works by Tallis are Salve intemerata virgo, Ave rosa sine spinis and Ave Dei patris filia, both devotional antiphons to the Virgin Mary which were sung in the evening after the last service of the day; they were cultivated in England at least until the early 1540s. Henry VIII's break from the Roman Catholic church in 1534 and the rise of Thomas Cranmer noticeably influenced the style of music being written. Cranmer recommended a syllabic style of music where each syllable is sung to one pitch, as his instructions make clear for the setting of the 1544 English Litany.[27] As a result, the writing of Tallis and his contemporaries became less florid. Tallis' Mass for Four Voices is marked with a syllabic and chordal style emphasising chords, and a diminished use of melisma. He provides a rhythmic variety and differentiation of moods depending on the meaning of his texts.[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 alongside the vernacular.[30] Mary Tudor set about undoing some of the religious reforms of the preceding decades, following her accession in 1553. She restored the Roman Rite, and compositional style reverted to the elaborate writing prevalent early in the century.[31] Two of Tallis's major works were Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater[32] and the Christmas Mass Puer natus est nobis, and both are believed to be from this period. Puer natus est nobis based on the introit for the third Mass for Christmas Day may have been sung at Christmas 1554 when Mary believed that she was pregnant with a male heir.[15] These pieces were intended to exalt the image of the Queen, as well as to praise the Virgin Mary.[31]

Some of Tallis's works were compiled by Thomas Mulliner in a manuscript copybook called The 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 abolished the Roman Liturgy[2] and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer.[33] Composers resumed writing English anthems, although the practice continued of setting Latin texts among composers employed by Elizabeth's Chapel Royal.

The religious authorities at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, being Protestant, 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".[34] Tallis wrote nine psalm chant tunes for four voices for Archbishop Matthew Parker's Psalter published in 1567.[35] One of the nine tunes was the "Third Mode Melody" which inspired the composition of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910.[36] 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,[37] and it has become his best-known composition. The Injunctions, however, also allowed a more elaborate piece of music to be sung in church at certain times of the day,[34] 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.[38] Tallis's better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet)[16] for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs, for which he is most remembered. He also produced compositions for other monarchs, and several of his anthems written in Edward's reign are judged to be on the same level as his Elizabethan works, such as "If Ye Love Me".[39] Records are incomplete on his works from previous periods; 11 of his 18 Latin-texted pieces from Elizabeth's reign were published, "which ensured their survival in a way not available to the earlier material".[40]

Later works[edit]

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 of disparate biblical extracts.[41] Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy[2] and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal.[2] He composed during the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his music often displays characteristics of the turmoil.[42]

Fictional portrayals[edit]

A fictionalised version of Thomas Tallis was portrayed by Joe Van Moyland in the 2007 BBC television series The Tudors.[43]



  1. ^ 3 December 1585 by the Gregorian calendar


  1. ^ Cole 2008a, pp. 212–226.
  2. ^ a b c d Farrell 2001, p. 125.
  3. ^ Cole 2008b, p. 62.
  4. ^ Harley 2015, p. 1.
  5. ^ Harley 2015, pp. 1–2.
  6. ^ a b Walker 1907, p. 34.
  7. ^ Lord & Brinkman 2003, p. 80.
  8. ^ a b Harley 2015, p. 2.
  9. ^ Lord & Brinkman 2003, p. 197.
  10. ^ Harley 2015, p. 4.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h Doe & Allinson 2009.
  12. ^ a b Harley 2015, p. 5.
  13. ^ Harley 2015, pp. 5–6.
  14. ^ a b c Harley 2015, p. 7.
  15. ^ a b c d Milsom 2008.
  16. ^ a b c Cole 2008b, p. 93.
  17. ^ Ackroyd 2004, p. 176.
  18. ^ Phillips 2005, p. 8.
  19. ^ Walker 1907, p. 44.
  20. ^ Walker 1907, p. 56.
  21. ^ a b c Holman 1999, p. 1.
  22. ^ a b Lord & Brinkman 2003, p. 69.
  23. ^ Lord & Brinkman 2003, p. 70.
  24. ^ Gatens. "Tallis: Works, all." American Record Guide 68.3 (May–June 2005): 181.
  25. ^ Harley 2015, p. 212.
  26. ^ Rimbault 1872, p. 192.
  27. ^ Willis 2016, p. 52.
  28. ^ Manderson 2000, p. 86.
  29. ^ Lord & Brinkman 2003, p. 75.
  30. ^ Lord & Brinkman 2003, p. 200.
  31. ^ a b Shrock 2009, p. 148.
  32. ^ "Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater (Thomas Tallis) – ChoralWiki". Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  33. ^ Thomas 1998, p. 89.
  34. ^ a b Willis 2016, p. 57.
  35. ^ Lord & Brinkman 2003, p. 86.
  36. ^ Steinberg 2008, p. 291.
  37. ^ "Tallis's Canon",
  38. ^ Milsom 2003, p. 163.
  39. ^ Phillips 2005, p. 11.
  40. ^ Phillips 2005, p. 13.
  41. ^ Phillips 2005, p. 9.
  42. ^ Gatens 181.
  43. ^ "BBC Two - The Tudors, Series 1, Episode 1". BBC. 5 October 2007. Retrieved 27 January 2019.


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