[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel. Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect. However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]
Born ca. 1505 – Died 23 November 1585 (Greenwich, England)
Musician: Composer; Gentleman [Layclerk] and Organist of the Chapel Royal
[The image is of a posthumous engraving of Tallis made by Gerard Vandergucht in the eighteenth century]
Very little is known about Thomas Tallis the man, and this is probably as he wished it. To make one’s living in any way associated with the ecclesiastical establishment during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I was to build a career on shaky ground, sometimes fatally so. Best to keep one’s head down rather than lose it. This would be particularly advisable regarding one’s own religious convictions. Tallis’s student, William Byrd, chose not to hide his Recusant convictions, which has left us with the conundrum of how one so overtly Catholic could not only survive but apparently thrive in the court of Elizabeth I. But the older Tallis played his cards much closer to his vest, even to the extent that scholars remain uncertain whether Tallis was—in the secret of his heart—Anglican or Catholic. (Indications suggest he never relinquished the Catholic faith.)
On the level of Tallis’s contribution to the Anglican musical heritage, his true religious convictions do not seem to matter. To contrast Tallis with Byrd again, Joseph Kerman has shown that Byrd’s Catholic faith did make a difference in the music he wrote ostensibly for Catholic liturgy (assuming Byrd ever heard it performed as part of the liturgy) as contrasted to his works for Anglican liturgy. Scholars have not yet pointed to that kind of distinction in Tallis’s oeuvre. (Too, Kerman points to works written by Byrd following such events as the capture and execution of Fathers Robert Persons and St. Edmund Campion . The career of the older Tallis had already reached its height well before these devastating moments for Catholics in England. If Tallis was Catholic, and if he knew anguish and frustration at being Catholic in Protestant England, it was a quieter anguish and one that still had some reason to hope England could yet return to Catholicism or at least to an open toleration of the Catholic faith.) On this purely musical level, then, Tallis is one of the most important of Anglican notables. He is one of the leading lights of Anglicanism’s musical golden age of the Tudor Masters. The artistic and liturgico-musical standard of Tallis, Byrd, and their contemporaries has repeatedly been preeminent in the minds of successive generations of Anglican composers who have taken their craft and, indeed, their charism of service seriously.
The paucity of information about Tallis the man is tied to the fact that we have much less information about Tallis’s music than we would like. This is the case with many composers throughout history. But questions about dating, performance practice, patronage, and so on are sometimes even more opaque concerning Tallis’s oeuvre.
This lack of solid information is an issue when one listens to Tallis’s famous Spem in alium. Discussions of what Tallis intended and how he heard the work performed (if he did) have to be strewn with “might have”s and “possibly”s. But some of us want to believe that Tallis intended the work to be performed (and did perform it) in the octagonal banqueting hall of Nonsuch Palace, which was the country residence of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. I have long had the sense that Spem in alium’s forty-voice wall of sound is meant to be experienced as something more than a mere wall. The Nonsuch banqueting hall had
“four first-floor balconies, which might have tempted the composer to indulge in a spatial, as well as purely musical, conception. [Tallis probably] designed his music to be heard ‘in the round’, with the listener seated within the circle of performers. … [T]he exchanges between different choirs ‘acquire a more structural significance, for they take on the quality of a pair of intersecting “cantoris/decani”-like dialogues, the first operating between left and right, the second between front and back’ [J. Milsom, “English Polyphonic Style in Transition: A Study of the Sacred Music of Thomas Tallis” (diss., U. of Oxford, 1983), i, 190]; the music may also be shown to ‘rotate’ around a circle if the choirs are positioned in a particular way. Tallis’s command of pacing and texture is also consummate: reduced sections are driven by expositions of characterful imitative ideas.”
Aside from Tallis’s accomplishments as a leading light in Renaissance music and among England’s Tudor Masters, his contribution to the Anglican choral heritage is immense both because of the craftsmanship of each composition taken singly and because Tallis’s superior skill allowed him to move back and forth through the “bewildering variety of genres” to which he had to contribute as liturgico-musical demands and expectations fluctuated. As the Grove entry on Tallis puts it,
“In his Latin-texted works Tallis transmuted the inherited musical language of pre-Reformation England and in adapting it contributed to its survival for another generation; in his Anglican music he established the formal and stylistic norms of an entirely new repertory that, under reforming pressures, might have fallen into drabness. Through all its changes the English court and Church were fortunate to have the music of Tallis as their ornament.”
Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.
O God most glorious, whose praises art sung night and day by thy saints and angels in heaven: We offer thanks for Thomas Tallis, whose music hath enriched the praise that thy Church offers thee here on earth. Grant, we pray thee, to all who are touched by the power of music such glimpses of eternity that we may be made ready to join thy saints in heaven and behold thy glory unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who livest and reignest with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.