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Tallis, Thomas

Category: Musician or composer

An imaginary portrait - we do not actually know what Tallis looked like

Thomas Tallis [or Tallys] (c. 1505 – 3 December 1585 by the Gregorian calendar and 23 November 1585 by the Julian calendar) was an English composer who occupies a primary place in anthologies of English church music, and is considered one of England's greatest composers.

We do not know what he looked like and we know very little about him, other than that he remained a Roman Catholic during a period in which there was a considerable amount of religious change. He also managed to survive it all, which rather leads one to suspect he rose way above religious thoughts and – if his music is anything to go by – relied on spirituality. He composed in English, Latin, French, Italian, or other languages as long as they served for music in the Church or chamber, which is a interesting reflection on how he viewed words. It appears that Tallis used words as part of the composition not for their meaning – an approach favoured by those wishing to reproduce celestial music.

Born towards the close of the reign of Henry VII, he composed and performed for Henry VIII, Edward VI (1547–1553), Queen Mary (1553–1558), and Queen Elizabeth I (1558 until Tallis died in 1585). Throughout his service to successive monarchs as organist and composer, Tallis avoided the religious controversies that raged around him, some of his music was geared to their demands, some transcends all religious or political boundaries.


He served as organist of the Benedictine priory at Dover college, the Augustinian abbey of Holy Cross at Waltham until the abbey was dissolved in 1540, at Canterbury Cathedral and then at Court, where he served as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He also taught music.

Tallis married around 1552; his wife, Joan, outlived him by four years. They apparently had no children. Late in his life he lived in Greenwich, but he appears to have been able to live a life without the worries of 'threats and obligations'. Queen Mary granted Tallis a lease on a manor in Kent that provided a comfortable, annual income and in 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted to him and William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music and a patent to print and publish music, which was one of the first arrangements of that type in the country. As such he must have had few money worries.


Some of Tallis's better known works were composed during Elizabeth's reign - of the nine psalm chant tunes for four voices written for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, and published in 1567, for example, the "Third Mode Melody", inspired the composition of Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1910. Tallis's other works from the Elizabethan years include his settings of the Lamentations (of Jeremiah the Prophet) for the Holy Week services and the unique motet Spem in alium written for eight five-voice choirs. Ultimately Tallis's works tend to reflect his state of mind and the times of peace and security seem to produce his most peaceful and serene music.

Thomas Tallis died peacefully in his house in Greenwich in November 1585. He was buried in the chancel of the parish of St Alfege Church in Greenwich, but nothing remains of Tallis's original memorial in the church, his only memorial is his music.


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