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Biography of

Thomas Tallis

1505 (Leicester) - 23 nov 1585 (Greenwich)
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Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 23 November 1585) was an English composer. Tallis flourished as a church musician in 16th century Tudor England. He occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered among the best of England's early composers. He is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship.[1] No contemporary portrait of Tallis survives: the earliest, painted by Gerard van der Gucht, dates from 150 years after Tallis died, and there is no certainty that it is a likeness.[2]



Early years

Little is known about Tallis's 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.[3] 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.[4] His career took him to London, then (probably in the autumn of 1538) to the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham until the abbey was dissolved in 1540. Tallis acquired a volume at the dissolution of the monastery of Waltham Holy Cross and preserved it; one of the treatises in it was by Leonel Power, and the treatise itself prohibits consecutive unisons, fifths, and octaves.[5]

Tallis's next post was at Canterbury Cathedral. He was next sent to Court as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543 (which later became a Protestant establishment[6]), where he composed and performed for Henry VIII,[7] Edward VI (1547–1553), Queen Mary (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558 until Tallis died in 1585).[8] Throughout his service to successive monarchs as organist and composer, Tallis avoided the religious controversies that raged around him, though, like William Byrd, he stayed an "unreformed Roman Catholic."[9] Tallis was capable of switching the style of his compositions to suit the different monarchs' vastly different demands.[10] Among other important composers of the time, including Christopher Tye and Robert White, Tallis stood out. Walker observes, "He had more versatility of style than either, and his general handling of his material was more consistently easy and certain."[11] Tallis was also a teacher, not only of William Byrd, but also of Elway Bevin, an organist of Bristol Cathedral and gentleman of the Chapel Royal.[12]

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, possibly close to the royal palace: a local tradition holds that he lived on Stockwell Street.[13]

Work with William Byrd

Queen Mary granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable annual income.[14] In 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted to him and William Byrd a twenty-one year monopoly for polyphonic music[15] and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country.[16] Tallis's monopoly covered 'set songe or songes in parts', and he composed in English, Latin, French, Italian, or other tongues as long as they served for music in the Church or chamber.[17] 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.[18] People were naturally wary of their new publications, and it certainly did not help their case that they were both avowed Roman Catholics.[19] Not only that, they were strictly forbidden to sell any imported music. "We straightly by the same be brought out of any forren Realmes...any songe or songes made and printed in any foreen countrie." Also, Byrd and Tallis 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."[20]

Tallis retained respect during a succession of opposing religious movements and deflected the violence that claimed Catholics and Protestants alike.[21]


Thomas Tallis died peacefully in his house in Greenwich in November 1585. Most historians agree that he died on the twenty-third.[22] He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege's Church.[23] The chancel was torn down in 1720, and none of the memorials remain. Strype claims to have found a brass plate with an engraving on it, which reads:

“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 yelypt 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.”[24]

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


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


See List of compositions by Thomas Tallis

Early works

The earliest surviving works by Tallis, Salve intemerata virgo, Ave rosa sine spinis and Ave Dei patris filia 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.[25] 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.[26] Tallis helped found a relationship that was specific to the combining of words and music.[27] He also wrote several excellent Lutheran chorales.[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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32]

Some of Tallis's works were compiled and printed in the Mulliner Book by Thomas Mulliner 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 Settlement in the following year abolished the Roman Liturgy[33] and firmly established the Book of Common Prayer.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] Tallis's better-known works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet)[37] for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs. Tallis is mostly remembered for his role in composing office hymns and this motet, Spem in alium. Too often we forget to look at his compositions for other monarchs; several of Tallis's anthems written in Edward's reign such as his If ye love me, ought to be considered on the same level as his Elizabethan works.[38] This is partially because we do not have all of his works from previous periods; eleven of eighteen Latin-texted pieces by Tallis from Elizabeth's reign were published, "which ensured their survival in a way not available to the earlier material."[39]

Later works

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.[40] Tallis's experiments during this time period were considered rather unusual.[41] Tallis was content to draw his texts from the Liturgy[42] and wrote for the worship services in the Chapel Royal.[43] Tallis composed during a difficult period during the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, and his music often displays characteristics of the turmoil.[44]

Fictional portrayals

A fictionalized Thomas Tallis was portrayed by Joe Van Moyland in 2007 on the Showtime television series The Tudors, loosely based upon the early reign of Henry VIII.

See also


  • Cole, Suzanne. Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2008.
  • Doe, Paul and Allinson, David : Thomas Tallis, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 May 2007), (subscription access)
  • Farrell, Joseph. Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times. New York Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Gatens. Tallis: Works, all. American Record Guide 68.3 (May–June 2005): 181.
  • Holman, Peter. Dowland: Lachrimae (1604); Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Lord, Suzanne.; Brinkman, David. Music From the Age of Shakespeare: A Cultural History. Westport, Conn Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
  • Manderson, Desmond. Songs Without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice. University of California Press, 2000.
  • Phillips, Peter. Sign of Contradiction: Tallis at 500. Musical Times 146 (Summer 2005): 7–15.
  • Shrock, Dennis. Choral Repertoire. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide. New York Oxford Press, 2005.
  • St. James Palace; Rimbault, Edward F. The Old Cheque-Book. Chapel Royal. Westminster: J.B, Nichols and Sons.
  • Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I. New York Houghton-Muffin Trade and Reference, 1998.
  • Walker, Ernest. A History of Music in England. 3rd ed., rev. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952


  1. ^ Farrell, J: Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times, page 125. New York Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  2. ^ Cole, Suzanne. Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, page 62. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2008.
  3. ^ Walker, Ernest. A History of Music in England, page 48 Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952
  4. ^ Lord, Suzanne.; Brinkman, David. Music From the Age of Shakespeare: A Cultural History, page 197. Westport, Conn Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
  5. ^ Walker 19–20
  6. ^ Farrell 125
  7. ^ Holman, Peter. Dowland: Lachrimae (1604), page 201. Cambridge Music Handbooks. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  8. ^ Thomas, Jane Resh. Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I, page 136. New York Houghton-Muffin Trade and Reference, 1998.
  9. ^ Peter Ackroyd Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination ( New York: First Anchor Books, 2004), 184
  10. ^ Phillips, Peter. “Sign of Contradiction: Tallis at 500”, page 8. Musical Times 146 (Summer 2005): 7–15.
  11. ^ Walker 58–59
  12. ^ Walker 75
  13. ^ Paul Doe/David Allinson, Grove online
  14. ^ Cole 93
  15. ^ Holman 1
  16. ^ Lord 69
  17. ^ Holman 1
  18. ^ Holman 1
  19. ^ Lord 69
  20. ^ Lord 70
  21. ^ Gatens. "Tallis: Works, all." American Record Guide 68.3 (May–June 2005): 181.
  22. ^ St. James Palace; Rimbault, Edward F. The Old Cheque-Book, page 192. Chapel Royal. Westminster: J.B, Nichols and Sons.
  23. ^ Lord 199
  24. ^ Rimbault 192–193
  25. ^ Shrock, Dennis. Choral Repetoire, page 136. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  26. ^ Manderson, Desmond. Songs Without Music: Aesthetic Dimensions of Law and Justice, page 86. University of California Press, 2000.
  27. ^ Phillips 11
  28. ^ Walker 396
  29. ^ Lord 75
  30. ^ Lord 200
  31. ^ Shrock 148
  32. ^ Shrock 148
  33. ^ Farrell 125
  34. ^ Thomas 89
  35. ^ Lord 86
  36. ^ Steinberg, Michael. Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide, page 291 New York Oxford Press, 2005.
  37. ^ Cole 93
  38. ^ Phillips 11
  39. ^ Phillips 13
  40. ^ Phillips 9
  41. ^ Phillips 11
  42. ^ Farrell 125
  43. ^ Farrell 125
  44. ^ Gatens 181

External links


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Thomas Tallis. Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.
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