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Composer Thomas Tallis: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Thomas Tallis was a prominent 16th century English composer. In this lesson we will learn about his life, his versatility in liturgical composition, and his influence today.

A Time of Transition

What would you do if your occupation was church musician and the church where you were raised, where you worshipped, and where you worked was being systematically dissolved by the King?

Thomas Tallis, an engraving done a century after his death. This is his presumed appearance.
Portrait of Thomas Tallis

The Life of Tallis

Nothing is known of Tallis' birth and family. He may have been born in Kent in the first decade of the 16th century. In 1532, he became the organist at the small Benedictine Monastery of Dover Priory. He had brief appointments at Mary-at-Hill, London in 1537 and at Waltham Abbey, Essex in 1538. Upon the dissolution of Waltham Abbey in 1540 by King Henry VIII, Tallis became a lay clerk at Canterbury Cathedral. Finally, in 1543, he received the coveted position of 'Gentleman' of the Chapel Royal.

Waltham Abbey
Photo of Waltham Abbey

The Music of Tallis

Tallis was born Catholic. The music of his faith influenced his compositions. His first compositions showed a fondness for Latin texts and polyphony, music with more than one melody at the same time. These were traditions of Catholic liturgical music. Missa salve intemerata, probably composed before 1530, is an example of this liturgical style.

Two of Tallis' most beloved and performed works, both in the Latin polyphonic style, are Spem in alium, composed circa 1570, and The Lamentations of Jeremiah, composed in the 1560s. Spem in alium is a motet for eight choirs consisting of five voices each, for a total of 40 voices each singing their own melodic line. The Lamentations are two motets using texts from the worship service for Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter Sunday, is a day of somber worship. Both of these works are standard choral repertoire today.

Manuscript of Spem in alium
Score of spem in alium

When King Henry VIII decided to break with the Pope in Rome, worship in England changed. There was now a need for new music to fit the Anglican liturgy. Tallis survived the change and adapted by setting English texts in a more homophonic style. Homophony is music with a single melody accompanied by a supporting harmony. These beautiful anthems, or sacred choral pieces, have remained popular for centuries. Glory to Thee, My God This Night, often called 'the Tallis Canon,' is still found in hymnbooks today.

The English psalm Why fumeth in fight, which Tallis published in 1567, inspired the contemporary British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams' job was editing and reviewing the English hymnal. He found the psalm and was enchanted. He used the psalm in his orchestra work Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which premiered in 1910. Vaughan Williams' piece inspired musicians all over the world to find, perform, and listen to the music of Tallis. It was, in essence, the rebirth of Tallis' music.

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