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ClassicsOnline Home » TALLIS (THE BEST OF)
Though he lived through some of the most tumultuous times in English history, from the
reigns of Henry VII to Elizabeth I, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585) composed music for both
the Catholic and Anglican churches that resounds the world over to this day. Whether singing
the monumental splendour of his famous 40-part motet Spem in alium or the intimate prayer
I call and cry to thee, O Lord, the internationally renowned Oxford Camerata conducted by
Jeremy Summerly are perfectly attuned to Tallis’s timeless genius.
The Best of Thomas Tallis (c. 1505–1585)
[Track 1] O sacrum convivium (Track 3 from 8.550576)
[Track 2] Audivi vocem (Track 4 from 8.550576)
[Track 3] Lamentations (Set I) (Track 2 from 8.550572)
[Track 4] Discomfort them, O Lord (Track 8 from 8.557770)
[Track 5] Loquebantur variis linguis (Track 1 from 8.550576)
[Track 6] Lamentations (Set II) (Track 3 from 8.550572)
[Track 7] Videte miraculum (Track 6 from 8.550576)
[Track 8] Mass for Four Voices: Sanctus (Track 11 from 8.550576)
[Track 9] I call and cry to thee, O Lord (Track 9 from 8.557770)
[Track 10] Salvator mundi (Track 2 from 8.550576)
[Track 11] Spem in alium (Track 1 from 8.557770)
Surprisingly little is known about the life of Thomas Tallis, one of the leading English composers of the sixteenth
century. From his apparent age at the time of his death in 1585, at least eighty, it may be gathered that he was
born about 1505, seemingly in Kent. As a young man he worked in Dover and Canterbury and his wife belonged
to a family settled in Kent. The first certain reference to Tallis comes in 1530, when he is described as organist,
‘joculator organorum’, at the Benedictine Dover Priory, founded by monks from Canterbury. The Priory was
dissolved by Henry VIII in 1535. In the years 1537/38 Tallis was active at St Mary-at-Hill in London, a parish
celebrated for its music. The abbot of Waltham Abbey, an Augustinian house, had his London residence nearby,
and the presumed connection with Tallis led to the latter’s appointment in 1538 as organist at the Abbey, but in
1540 the Abbey was also dissolved, its land and goods confiscated, the last of the great abbeys in England to
suffer under Henry VIII. Tallis was next employed at Canterbury Cathedral, now without its monastery. In 1544
he is listed as one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, a position he held through the reigns of Edward VI and
Queen Mary and for half that of Queen Elizabeth, until his death in 1585. In 1551 or the following year he married
Joan Bury, the widow of Thomas Bury, a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and the couple lived in Greenwich. In
1557 Queen Mary granted Tallis and a colleague, Richard Bower, a 21-year lease of rentable land in Kent, but by
1570 he found it necessary to seek further support, now from Queen Elizabeth, in view of the effects of inflation.
In 1575 he and his former pupil William Byrd were granted a monopoly of music printing. In the same year Tallis
and Byrd published a collection of Latin motets, Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, each of them
dedicating seventeen of these works to the Queen, then in the seventeenth year of her reign. By the time of his
death Tallis was the longest-serving member of the Chapel Royal, having been employed under four English
monarchs. His wife survived him for three years or so, but the couple had no children and left no direct heirs.
Tallis left money to his colleagues at the Chapel Royal ‘towards their feasts’ and his wife bequeathed a large gilded
bowl to the Catholic jurist Anthony Roper, a grandson of St Thomas More.
This final bequest, the fact that Tallis was godfather to the son of the recusant William Byrd and the nature of
his compositions have confirmed the suggestion that Tallis too remained loyal to the Catholic beliefs in which he
had been raised and the church that he served for a good part of his life. Nevertheless Tallis, as a working
musician, provided music for the new English liturgy, although the greater part of his work lay in the setting of
Latin texts. Some of these were subsequently adapted to English words, fulfilling a contemporary need.
The Latin motet by Tallis Absterge Domine (Cleanse, O Lord) was variously adapted to English texts, including
Discomfort them, O Lord [Track 3] and seems to have enjoyed considerable contemporary popularity. O sacrum
convivium [Track 1] has two different English texts, one of which, I call and cry to thee, O Lord [Track 9] is included here. It
may have been adapted from an original instrumental work, and it has been suggested that the Latin text was a
later substitute for a prior English version.
The other works included here are settings of Latin texts. Audivi vocem (I heard a voice) [Track 2] for four voices
is a setting of the responsory for Matins on All Saints Day. The two sets of Lamentations [Track 3] and [Track 6], for five voices, are settings of the first and second Lectiones for Matins on Maundy Thursday. The seven-voice
Loquebantur variis linguis (They spoke in various tongues) [Track 5] is based on the chant for First Vespers at
Pentecost. Videte miraculum (Behold, a miracle) [Track 7], for six voices, is based on the chant for First Vespers on the
Feast of the Purification. The Sanctus [Track 8] is taken from Tallis’s Mass for four voices, reflecting, in its relative
simplicity, either the tastes of the English ‘reformers’ or the continental trends exemplified in the decisions of the
Council of Trent. Salvator mundi (Saviour of the world) [Track 10] is a five-voice setting of an antiphon for Matins on the
Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
The most remarkable example of the genius of Tallis, however, is heard in his forty-voice setting of Spem in
alium (I have never put my hope in another) [Track 11]. The work seems to have been written in response to a challenge.
In 1567 the Mantuan composer Alessandro Striggio had visited London, bringing with him a forty-voice motet
Ecce beatam lucem (Lo, blessed light). A nobleman, perhaps the Duke of Norfolk, suggested an English
composer should be able to write such a composition, resulting in Tallis’s Spem in alium, which may have been
performed in the octagonal banqueting-hall of the Duke’s uncle, the Earl of Arundel’s Nonsuch Palace, where eight
five-voice choirs could have stood by the eight sides of the hall. The work is not only a very considerable
technical accomplishment in musical terms but also conceals numerical symbolism, including a possible
encryption of the composer’s name.
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