Birth: ca. 1505 in England [?]
Death: Nov 23, 1585 in Greenwich, England
The career of Thomas Tallis, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, spanned a period of spectacular change in the English liturgical climate. Born early in the sixteenth century, his first musical appointment was as organist to a Benedictine (Catholic) Priory in Dover, two years before Henry VIII's definitive break with Rome in 1534. By 1537, Tallis was serving a London parish church as organist; in 1538 he was performing the same task for the Abbey of Holy Cross, Waltham, though this position evaporated when King Henry dissolved the monasteries in 1540. After a brief clerkship at Canterbury Cathedral, Tallis joined the Chapel Royal, where he played, sang, and composed for the remainder of his life, serving in turn Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I. Among the lavish rewards he eventually reaped was a famous bequest of 1575, giving him and his young pupil, William Byrd, a complete monopoly on the printing of music and ruled music paper in England.
The liturgical music in England during this time underwent great changes, not the least of which was the shift between Latin and vernacular texts. At the outset of Tallis' career, the prevailing English style of Latin music followed the soaring treble-dominated textures of the previous century, as exemplified in the Eton Choir book; his early Latin motets reflect this. But by the late 1540s, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was working toward a standard liturgical practice, built around his Book of Common Prayer, that would finally replace the Sarum (English Latin) rite in 1559 with exclusively vernacular worship music. The reign of the Catholic "Bloody" Mary Tudor briefly interrupted this trajectory towards the vernacular with a militant resurgence of Catholic music in an older style; Tallis' Missa Puer natus and the motet Gaude gloriosa apparently date from this time. Stylistically, the church music of England over the second half of the century was yielding to the influence of the Continental imitative style, through the music of the transplanted Italian, Ferrabosco.
Through all these changes, Tallis appears to have retained a professional steadiness and respectability, making music and composing with grace and equanimity as his situation changed. His English-language settings range from simple treatments of the Psalms to anthems (such as Hear the Voice and Prayer) to three complete settings of the Anglican Service; this music is commonly imbued with a somber and penitential mood. His Latin-texted pieces, whether following the stylish "modern" mode of pervasive imitation or not, demonstrate restraint and even tenderness. (One of the few exceptions, though, is his best-known work today, an over-the-top and still rather mysterious experiment in polychoral writing, the forty-voiced Spem in alium). Surprisingly little of Tallis' instrumental music survives, despite his over fifty years of professional organ playing.
- Timothy Dickey (All Music Guide)