Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 - November 23, 1585) was an English composer. Tallis flourished as a church musician during the often stormy 16th Century in England. He occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered among the best of its earliest composers. Tallis has been said to be one of the most important composers of his time and is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship (Farrell 125).
Little is known about his 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. 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. His career took him to London, then (probably in the autumn of 1538) to the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham whose London residence stood nearby, until the abbey was dissolved in 1540; then he went to Canterbury Cathedral, and finally to Court as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543, composing and performing for Henry VIII during which he wrote music for the Protestant Church of England (Holman 201), Edward VI (1547-1553), Queen Mary (1553-1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558 until he died in 1585) (Thomas 136). Throughout his service to successive monarchs as organist and composer, Tallis avoided the religious controversies that raged around him.
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, likely close to the royal palace: a local tradition holds that he lived on Stockwell Street.
The earliest works, three pieces in particular, by Tallis that survive 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. 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. Tallis helped found a relationship that was specific to the combining of words and music.
The reformed Anglican liturgy was inaugurated during the short reign of Edward VI (1547-1553), and Tallis was one of the first church musicians to write anthems set to English words, although Latin continued to be used. 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. 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.
Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister in 1558, and the Act of Settlement in the following year abolished the Roman Liturgy and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer. 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.
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.
Tallis's better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet) 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.
Spem in alium is a 40-part Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis, composed circa 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each. The sacred text has been used as a basis for other choral settings, such as a 4-part setting by Colebault and the Mass by Palestrina based on it. However, the Tallis setting is by far the most famous. Along with Gregorio Allegri's Miserere this piece by Tallis is regarded as one of the pinnacles of Renaissance Polyphony.
The early history of the work is obscure. It is listed in a catalogue of the library at Nonsuch Palace made in 1596 as "a song of fortie partes, made by Mr. Tallys." The earliest surviving manuscripts are those prepared in 1610 for the investiture of Henry Frederick, the son of James I, as Prince of Wales.
A 1611 letter written by the law student Thomas Wateridge contains the following anecdote:
In Queene Elizabeths time there was a songe sent into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned the name to be called the Apices of the world) which beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearing a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our English men could sett as good a songe, & Tallice beinge very skillful was felt to try whether he would undertake the Matter, which he did and mad[e] one of 40 p[ar]ts which was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house which so farre surpassed the other th[a]t the Duke hearinge of the songe tooke his chayne of gold from of his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke & gave yt him.
Allowing the "30" to be a mistake, the Italian song referred to is either the 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem or the 40-60 voice mass Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno, both by Alessandro Striggio, who is known to have visited London in June 1567 after a trip through Europe during which he arranged other performances of Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno.
This account is consistent with the catalogue entry at Nonsuch Palace: Arundel House was the London home of Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel; Nonsuch Palace was his country residence. Nonsuch possessed an octagonal banqueting hall, which in turn had four ﬁrst-ﬂoor balconies: it can be speculated that Tallis designed the music to be sung not only in the round, but with four of the eight five-part choirs singing from the balconies.
The Duke of the letter is thought to be Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and if so (and if the anecdote is trustworthy) the Duke's execution in 1572 gives a latest date for the composition of the work. Other historians, doubting the anecdote, have suggested that the first performance was on the occasion of Elizabeth's fortieth birthday in 1573.
Other dates have been suggested, including the possibility that it was composed years earlier for Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's predecessor.
An early score of the work currently resides at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where it is part of an exhibition detailing 1000 years of British choral music.
Though composed in imitative style and occasionally homophonic, its individual vocal lines act quite freely within its fairly simple harmonic framework, allowing for an astonishing number of individual musical ideas to be sung during its ten-to-twelve minute performance time. The work is a study in contrasts: the individual voices sing and are silent in turns, sometimes alone, sometimes in choirs, sometimes calling and answering, sometimes all together, so that, far from being a monotonous mess, the work is continually presenting new ideas to the listener. The effect on the listener of the sheer number of ideas contained in the work, compounded with the unusual performance practice of surrounding the audience with performers, is that of inundation, or of being completely overwhelmed.
The work is not often performed, as it requires at least forty singers capable of meeting its technical demands. The discipline that comes with performing the masterpiece is highlighted in the importance of the conductor and the performers alike. Whilst performers are distributed throughout a venue, the conductor becomes truly the hub for the piece throughout, as often there is little or no visibility between the performers, and a large venue will present acoustical challenges, not regarded with traditional choirs co-located.
The original Latin text of the motet is from a response (at Matins, for the 3rd Lesson, during the V week of September), in the Sarum Rite, adapted from the Book of Judith. Today the response appears in the Divine Office of the Latin rite in the Office of Readings (formerly called Matins) following the first lesson on Tuesday of the 29th Week of the Year.
Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te
et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Creator coeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram
There is no early manuscript source giving the underlay for the Latin text: the 1610 copies give the underlay for the English contrafactum "Sing and glorify" (see below), with the Latin words given at the bottom.
I have never put my hope in any other but in you,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness
Sung at the 1610 investiture of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales.
Sing and glorify heaven's high Majesty,
Author of this blessed harmony;
Sound divine praises
With melodious graces;
This is the day, holy day, happy day,
For ever give it greeting,
Love and joy, heart and voice meeting:
Live Henry princely and mighty,
Harry live in thy creation happy.
Recordings include those by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral; the Tallis Scholars, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the Oxford Camerata; the Choirs of King's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge; The Sixteen; The Clerkes of Oxenford; Cantillation; Huelgas Ensemble; Philip Cave's Magnificat; and, most recently (2006), by the British male a capella group, the King's Singers. This recording is particularly noteworthy, since the group is composed of just six men: all forty parts are performed by these six via multitracking. The Kronos Quartet has also recorded an instrumental version of the motet on their album, Black Angels. Cellist Peter Gregson has also multitracked Spem in Alium, performing all 40 parts on one cello.
Another version of this motet is featured in Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet (2001), an exhibition which is part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The exhibit is set in the Rideau Street Chapel, which is the salvaged interior of a demolished convent chapel that is now in permanent display at the National Gallery. Forty speakers are set around the Chapel, each one featuring a single voice of the forty-part choir. The result is a highly-enhanced polyphonic effect, as visitors may hear each individual voice through its corresponding speaker, or listen to the voices of the entire choir blending in together with varying intensities, as one moves around the Chapel. Previously it toured the world, including in early 2006 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where it was a temporary installation in one of the contemporary rooms.
On 10 June 2006, the BBC asked for 1,000 singers to meet, rehearse and perform the piece in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester for what was almost certainly the largest performance of the piece in history. On that day, over 700 singers attended, most of whom had never sung the piece before. A program following the day's events was broadcast on BBC Four on December 9, 2006.
The piece featured prominently in the Poliakoff drama, Gideon's Daughter. Spem in alium accompanies the film Touching the Void, and reaches a climax when Yates and Simpson reach the summit of the mountain.
Tallis's Spem in alium has also inspired several contemporary composers to write 40-part choral works, for example Giles Swayne's The Silent Land (1998), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's Tentatio (2006) and Peter McGarr's Love You Big as the Sky (2007). A London-based choral festival, the Tallis Festival, inspired by Spem in alium, commissioned both Mäntyjärvi and McGarr to compose in this genre.
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.
Tallis' experiments during this time period were considered rather unusual.
Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal.
In 1543, he probably began to serve full time as a member of the Chapel Royal. The Chapel Royal later became a Protestant establishment. Tallis has been variously claimed to be a Protestant, Catholic, and a religious Pragmatist. Mary granted him a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable annual income.
Elizabeth granted to Tallis and Byrd a twenty-one year monopoly in 1575 for polyphonic music (Holman 1) and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country. Tallis' monoply covered 'set songe or songes in parts, and he was able to compose in English, Latin, French, Italian, or other tongues as long as they served for music in the Church or chamber.
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.
Tallis and Byrd could work for two opposing religions as long as they did not bring their beliefs into their jobs. He retained respect during a succession of opposing religious movements and deflected the violence that claimed Catholics and Protestants alike. Tallis endured a difficult period during the time of the church and his music often displays characteristics of the turmoil.
Thomas Tallis died peacefully in his house in Greenwich in November 1585 on either the 20th or 23rd. He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege's Church. A couplet from his epitaph reads:
As he did live, so also did he die, In mild and quiet Sort (O! happy Man).
William Byrd wrote the musical elegy Ye Sacred Muses on Tallis's death.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910) considerably thereafter.
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