My two great musical interests are English folk music, and polyphonic church music from the tudor period – English or otherwise. William Cornysh, Thomas Tallis and Willaim Byrd are some of the major English composers from this period; Palestrina and Allegri being two great Italian composers of the time;and Tomas Luis de Victoria being probably the most famous Spanish composer of the late Renaissance.
Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-23 to November 1585) made an appearance in the BBC ‘The Tudors’ series, and this seems to have stirred up a new interest in him. Little is known about Tallis’s early life, but there seems to be agreement that he was born close to the end of the reign of Henry VII. We know that he was appointed as organist of the Benedictine priory at Dover in1532, moving, in the autumn of 1538, to the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham, until the abbey was dissolved.
(Try listening to the link below whilst looking at the picture on top of the blog – imagine the music echoing around the cathedral. Should you happen to be feeling in any way tense right now try doing this for a couple of minutes & see if you still feel tense! )
From there he went to Canterbury Cathedral (see photo at top of blog) and finally to Court as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543, composing and performing for Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I until he died in 1585.
Throughout his service to successive monarchs in turbulent times Tallis managed to avoid religious controversy, and, like William Byrd, stayed an “unreformed Roman Catholic.”
Spem in Alium
He changed the texts to which he set music for changing monarchs to match their religious standpoint, however his music in no way feels constrained by changing religious politics. The mood of the country in the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign leant towards puritanism, which discouraged the liturgical polyphony. However for the Holy Week services in 1573 the motet Spem in alium was written for eight five-voice choirs. The text is penitential, but the music is mesmerising, and very far from dour.
I have never put my hope in any other but in you,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness
Marriage, death and an appearance in ‘The Tudors’
Tallis married around 1552. His wife, Joan, outlived him by four years. They apparently had no children. The television series recently produced by the BBC shows Tallis arriving in London and attracting the attention of Sir William Compton, a close friend of King Henry VIII, with the two becoming lovers. After Compton’s death Tallis begins to court two sisters. I have no idea whether this is accurate or not – but it makes for a good story! Late in his life Tallis lived in Greenwich, close to the royal palace, and was buried at St Alphege’s Church. A couplet from his epitaph reads:
As he did live, so also did he die, in mild and quiet Sort (O! happy Man).
Thomas Tallis likewise inspired this poem by Spike Milligan,
Bore no man any malice
Save an organist called Ken
Who played his music rather badly now and then.
PPS We had an email from Phillip Sheppard (composer of the music for the recent David Starkey TV series about Henry VIII) – Phillip has added a page of tracks to his blog – click here to listen to them (password is ‘crumpets’) – his blog is called ‘Radiomovies’