1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis
English composer
(c. 1505 - 1585)

THOMAS TALLIS (TALLYS, TALYS, or TALLISIUS) (c. 1515-1585), justly styled "the father of English cathedral music," was born, as nearly as can be ascertained, about the year 1515. The history of his youth is involved in some obscurity; there seems, however, but little doubt that, after singing as a chorister at old Saint Paul's under Thomas Mulliner, he obtained a place among the children of the chapel royal. His next appointment was that of organist at Waltham abbey, where, on the dissolution of the monastery in 1540, he received, in compensation for the loss of his preferment, 20s. for wages and 20s. for reward. An interesting relic of this period of his career is preserved in the library of the British Museum, in the form of a volume of MS. treatises on music, once belonging to the abbey, on the last page of which appears his autograph, " Thomas Tallys," with the final letter prolonged into an elaborate nourish—the only specimen of his handwriting now known to exist.

Not long after his dismissal from Waltham, Tallis was appointed a gentleman of the chapel royal; and thenceforward he laboured so zealously for the advancement of his art that his genius has left an indelible impression upon the English school, which owes more to him than to any other composer of the 16th century, and in the history of which his name plays a very important part indeed.

One of the earliest compositions by Tallis to which an approximate date can be assigned is the well-known Service in the Dorian Mode, consisting of the Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus, Kyrie, Nicene Creed, Sanctus, Gloria in Excelsis, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis, for four voices, together with the Preces, Responses, Paternoster, and Litany, for five, all published for the first time, in the Rev. John Barnard's First Book of Selected Church Music, in 1641, and reprinted, with the exception of the Venite and Paternoster, in Boyce's Cathedral Music in 1760. That this work was composed for the purpose of supplying a pressing need, after the publication of the second prayer-book of King Edward VI. in 1552 there can be no reasonable doubt; and its perfect adaptation to its intended purpose is sufficiently proved by the fact that, for more than three hundred years, its claim to occupy the first and highest place among compositions of its class has been undisputed. Written in the style known among Italian composers as lo stile famigliare, i.e., in simple counterpoint of the first species, nota contra notam, with no attempt at ingenious points of imitation, or learned complications of any kind—it adapts itself with equal dignity and clearness to the expression of the verbal text it is intended to illustrate, bringing out the sense of the words so plainly that the listener cannot fail to interpret them aright, while its pure rich harmonies tend far more surely to the excitement of devotional feeling than the marvellous combinations by means of which too many of Tallis's contemporaries sought to astonish their hearers, while forgetting all the loftier attributes of their art. In this noble quality of self-restraint the Litany and Responses bear a close analogy to the Lmproperia and other similar works of Palestrina, wherein, addressing himself to the heart rather than to the ear, the princeps musical produces the most thrilling effects by means which, to the superficial critic, appear almost puerile in their simplicity, while those who are able to look beneath the surface discern in them depths of learning such as none but a very highly cultivated musician can appreciate. Of this profound learning Tallis possessed an inexhaustible store ; and the rich resources it opened to his genius not only placed his compositions on a level with those produced by the best of his Italian and Flemish contemporaries, but enabled him to raise the English school itself to a height which it had never previously attained, and which, nevertheless, it continued to maintain undiminished until the death of its last representative, Orlando Gibbons, in 1625. Though this school is generally said to have been founded by Dr Tye, there can be no doubt that Tallis was its greatest master, and that it was indebted to him alone for the infusion of new life and vigour which prevented it from degenerating, as some of the earlier Flemish schools had done, into a mere vehicle for the display of fruitless erudition. Tallis's ingenuity far surpassed that of his most ^rudite contemporaries ; but he never paraded it at the expense either of intrinsic beauty or truthfulness of expression. Like every other great musician of the period, he produced occasionally works confessedly intended for no more exalted purpose than the exhibition of his stupendous skill, one of the most remarkable characteristics of which was the apparent ease with which it disposed of difficulties that, to composers of ordinary ability, would have proved insurmountable. In his canon, Miserere nostri, the intricacy of the contrapuntal devices seems little short of miraculous; yet, so smooth' and flowing is the effect produced by their dizzy involutions, that no one unacquainted with the secret of their construction would suspect the presence of any unusual element in the composition. In his' motet, Spem in alium non habui, written for forty voices disposed in eight five-part choirs, each singer is intrusted with a part, agreeable and interesting in itself, yet never for a moment interfering with any one of the thirty-nine equally interesting parts with which it is associated. These tours de force, however, though approachable only by the greatest contrapuntists living in an age in which counterpoint was cultivated with a success that has never since been equalled, serve to illustrate one phase only of Tallis's many-sided genius, which shines with equal brightness in the eight psalm-tunes (one in each of the first eight modes) and unpretending little Veni Creator, printed in 1567 at the end of Archbishop Parker's First Quinquagene of Metrical Psalms, and many other compositions of like simplicity.

In 1575 Tallis and his pupil William Byrd—as great a contrapuntist as himself, though by no means his equal in depth of expression—obtained from Queen Elizabeth royal letters patent granting them the exclusive right of printing music and ruling music-paper for twenty-one years; and, in virtue of this privilege, they issued, in the same year, a joint work, entitled Cantiones quae ab argumento Sacrae vocantur, quinqué et sex partium, containing sixteen motets by Tallis and eighteen by Byrd, all of the highest degree of excellence. Some of these motets, adapted to English words, are now sung as anthems in the Anglican cathedral service. But no such translations appear to have been made during Tallis's lifetime; and there is strong reason for believing that, though both he and Byrd outwardly conformed to the new religion, and composed music expressly for its use, they remained Catholics at heart to the end of their days.

Tallis's contributions to the Cantiones Sacrae were the last of his compositions published during his lifetime. He did not, indeed, live to witness the expiration of the patent, though Byrd survived it and published two more books of Cantiones on his own account in 1589 and 1591, besides numerous other works. Tallis died November 23, 1585, and was buried in the parish church at Greenwich, where a quaint rhymed epitaph, preserved by Strype, and reprinted by Burney and Hawkins, recorded the fact that he served in the chapel royal during the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth. This was destroyed with the old church about 1710; and it was not until about twenty years ago that a copy was placed in the present building. Portraits, professedly authentic, of Tallis and Byrd were engraved by Vandergucht in 1730, for Nicolas Haym's projected History of Music, but never published. One copy only is known to exist.

Not very many works besides those already mentioned were printed during Tallis's lifetime; but a great number are still preserved in MS. Unhappily, it is to be feared that many more were destroyed, in the 17th century, during the spoliation of the cathedral libraries by the Puritans. (W. S. R.)

The above article was written by: William Smythe Rockstro, pianist and musical composer; author of A General History of Music from the Infancy of the Greek Drama to the Present Period, and other works on the history of music.

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