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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Writing for Oriana 1: Thomas Tallis

I imagine any of you who are movie and TV buffs would know what Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Quentin Crisp, Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett have in common. All of them have portrayed Queen Elizabeth I, arguably one of the most important and influential monarchs ever to have sat on a throne.

Elizabeth's forty four and a half years on the throne were momentous, and they brought about an enormous change in England's standing in Europe. Her father, Henry VIII, broke with the Church of Rome and declared himself supreme head of the church in England in order to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his second, Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth's mother). Henry had little sympathy for the Lutheran religion; indeed, earlier in his life he'd written and published a scholarly refutation of the so-called Lutheran heresy, an act which saw Henry rewarded by the Pope with the title "Defender of the Faith". And even after breaking with Rome, Henry's new English church never formally repudiated the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic church; it just had its authority vested in the king rather than the Pope. Yet it is also true that during Henry's reign, the English church he headed steered closer to a faith based on Lutheran ideas, with the Bible read in English rather than Latin, and many important aspects of Catholicism - notably the monasteries and devotion to relics and shrines - were suppressed.

van Cleeve: Henry VIII (c. 1531)

Henry died in 1547 and he was succeeded by is son from his third marriage (to Jane Seymour), the nine year old Edward VI. Raised by passionately radical Protestant tutors, he displayed the single-minded obsession of a boy who saw the world in black and white, and it was Edward who sought to root out the Catholic faith and make England completely Protestant.

Circle of William Scrots: Edward VI (c. 1550)

The Catholic faction, though, bided its time and it didn't have to wait long. Edward died in 1553 at the age of 15, after only six and a half years on the throne. His attempts to subvert his father's plan for the succession (which put his Catholic sister Mary next in line if he had no offspring) came to nothing. Mary I was as Catholic as he was Protestant, a true daughter of her Spanish mother, Catherine of Aragon. Mary's reign saw England return to the Pope's authority and she instituted repressive measures against Protestants; hundreds were burned for heresy during her reign.

Mor: Mary I (1554)

Mary reigned for a little over five years, and on her death her younger half sister Elizabeth came to the throne. Elizabeth took up her father's mantle of supreme head of the church in England, and made the nation officially Protestant as it had been under Edward. It was under Elizabeth that the Church of England as we know it today really came into being. Far from being a pared-down, Calvinist church envisaged by her brother, Elizabeth’s Anglicanism took a middle path. It was largely Catholic in appearance but Protestant in doctrine.

Anon: Elizabeth I (the "Darnley" portrait, c. 1575)

The reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth, covering nearly all of the 16th century, coincided with the heights of the Renaissance in England. The arts and sciences flourished; this was the period of Shakespeare and Spenser, Drake and Raleigh, and in music, Tallis and Byrd.

Thomas Tallis and William Byrd are just two of the best-known names in English music of the Elizabethan period, and as we'll see in this post and the next, their combined lives spanned much more than the virgin queen's reign. They both lived - as did all the English people - through violent religious turmoil and enormous social upheaval. But together they had a special connection with “Oriana”, as Elizabeth was called in a collection of madrigals dedicated to her. In this article I want to explore the life and work of the elder of the two, Thomas Tallis. [listen]

Posthumous (18th century) portrait of Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis was born sometime during the first decade of the 16th century. The exact date and whereabouts of his birth are unknown. It is likely he was born in Kent, a county with which he had lifelong family associations. The earliest documentation relating to him shows him as organist of a small Benedictine priory in Dover in 1530. In 1535, on the eve of Henry VIII's violent suppression of monastic life in England, the Dover priory was dissolved. Where Tallis went from there isn't known; we next encounter his name in 1537 on the payroll of St-Mary-on-the Hill in London; whether he was an organist or singer is not stated. In London he was at the epicentre of English musical life, and his subsequent move in 1538 to Waltham Abbey in Essex, which had an extensive musical establishment, gave him further exposure and experience to the best in English music of the time.

The “listen” link above is to a recording of Tallis’s Ave Dei patris, thought by some scholars to be his earliest known work, possibly written in the 1530s. It is almost impossible to accurately date most of Tallis's music. Scholars today tend to look at the appropriateness of the text, the dating the earliest sources and the internal style to try to get some idea of when the music was written and there is every indication that Ave Dei patris is an early work, based on a well-known setting of the same text by Robert Fayrfax.

Devotional antiphons addressed to Jesus or the Virgin became increasingly popular during Henry's reign and Tallis composed a particularly beautiful example called Sancte Deus sometime around 1535-40, another of his early works which shows promise of great things to come. [listen]

Tallis composed a Latin setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. These canticles - in English - are associated with the order for Evening prayer in the Anglican prayer book, and Tallis's Latin settings were long thought to have been written during Elizabeth's reign for a Latin translation of the prayer book which was published with the Queen's approval in 1560. However more recent research has indicated that Tallis probably composed these Latin settings somewhat earlier, in the 1540s, during Henry's reign. This is the second of the two canticles. [listen]

Waltham Abbey Church

Waltham Abbey was the last monastic foundation to fall under Henry's sweeping changes to English monastic life, and with the Abbey's dissolution in 1540 Tallis was again in need of a new job. He returned to Kent and served at Canterbury Cathedral from 1540 to 1542. It was in the following year, 1543, that he probably began his formal association as an organist with the Chapel Royal (the monarch’s private religious establishment), and it's possible that this move was made possible by the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Tallis stayed connected to the Chapel Royal until his death; that is, for another 42 years.

With the death of Henry VIII in 1547, the young Edward VI sought to change everything. The Protestant liturgy instituted by Edward did away with all the lingering aspects of Catholic doctrine and practice, although there were strong factions for and against. Some sought a strict, pared-down, simple Protestantism with no so-called "popish" elements, while others sought to retain aspects of Catholic practice (such as vestments, church decoration and the like) within what we would think of as a "high church" form of Anglicanism. The 1549 prayer book, which retains Catholic liturgy but translated into English, was an attempt to bridge the two extremes, but the main consideration for composers like Tallis was the need to compose new church music in English.

Tallis was one of the first composers to write settings of texts in English for the new liturgy instituted by Edward. A number of English anthems can be dated to the very start of his reign, among them this setting of If ye love me. [listen]

Composers, like everyone else, had to toe the line in matters of religion, but this raises the obvious question: was Tallis sympathetic to the new religion or was he a Catholic? Scholars are divided on the issue and there is no clear evidence which could give us a definitive answer as to his personal convictions. The weight of evidence, though, seems to indicate that like most people in a dangerous age, Tallis kept his head down on religious matters and did what was required of him at any given time. In other words, he was a pragmatist.

But the fact that he had a strong personal and professional connection with William Byrd later in his life - and Byrd was a well-known recusant who openly maintained his Catholic faith - and the fact that Tallis was godfather to Byrd's son, would indicate the likelihood that in his heart of hearts Tallis never relinquished the Catholic faith.

But as with Byrd, whose music I'll explore in the next post, Tallis didn't write music of any lesser quality when setting English texts. The Reformation demanded simplicity and directness, but this didn't imply a lack of care; Tallis was too much of a professional for that. This is another of his English settings from Edward's reign, Hear the voice and prayer of thy servants. [listen]

It's impossible for us now to understand what it must have been like for England to have been so decisively made Protestant under Edward in 1547, only to have it made so decisively Catholic again under Mary I in 1553. Mary had viewed her father's divorce from her mother - and his subsequent five marriages - with horror. Her half-brother's religious reforms would have sickened her still more, so with her own accession she was determined to return England to the bosom of Rome, to marry and to produce a Catholic heir and stop once and for all England's flirtation with the Lutheran heresy.

The return to Catholicism as the official religion saw the prayer books and reforms of Edward done away with, and the full Latin liturgy and ceremonies restored. Tallis's works in this period are as difficult to date as any others, but it would appear that final version of the enormous Gaude gloriosa dates from Mary's reign. While it's possible that a version of this work may have been written by Tallis during Henry's reign, the weight of opinion seems to indicate that the work as we have it dates from the restoration of Catholicism under Mary. Certainly the effusive praise of the Virgin Mary, referred to repeatedly by name throughout the piece, would not have gone unnoticed by the eponymous queen bringing England back into the fold of the true church. This is a magnificent tour-de-force of compositional technique. [listen]

In the midst of this period, around 1552, Tallis married. We know little of his domestic life apart from the fact that his wife's name was Joan, and they seem not to have had any children.

The only work of Tallis's which can be definitely dated to Mary's reign is a seven-part Mass for Christmas, the Missa Puer natus est nobis. This was probably written for Christmas 1554 when Philip II of Spain, Mary's husband, was in London. At the time Mary was believed to be pregnant, so basing a Mass on the Christmas introit which begins Puer natus est nobis ("A boy is born to us") would have been doubly appropriate.

Anguissola: Philip II of Spain (1573)

The Mass is one of Tallis's finest achievements, weaving the Gregorian chant for the Christmas introit through the dense, rich texture of the seven-part choir. This is the Sanctus movement. [listen]

Of course Mary wasn't pregnant. What is nowadays thought to have been a phantom pregnancy left her humiliated. Philip departed and within four years Mary was dead. She was forced to concede during her final illness that she would indeed be succeeded by Elizabeth and that all her work on behalf of the church of Rome would likely be undone. And with Mary's death at the age of 42 in 1558 her worst fears were realised: the daughter of Anne Boleyn, who had replaced Mary's own mother in Henry's bed, became queen, and as a Protestant, Elizabeth established an English Protestant Church which saw her as monarch head of the Church in England. A year later there was a new prayer book, in English, and Tallis was again forced to sail with the prevailing winds.

But Elizabeth wasn't as hard line a Protestant as her zealous half brother Edward had been. Yes, she established an English Protestant Church, but she sought (as did Henry, in his way) to find a middle way in terms of religious observance, keeping much of the outward ceremony and decoration of churches but using these in a reformed "Anglican" context. Elizabeth was also prodigiously intelligent and superbly educated; she spoke and wrote several languages fluently, and throughout her life translated Latin verse into English as a means of recreation. She was also trained in music, and knew good music when she heard it.

Early in Elizabeth's reign composers continued to set Latin texts for use in Anglican services, especially when these were the queen's own private services at the chapel royal. O nata lux is almost certainly from Elizabeth's reign, a beautiful miniature of clarity and elegance which Elizabeth would have appreciated. [listen]

A second category of Latin works written by Tallis during Elizabeth's reign were more private. These may have been used by recusant Catholics in private devotions, or they may have been written (if we assume Tallis was a Catholic himself) as expressions of his own private devotion in an age when Catholicism was being starved of recognition. These include the works which are among Tallis's best-known, the two settings of texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. [listen]

A third category of works written during Elizabeth's reign contains the English-language works written for the new 1559 prayer book. The mood of the Protestant faction at the start of Elizabeth's reign was strongly puritanical; despite the queen's personal taste for more elaborate music in church, a lot of the Anglican music from early in her reign is rather plain. Tallis's setting of the Litany is a good example, a model of restraint and textural clarity as the priest and choir work their way through a very long devotional text. [listen]

Title page of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer

Tallis also contributed nine four-part tunes for a Psalter (or psalm book) complied by Archbishop Parker in 1567. This was the Anglican church's attempt to emulate the success of Lutheran chorale singing, and Tallis's contributions are austere and beautiful. The third of these (at 1’43 in this link) was the basis for Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis, composed in 1910. [listen]

A fourth and final category of Elizabethan period music from Tallis should be mentioned, and that is his small but significant body of instrumental music. Considering that Tallis spent most of his professional life - some fifty years - as an organist, the relatively small amount of his organ music which has come down to us must surely be only a small proportion of his actual output. Here are links to two very short pieces. [listen] [listen]

A handful of short secular keyboard works survive, as do two In nomines. An In nomine was a popular form of instrumental composition in 16th century England, usually for a consort of viols, in which one of the parts was based on a chant melody for the text "in nomine Domini" from the Benedictus of the Mass. Two such works by Tallis are known; this is one of them. [listen]

Thomas Tallis continued to serve Elizabeth and the English church for the rest of his life. As organist at the Chapel Royal, Tallis had the responsibility of rehearsing and training the men in the choir. The boys of the choir probably included in the mid-1550s one William Byrd (some 30 or 35 years younger than Tallis). Twenty years later, in 1575, these two musicians were granted by the queen an exclusive license to print and publish music, one of the first such licenses issued in England.

Thomas Tallis died in late November 1585 (sources disagree as to the actual date), about halfway through Elizabeth's reign. He was about 75, possibly 80, years of age. He remains to this day on the towering masters of the English Renaissance, an era which gave to the world a large number of gloriously talented composers who wrote gloriously brilliant music. Tallis served four English monarchs in one of the most turbulent eras of in its history and his surviving music is testament to an extraordinary mind.

One of Tallis's most famous works - perhaps the most famous - is the motet Spem in alium. Scored for an extraordinary forty vocal parts - arranged in eight five-part choirs - Spem in alium's origins are a mystery. It isn't known for certain why it was written, although theories abound. Some say the forty parts indicate it was written for the fortieth birthday of Queen Mary in 1556, others say with equal conviction that it was written for Elizabeth's fortieth birthday in 1573. Yet others say it was written to outdo the Italian composer Allesandro Striggio, whose own forty-part motet Ecce beatam lucem was much-praised at the time.

Whatever the reasons for its creation, Spem in alium is justly famous, even if it isn't representative of Tallis's work as a whole, and any performance of it is regarded even today as a special event. For me not to include a link to it here would be unthinkable. This is the famous Tallis Scholars recording, with a video of the massive score running concurrently with the music. [listen]

And as a special bonus, this more recent video recording made by forty Australian singers during COVID-19 isolation in 2020. {listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2012.

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