Thomas Tallys : one of Englands’s greatest composers died #OnThisDay in 1585


Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 1585) was an English composer who occupies a primary place in anthologies of English choral music, and is considered one of England’s greatest composers.

No contemporary portrait of Tallis survives: that painted by Gerard Vandergucht (above), dates from 150 years after Tallis died, and there is no reason to suppose that it is a likeness. In a rare existing copy of his black letter signature, the composer spelled his last name “Tallys.”

The following is excerpted from Paul Doe and David Allinson. “Tallis, Thomas.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. <Subscription needed>

Tallis’s compositional career spanned decades of unprecedented political and religious turbulence whose effect on English music was profound. Musical genres and styles declined, mutated or were invented afresh in response to the liturgical and doctrinal demands of the moment. From extended votive antiphons such as Salve intemerata to succinct Anglican service music, Tallis’s diverse output covers almost every musical genre used in the English church during the 16th century. However, style was not determined only by religious circumstances: it is likely that the profound differences between ostensibly early and late works of Tallis (for example, the reduction in melismatic writing and the corresponding growth in chordal homophony, and the tendency for imitation to become less decorative and more structural) may be attributed equally to the influence of continental musical developments on the native style. In this way, political and artistic imperatives converged to change Tallis’s style as well as that of many of his contemporaries.

The secret of Tallis’s success in surviving – not to say thriving – during such a period of turmoil lay in his combination of pragmatism and perfectionism. He was happy to turn good material to new purposes (as in his revision of Gaude gloriosa Dei mater from an English-texted anthem to a Latin-texted antiphon; or the conversion of instrumental fantasias into motets such as O sacrum convivium and Salvator mundi. His perfectionism is revealed by his habit of revising his compositions, sometimes at a level of mere detail but often on a large scale; these ‘second thoughts’ are revealed by disparities between manuscript sources, or between manuscript versions and those published in the Cantiones sacrae of 1575.

Tallis’s lack of complacency meant that even in his old age he continued to develop his musical language and to explore compositional problems, and not only in the obvious sense of meeting the logistical and technical challenges of writing for 40 voices in Spem in alium. Derelinquat impius and In jejunio et fletu – perhaps his last motets, written around his 70th year – are highly original essays in a harmonically conceived, chromatically inflected expressive style that reveal a startlingly fertile imagination.

Tallis3The two sets of Lamentations were probably composed in the mid- or late 1560s, when the practice of making musical settings of the Holy Week readings from the Book of Jeremiah enjoyed a brief and distinguished flowering in England (the practice had developed on the continent during the early 15th century). Tallis set the first two lessons for Maundy Thursday in the Sarum rite. His text contains slight, inconsequential variations from the known specified text; these have led scholars to describe these compositions as non-ritual, independent motets and to speculate that Tallis was writing in an allegorical, recusant spirit. While the likely expressive appeal of the texts to Tallis’s composing imagination and (in all probability) Catholic heart is obvious, it should not be assumed that these works were never used liturgically, nor should it be assumed that he ‘doctored’ the texts for affective reasons (as has been claimed similarly about Byrd’s setting).

Tallis included the customary opening and closing formulae and also follows the convention of setting the Hebrew letters that mark off the verses (Aleph, Ghimel, Heth etc.) in rich melisma. Tallis integrated every compositional resource at his disposal – imitation, expressive modulation, homophony, antiphony – to produce soulful settings that rank among his finest works.

Tallis4Tallis was clearly one of the first musicians to write for the new Anglican liturgy of 1547–53, and he again composed to English words in the reign of Elizabeth. Four pieces are found in sources dating from 1547–8: the anthems Hear the voice and prayer and If ye love me in the Wanley Partbooks, and Remember not and a setting of the Benedictus in the Lumley Books.  A further five anthems (the dubiously-ascribed Christ rising; A new commandment; Blessed are those; the fragmentary Teach me thy ways; and Verily, verily), three services and a Te Deum may be Edwardian but are found only in Elizabethan or even later sources. Internal evidence is a very unsafe guide, for there is some relatively elaborate music that must have been written under Edward VI, whereas certain Elizabethan music, such as Tallis’s psalm tunes, is in a simple chordal style.

The four works of Tallis that are known to be early do reflect, on the whole, the express wish of Cranmer and other reformers for clear syllabic word-setting. Remember not (which, like the Benedictus, uses a text from the King’s Primer, 1545) is a particularly ascetic piece, almost entirely chordal and in effect deeply penitential.  Hear the voice and prayer and If ye love me, however, represent in every way the prototype of the early Anglican anthem: they are cast in an ABB form, and mix homophony with rather formal imitation in a succinct and neatly turned manner, somewhat reminiscent of certain French chansons. The most extended of the four, the Benedictus, is possibly the earliest of all, but nevertheless has the greatest variety of texture and thematic resource. The Dorian Service, which is also probably Edwardian, is for the most part heavily chordal and incantatory, but does use limited imitation in its longer movements. It consists of the five morning and evening canticles, together with Gloria, Creed and Sanctus for the Communion; other items are probably later accretions.

Tallis2Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
The Complete Works
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93612 [10 CDs: 657:34]

The following is excerpted from the Music Web International review by Em Marshall.

The first disc, entitled Music for Henry VIII, features sacred music written between around 1530 and 1540, a time when church music was at an apex.

Disc two is Music at the Reformation. This was most likely all composed during the 1540s, a time of great change in religious practices in England, and the musical expression and accompaniment of the works reflect this.

The music on the third disc dates from the reign of Mary Tudor, during which the Latin rites were fully restored. The disc includes the substantial Mass Puer natus est nobis and the votive antiphon Gaude gloriosa.

Discs four and five are Music for the Divine Office – works composed for the Canonical Hours (eight daily services) – Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Tallis’s music for these services probably mostly dates from his time as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and includes a Magnificat, Alleluia, offertory, responsories, organ music, antiphons, and hymns that are delightfully innovative, despite being, at their most basic levels, settings of original plainchants.

Music for a Reformed Church is the title of the sixth disc, comprising works written for the reformed services laid out in The booke of the common prayer, after the 1549 Act for the Uniformity of Service.

Disc seven, featuring Latin motets, is entitled Music for Queen Elizabeth.

Lamentations and Contrafacta comprise disc eight, including two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and English versions of some of Tallis’s most celebrated Latin motets (including Sing and glorify heaven’s high majesty, an English rendition of Spem in alium).

The two final discs are recordings of the Instrumental Music and Songs.

The performances on these discs are of the very highest quality. Chapelle du Roi is a highly respected group that specializes in sacred music of the renaissance period, making them perfect exponents of Tallis’s music.

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