Thomas Tallis  
Thomas Tallis
Thomas Tallis, (born c. 1510—died Nov. 23, 1585, Greenwich, London), one of the most important English composers of sacred music before William Byrd (1543–1623). His style encompassed the simple Reformation service music and the great continental polyphonic schools whose influence he was largely responsible for introducing into English music.

Nothing is known of Tallis’ education. In 1532 he held a post at Dover Priory and in 1537 at St. Mary-at-Hill, London. His name appears in a list of persons who in 1540 received wages and rewards for services at the dissolution of Waltham Abbey in Essex. From Waltham he appears to have gone briefly to Canterbury and then to the Chapel Royal. In a petition to Queen Elizabeth I, made jointly with William Byrd in 1577, he refers to having “served your Majestie and your Royall ancestors these fortie years,” but his appointment as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal can hardly have been before 1542.

On Jan. 21, 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and Byrd the monopoly for printing music and music paper in England. The first publication under their license was a collection of 34 motets, 16 by Tallis and 18 by Byrd, entitled Cantiones sacrae, printed by T. Vautrollier in 1575. These Latin pieces, together with five anthems to English texts printed by John Day in his Certaine Notes . . . (1560–65), comprise all of his music that Tallis saw in print during his lifetime.

Tallis’ Latin works include a modest, unnamed 4-part mass; a 5-part mass, Salve intemerata, derived from his antiphon of the same name; a 7-part mass; and two settings of the Magnificat. He also made two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the first of which is among his most celebrated works. Finally, among his Latin pieces two in particular are often cited as demonstrations of Tallis’ supreme mastery of the art of counterpoint: the 7-part Miserere nostri, an extraordinary feat of canonic writing, involving retrograde movement together with several degrees of augmentation; and the famous 40-part Spem in alium, considered a unique monument in British music.

Tallis was one of the first composers to provide settings of the English liturgy. He has left settings of the Preces and Responses, the Litany, and a complete Service “in the Dorian mode,” which consists of the morning and evening canticles and the Communion Service. There are also three sets of psalms, and a number of anthems.

Tallis’ keyboard music is regarded as substantial and significant. Of his 23 extant keyboard pieces, 18 occur in the mid-16th-century manuscript known as the Mulliner Book.

Encyclopædia Britannica


Detail from the Seven Planets series by Hans Sebald Beham. 1539
The woodcut illustrates a small positive organ, operated with bellows and pedals.


Little is known about the life of Thomas Tallis, although he was one of the most important English composers of sacred music of his time. In 1532 he was employed as an organist for the Benedictine Priory of Dover, and in 1537 he worked for the church of St Mary-at-Hill in London, again probably playing the organ. He may have moved to Waltham Abbey about a year later, attracted by its three organs and its choir; certainly, he was the organist there at the time of the Abbey's closure in 1540 as part of King Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. For the next two years he worked as a lay clerk for Canterbury Cathedral, before joining the court as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal — where from 1572 he was joint organist with fellow composer William Byrd. During his decades of service to the court his compositional skills earned him a considerable reputation.
Tallis's career spanned the reigns of four very different monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I), and throughout the frequent religious turnarounds of the era he retained the musical skill and diplomacy to serve each. He composed mainly sacred music, initially in Latin for the Catholic Church, and later in English after the Protestant Reformation. In 1575 Tallis and William Byrd were granted an exclusive patent by Queen Elizabeth to print and market music, although this venture was not entirely successful until after Tallis's death in Greenwich in 1585. The first music they published was a collection of 34 Latin motets by himself and Byrd, entitled Cantiones sacrae (Sacred songs).

Reflecting the currents of change brought by the Reformation, Tallis in the main avoided the florid, ornate writing that was much used by his English predecessors and contemporaries; yet he was capable of brilliant technical feats. Spem in alium is an extraordinary 40-part motet using eight choirs of five voices. Possibly written for the fortieth birthday of Elizabeth I, it would be remembered only as a curiosity were it not for the power of its message stemming from its treatment of the words, "I have never put my hope in any other but you, О God of Israel ..." Starting with two voices introducing the cry of hope, it builds up to a climax, when all the voices join together to enunciate this fervent cry.

Thomas Tallis - If Ye Love Me
Thomas Tallis - Lamentation
Thomas Tallis  - Videte miraculum
Thomas Tallis - If ye love me
Si me amais
guardad mis mandamientos,
y yo rogaré al padre
que os dé otro intercesor
para que esté con vosotros para siempre,
como el espíritu de la verdad.
Tallis - O Sacrum Convivium
The Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, Timothy Byram-Wigfield Conductor
Tallis: Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater (Rejoice, O glorious Mother of God)
Thomas Tallis - Spem In Alium
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